Born and Bread: Warburtons

Each month we profile a family business and look at how the baking craft has passed down through the generations. This month, how Warburtons grew from a single shop to a £500m-a-year business.

Thomas Warburton and his wife, Ellen, opened a grocery shop in Bolton in 1870, with the help of Thomas’ brother, George. In 1876 the market slumped, so to make ends meet Ellen started baking bread – her first batch of four loaves of bread and six cakes sold out in under an hour and within two weeks the tiny shop was renamed Warburtons the Bakers.

In 1890 the business had grown so much that Thomas had to invest in a pony to transport the bread and asked his nephew, Henry, to join the business. Seven years later Henry bought two more premises, one of which his wife Rachel ran single-handedly while also bringing up four children. By 1913 there were 24 staff and six delivery vehicles.

After serving in the First World War, Henry’s sons Billy and Harry joined the company in 1921, the same year that Warburtons invested in its first semi-automatic wrapping machine.

During the Second World War, Warburtons estimates it delivered around 1,300 loaves of bread an hour. In the face of petrol rationing, electric vehicles were used to deliver it.

Warburtons remains a private, family-owned business, today and is managed by the fifth generation of Warburtons – Jonathan (who appears in the business’s Muppet-themed TV ads), Ross and Brett. Between them they assumed control of the business in 1991, following the retirement of their fathers. It is now the largest family-owned bakery business in the country and employs around 4,500 people in 12 bakeries and 14 depots across the UK.

In 2005 the company opened a state-of-the-art bakery in Tuscany Park, Yorkshire. This was the first bakery in the world to have a computerised production line installed, and the company says it remains one of the most technologically advanced bakeries in existence.

Four years later, Warburtons opened a ‘super bakery’ in Bristol that can produce more than 1.5 million products a week. And in 2011 it opened a dedicated gluten-free plant at Newburn, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In the same year a wraps and thins plant was introduced to the Bristol bakery and a new crumpet plant opened at the Enfield bakery in London. In 2012 it opened a new bakery in Bolton, which it says is “the most modern bakery in Europe”.

The original site on 126 Blackburn Road, Bolton, is still owned by the company and isn’t far from its head office.

“Since Warburtons was founded in 1876, family values have been at the heart of our business and remain at the core of everything we do,” Jonathan Warburton tells British Baker. “They are what makes our business unique, and are why everyone working here feels a part of the Warburtons family. This is incredibly important to me, Brett and Ross, we are the fifth generation of Warburtons to run the business and are very proud to be fulfilling the legacy left by our ancestors.

He add that he believes it is essential for the business to have a long-term focus: “Everyday teamwork coupled with a driving ambition, great people working for us and a focus on our individual strengths to enable us to work together as shareholders to steer the business in the right directions.

“Key to our success over five generations of Warburtons is our continued commitment to baking the best quality products for families across Britain. We believe this focus has helped to drive our continued growth in a challenging marketplace.”

Warburtons has doubled in size in the past decade alone to become a £500m-a-year business that more than a quarter of all the bakery products consumed in the UK.

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Timeline

1876 – Thomas and Ellen Warburton found the bakery
1890 – Thomas Warburton buys his first delivery pony and his nephew, Henry, joins the business
1921 – Henry’s sons Billy and Harry join the company after returning from the war
1936 – Billy, Harry and their brother George take over the business
1966 – Fourth-generation Warburtons George and Derrick assume command
1991 – Brett, Jonathan and Ross take the helm

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