So, after taking over the reins from his father, the Bolton businessman went a-wandering. First, he opened a plant in Scotland – to avoid attracting the attention of Rank Hovis McDougall and Allied Bakeries, the southern-based baking giants of the time. That was in 1997.
By the time Warburtons ventured south in 2004, with the opening of the Enfield plant, there was a real momentum behind the brand that those rivals – wrapped up in onerous own-label price wars – were too busy to notice or resist, and expansion accelerated.
Fast-forward to today, and with £700m-plus value sales, Warburtons is the biggest UK-based grocery brand by miles, a national powerbrand with 11 bakeries covering the country from east to west as well as north to south, delivering around 15 million loaves to nearly 20,000 stores every week out of 23 sites.
And from 2% share in total bakery when he started on this journey, Warburtons now has 20%, and is a third bigger than its old adversaries combined.
Success has not been driven by national expansion alone. Through clever tie-ups with own-label bakeries, like the Jacksons/Co-op deal – the 2022 business initiative of the year – and the Tesco and Iceland contracts before them, he’s once again run rings around rivals that are – or were – far larger, realising the competitive advantage of the logistics operations he had built to support expansion – operations that others saw as a necessary ‘cost’ only.
It’s taken guts and huge capex to build this empire. And crucially, the investment has never just been about speed or capacity either. In the past decade, growth has mostly come from expanding into non-bread, with soft pittas, launched last year, the latest example and already the number one brand in the category (with 30% share) – as Warburtons is in other categories like thins, crumpets, bagels and gluten-free that it’s entered.
Warburtons has, by all accounts, been the driving force behind both the speed and direction of innovation and continues to attend monthly innovation panels, with the launch of its first loaves wrapped in paper packaging the latest example.
The foresight to diversify has been crucial given the decline in bread sales, and today 40% of its sales are non-bread. Meanwhile it’s just over 5% for Allied and roughly 1% for Hovis (as it’s known today). And Warburton’s unrelenting interest in looking forward, creating something for the future, is matched only by his ability to see the big picture, keeping it simple, focusing on the consumer and on quality.
Warburton has also been a brilliant champion and steward of the Warburtons brand. Indeed, as its face, he has become a literal and figurative embodiment of this bakery company’s number one USP: family.
The video interview we’ve recorded with Warburton this week as part of our coverage of The Grocer Gold Awards – in which he received The Grocer Cup – features a clip from the first ad he appeared in. With his dad. From that rather primitive first effort he’s gone on to star in memorable commercials alongside Sylvester Stallone, Peter Kay, Robert De Niro, the Muppets and George Clooney.
Doing so takes guts and self-belief. And he’s shown no little talent, too. But like all those big machines, the fact he’s prepared to pay for those ads, speaks to his belief in the importance of the brand itself. With the intense operational aspects of baking – the manufacturing, the daily fulfilment of early-morning deliveries – it’s easy to lose sight of the brand. But Warburton knows the brand is his most important commodity. That’s why he has always eschewed the clamour from supermarkets for own-label business, while also keeping the grocers sweet in negotations, and ensuring that its position is defendable.
Warburton doesn’t lack confidence. Why should he, after making so many brilliant calls in his 40-plus-year career? But as well as being “humbled” as he says in winning The Grocer Cup, he is by all accounts a good listener, and a galvaniser of people. And as the boss of a family business, he has cherished and nurtured it (while consolidating the share ownership) with respect and thoughtfulness. Many companies and brands pay lip service to purpose. Under Warburton, there is high engagement, and a lot of long service and generations of the same families working in the business are testament to that.
So too was the recent bonus given to staff following its outstanding performance during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic (coming second in the Advantage Survey). Nor was that a one-off: profits are shared annually with all staff. It’s also a big contributor to national charities such as Cancer Research, and the local Bolton community. Even as the family business has branched out, “painting the nation red” as he once put it, Warburton has never forgotten his roots.