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  1. The Business Interview
23 February 2022

Bagels, Brexit and Bob De Niro: Jonathan Warburton on the business of bread

The baker reveals the challenges of running a £500m family business.

By Emma Haslett

A panoramic window in Jonathan Warburton’s office frames the skyline of Bolton. Once upon a time, you would have been able to see more than 100 cotton mills, Warburton told me. There’s just the one left in the foreground now – only it’s not a cotton mill any more, it’s a Safestore.

It’s as much a symbol of the evolution of the Lancashire town that has been home to the Warburtons bakery since the 1870s as Warburtons itself is. The bakery was established less than 100 yards from where Warburton’s office is now. Ellen Warburton’s first batch, in 1876, consisted of four loaves of bread and six cakes, which sold out in under an hour. Today, the company produces more than two million loaves, bagels, crumpets and bread rolls a day across its 11 bakeries.

The thought of Ellen Warburton in her little bakery elicits a cosy image of the Lancashire of Fred Dibnah, where buildings are called things like “Back o’ th’ Bank House” (the address of Warburtons’s HQ) and everyone starts their day with a bacon butty. The company has taken advantage of that: Bolton plays almost as much of a starring role in Warburtons’s mythology as its bread. In its star-studded TV ads, which have featured Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, George Clooney and the Muppets – all co-starring Warburton himself – the town is usually namechecked. Both De Niro and Stallone flew to Lancashire to appear in their ads (although De Niro stayed over the border in Yorkshire). “It’s been a good town for us,” said Warburton.

Warburton took the reins of the company in 1991, the fifth generation Warburton to do so. He is chairman, but runs the brand alongside his cousins Ross and Brett, who are both executive directors. Plans are being developed to hand the company to the sixth generation, although Warburton said no decisions have been made yet. They must prove themselves first, he has said before. Between the children of Jonathan, Ross and Brett there are at least seven in the running. But “Succession and Warburtons – there is no resemblance”, he insisted.

Warburton gave the impression of a no-nonsense captain of industry with a soft Lancashire twang, who felt such a sense of responsibility to show leadership during the pandemic that he drove into work from his home in Cumbria at least once a week. “I’m happy [for it] to go in print, that I came in to read the paper,” he said. “I’ve got a blue Range Rover and it’s got easily recognisable number plates on it, so everybody knew I was here… I thought it was important.”

He has a strong sense of stewardship towards his employees – “we felt massively responsible for people within the organisation being asked to go to work in such uncertain times” – and, as such, has taken Covid precautions seriously (I had to watch a two-and-a-half-minute video on it before I was allowed into the building). But Warburton himself didn’t like the government’s approach to persuading people to follow the rules. “I think it went too far. There was a lack of trust in the good old British to do the right thing… people have been hugely fearful, unnecessarily.”

He hasn’t always been so critical of politicians: in 2010, the company made a £25,000 donation to the Conservative Party. Is he happy with Boris Johnson’s performance? Warburton sighed. “There has been a massive amount of hypocrisy and finger-pointing on partygate,” he said. “We were all guilty to a lesser degree. And while Putin has 127,000 troops on the side of Ukraine, and we’re still buggering about…” he trailed off. “I just think it’s mad.” So he has faith in Johnson? “I didn’t say that.”

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He has gone on the record to back Brexit, telling Campaign magazine in November 2016 that “Brexit is a very good thing to have happened”. Today he is more circumspect. “What concerned me about Brexit was our inability to change unelected bureaucrats,” he said. “We should have been four-square with Germany… and then I would have been very happy. But the problem is, we were half in, half out. And funnily enough, got treated accordingly.”

There is a conspicuous call for HGV drivers on the Warburtons website. With that in mind, is he happy with how Brexit has gone so far? “I think it’s impossible to answer the question because of Covid,” he said. “The French had driver problems, the Germans had driver problems, the Scandinavians had driver problems.”

“If you came back here in two years’ time and we’re through Covid and we’re still in the same problem, then you know what my answer would be. But without Covid, you can’t comment. The HGV problem is a Covid problem, not a driver problem.”

He was more at ease discussing the driver crisis than politics. “It was bloody awful in the summer, it was even more awful in the autumn, and it’s slightly less awful now – but it’s still challenging.”

Then we move on to other subjects: flying to Hollywood to appear in the Muppets ad (“I had a trailer! I went to it twice: once to take a photograph of my name on the door and once to change my shirt”); De Niro (“he said, call me ‘Bob’”); and his favourite Warburtons products (white toastie, crumpet, sliced artisan loaf). 

There is a sense that Warburton does a bit of everything – ads, logistics, running the joint. But what does he consider himself? “If you ask me ‘what do I do’, I tell you I’m a baker,” he said. Right. When did he last make a loaf of bread? He sucked in his cheeks. “Really good question.”

[See also: The new dotcom crash: collapsing ad markets threaten disaster for Big Tech]

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