Using his loaf: John Healey, Warburtons

John Healey

Moving from the glamour of Formula 1 to a family-run bakers might seem like the career equivalent of stepping from a Ferrari into a Morris Minor. But this is no ordinary bakers.

Warburtons is one of the largest companies in the North West, employing 5,000 staff across 14 ­bakeries up and down the country.

It is important to avoid puns about ‘making bread’, but you cannot ignore the numbers: with a turnover of £500m, this privately run company has been rising ­steadily up the nation’s shopping list and now sits as the number-two bread-maker in the UK.

Last year Warbutons hired someone from the other end of the manufacturing spectrum. John Healey, the first lawyer the company has ever employed, was head of legal affairs at Williams F1 for eight years before he swapped worldwide touring for ­family life in the North West.

“The contrast between Formula 1 and bread was such that the Warburtons role appealed to me,” says Healey, who stays in touch with his friend and former boss Frank Williams.

Moving to another company where his line manager’s surname tops the office stationery was also an ­attraction. Since Thomas and Ellen Warburton set up shop in Bolton in 1870, Warburtons has remained a family business. Today, the fifth ­generation of the family is at the helm, and Healey reports to chairman Jonathan Warburton.

But how does moving from lap times to loaves compare? “I miss the world of F1 massively but I don’t regret leaving one bit,” says Healey. “My F1 background provides more creative thinking at boardroom level. My lifestyle is much better now and being in the position to influence at the highest level is a real advantage.”

Healey has a “floating” role at ­Warburtons. His responsibilities on the legal side are balanced by his day-to-day job of bringing the creativity he learnt from his days in the ­paddock surrounded by highly-focused and competitive mechanics.

“I have a wandering brief to add value and stimulate creativity and innovation,” he says. “The challenge is to be visible at the sites and communicate the strategy and five-year plan. Most of my time is spent doing this without an emphasis on the law.”

He counts his priorities as “stimulating” key parts of the business and not staying safe “as we have done” in the past.

Back on the legal side, Healey is keenly aware of the Office of Fair Trading’s spotlight on the grocery industry. Last year’s Competition Commission inquiry into UK ­groceries retailing raised concerns over relationships between retailers and their suppliers. The result is a new Groceries Supply Code of ­Practice, which comes into force in February 2010.

Healey says current informal ­relationships between suppliers and grocers would “surprise” some ­people, and training Warburtons employees in the new ways of working is an essential part of his job.

Helping him achieve this are his go-to firms: Berrymans Lace Mawer, DLA Piper and Eversheds. Healey says he has much more access to legal advice than he did in his last job.

Warburtons is a cash-rich ­company that has grown steadily in a ­consistent market, with a management team intent on promoting the best interests of the company.

In contrast, at his last company Healey’s tasks included working on Williams’ split from BMW in 2005 and a high-profile contract dispute with current F1 World Champion Jenson Button. Being close to the boss helped in that role but Healey has stepped into a completely different situation at Warburtons.

“I want to have the same effect and influence here, but with a wider ­family and larger company it’s a ­difficult challenge. The mantra of an F1 team is ‘how can we make the car go faster?’. The pace of change is slower in an industry such as ­baking. There are a lot of long-serving employees who are entrenched in a way of thinking.”

Healey has managed to integrate the experiences from his last job into his current role, and last year he took 50 of Warburtons’ highest-performing managers to a management day at Williams F1’s headquarters.
“It’s very important that we get our managers to think differently. To take the skills from my previous role into the highly-competitive grocery industry is very rewarding,” Healey says.

The challenge excites him as much as the lifestyle of his previous role. “Working for Warburtons gives me as much pleasure as it did ­working for Williams F1,” he adds.

Name: John Healey
Organisation: Warburtons
Industry: Grocery
Job title: Company secretary
Reporting to: Chairman Jonathan ­Warburton
Company turnover: £500m
Number of employees: 5,000
Legal capability: One
Main external law firms: Berrymans Lace Mawer, DLA Piper, ­Eversheds
Legal spend: £100,000

John Healey’s CV

1987-90: LLB, University of Birmingham
1990-91: Law, College Of Law, Guildford
Work history:
1991-93: Trainee, ­Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
1993-94: IP associate, Freshfields
1994-96: IP/commercial solicitor, ­Addleshaw ­Goddard
1996-98: General counsel, Adidas UK
1998-2001: Associate general counsel, ­Adidas International
2001-08: Head of legal affairs, Williams F1
2008-present: Company secretary, ­Warburtons