How did a tiny grocery shop transform itself into a £500 million-a-year business? Warburtons’ story is one of constant re-invention, and offers an important lesson to small enterprises everywhere.
Warburtons grew from humble beginnings: once a small, local grocery, it catapulted itself to unimaginablegrowth, and is now one of the most well-established and expansive bakery chains in the business. In fact, the 139-year-old breadmakers now account for more than a quarter of all bakery products consumed in the UK. So what was the engine that drove this success?
The HistoryIn 1876, Thomas and Ellen Warburton started baking bread in their tiny Bolton grocery shop in response to a slump in grocery sales. Within one hour, Ellen’s first batch – four loaves of bread and six cakes – had sold out. The rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s not just Warburtons’ fantastic-tasting bread that has made them the nation’s second-best selling grocery brand (according to The Grocer's rankings) – it’s also their unrivalled innovation.
Here’s an example: according to the Financial Times, Warburtons first introduced bagels in the 1980s, which actually led to customer complaints that Warburtons’ rolls “have got a hole in them.” Brett Warburton, a family member and director, famously declared, “We were too early.” But it’s precisely this pioneering attitude – and ability to perceive future trends – that has driven them to the top of the pack.
The FutureNow, with 4,500 employees across 12 bakeries and 14 depots in the UK, Warburtons has grown more confident than ever. In total, the company has spent more than £400 million on bakery technology and machinery over the past decade, reflecting a massive ambition to scale operations.
And the products have kept pace: their low-calorie sandwich, Thins, launched in 2011, and has since become the UK’s most chosen brand while accounting for 10% of all sales. To put it in further perspective, HR Magazine reports that an astounding one million units are sold weekly. And, when the sliced wrapped bread market began to suffer, Warburtons cleverly invested in new alternatives, ensuring that their profits have remained stable through turbulent times.
And Warburtons’ innovation doesn’t end with its products: they’ve also invested heavily in digital marketing, which, after 139 years in the business, demonstrates their remarkable ability to adapt and reinvent to accommodate 21st-century consumer wants and needs.
According to Talking Retail, Warburtons launched a £16 million campaign in 2013 to invest in consumer media, which included mainstream TV adverts, radio, digital, PR, sampling, and in-store activity. A memorable highlight came in the form of creative adverts that began with the voiceover narration, “Dear Jonathan Warburton…” to showcase letters of gratitude and love customers have showered on the company over the decades.
Most recently, Warburtons produced a TV advert entitled “The Deliverers,” featuring Hollywood’s king of action: Sylvester Stallone. In it, he plays a baker and delivery driver who leads an elite team of Warburtons professionals in delivering fresh loaves to satisfied customers by any means necessary.
What We Can Learn from Warburtons
The last idea was a surprising one, but Sue Yell, Warburtons’ HR director, explains that their business has always operated with a “restless ambition to get better and do things more effectively.” And that means setting the pace and getting the best people on board. In the midst of a decline in the UK bread market, Yell understands the need to be flexible and think outside the box.
Indeed, she believes in “a relentless pursuit of talent.” As such, she often targets apprenticeship programmes, as well as local schools and colleges, to help bring in a younger demographic that’s in touch with the latest trends.
“If as an HR function you are still concentrating on the day-to-day, transactional, bureaucratic processes, then you’re only ever going to stand still,” she proclaims. “We have to be more agile, more creative, and more forward-thinking in how we operate.”
These are the precise reasons why a tiny bakery, over the course of nearly a century and a half, has developed into a national superstore. Warburtons offers a living testament to the fact that tradition and heritage can be married with inventiveness and technological evolution. And millions are tasting the delicious end result.