Learning from the Father drives Son to greater heights

Pictured: Mike & Guy Warner. By Ian Mean
Warner Mike and Guy Warner head to head

Keeping it in the family is something the Warners have been doing for more than 100 years, in a business dynasty that has taken in travel, petrol stations, car dealerships and food retailing

Mike Warner is not only good at making money, he puts back into the community and is a board member of Gloucestershire’s Local Enterprise Partnership, GFirstLEP.

Now 71, Mike has helped his son Guy, 45, make a big impact in local food retailing through their Warner’s Budgens supermarket chain throughout Gloucestershire.

You might fairly call their latest enterprise a mini “Waitrose-type” operation, with real roots in the communities and local management.

How did you start?

Mike: “I joined an established family business which covered coach, travel and fuel distribution. The family also had a petrol station and a garage in Tewkesbury.

“I did an HND in engineering in London then I took over the petrol station and workshop.

“Over a decade, we acquired three others — in Bristol, Tewkesbury and Wotton- -under-Edge. All had car sales as well.

“When I was about 30, my father Norman, and his brother Charles suggested I would be better having the business on my own, so we did a deal whereby my father was able to retire.

“I took a load of assets and debt, but the assets equalled the debt, and I was able to decide the future of the business.”

What was the biggest early lesson you learned?

Mike: “Taking over was a huge gamble, and learning the art of lean management was a big lesson.”

“Years later, when Guy came back from university, he didn’t know what to do.”

Guy: “When I arrived home I think the conversation was: You are welcome, but you are not going to do nothing.

“I ended up in the petrol station at Quedgeley wondering what I had done wrong in life. I’d studied theology in Canada and had jobs in retail which I had no aspirations to be in.

“All my friends had gone off to London to do ‘proper jobs’ such as lawyers and bankers. I was pretty adamant that I didn’t want to be in the family business.

“It was never a negative but I just thought I should go and do something that was for me.”

So why didn’t you?

Guy: “After a few years I started to realise there was an industry there – I had fallen down about every hole you could fall into and just maybe there was a light here. It was interesting to hear what dad was telling me about his dad.”

Meanwhile Mike continued to plough the course of petrol stations and motor dealerships. Around 20 years ago he got the chance to take over the Mercedes Benz area franchise. “It was a huge investment – I looked at the business plan and it didn’t really stack up.”

Guy takes up the story. “One day dad said he thought we should put the Quedgeley forecourt into a separate business.

“Without actually verbalising it, he was really saying that he didn’t want me to have succession management issues, because families can be funny things.

“What his dad did for him, and what dad did for me is what a lot of families don’t do. That is to realise that you must let someone paddle their own ship.”

Guy now had a forecourt in Quedgeley, a bank account and an overdraft facility. “I had no money, but I had an opportunity – which is what dad had. Now I am grateful for that because you have to grapple and graft when you have no money.

“We bought another forecourt and then in 2005, we stumbled across an old site in Broadway – the former workshop of the renowned English furniture designer Gordon Russell, whose father had owned the Lygon Arms. It became the first Warner’s Budgens supermarket.

What was the first big lesson you learned in business from your dad?

Guy: “Money doesn’t grow on trees. In any small or medium-sized business, it’s easy to underestimate how hard it is to make a pound and how easy it is to spend a pound.

“He also taught me that property-based businesses survive longer. Without that wisdom, we certainly wouldn’t have built the business we have now.

“Dad was a shareholder in the new company, but he let me learn. In that formative decade, I was allowed to make mistakes.

“There were times when the hand of dad came over and pulled us back from the cliff. That’s the benefit of being in a family business. You have that safety net.”

Mike: “The first year you clocked up a six-figure loss at the petrol station in Quedgeley. I said what are you going to do about that?”

Guy found a solution and next year the business made a profit. “It was a big lesson to go from loss to profit,” he said.

Have you always been conscious about not interfering in Guy’s business?

Mike: “Yes, pretty well. When I was in the same family position, I didn’t like too much interference. Nobody will learn if they have permanent interference.”

Guy: “I ask him more now than I have ever asked him. We bounce ideas off each other because in a family business you are there for each other.

“We are now quite collaborative. In the early days, I was probably a classic know it-all which is difficult to parent.”

Mike: “When Guy came back from Canada, I recognised he was a good communicator and had the same Warner nous and common sense I had inherited. That is a family gene.”

What is your dad good at?

Guy: “Dad has vision. I have limited foresight, but dad can see far beyond that, though he is not as good at detail as he used to be.”

Mike: “I’m getting old. Guy is far better at detail.”

An important part of the Warner’s vision was growing their Budgens supermarkets, and their early decision to support local producers. The business now stocks more than 700 locally-produced items.

Guy: “We made local food our own and it has given us a huge unique selling point. We offer something you just can’t get in the national supermarkets.

“Warner’s Budgens has come to stand for local and, hopefully, excellence and a certain type of food offer.”

The company has just bought another

site in Upton-upon-Severn.

Mike supports many local organisations as a non-executive director. He spent five years as a director of the Everyman Theatre and seven as a director of Gloucester Rugby. He was chairman of the Three Counties Agricultural Society for 12 years and chaired its Malvern Spring Garden Show for 20 years.

Guy: “What he brings in bucketloads is a seeing eye in those areas without having a commercial interest in them.

“The next five years is about organically growing our sites, but my fear of failure has changed. At the beginning I had a huge overdraft and debt coming out of my ears. I often felt as though I was in a tunnel where I couldn’t see light one way or the other, but could hear a train behind me. If I stopped on the tracks, the train would run me over.”

What about business succession?

Guy: “Dad never pushed or forced us into the family business. With my own kids (his four children range from six to 18), I don’t want them to feel pressure either.”

Mike has a lot of pride in his son. “Guy’s success in a relatively short period of time has very much eclipsed what I have achieved in my business career.

“As long as you have wisdom, ideas and are prepared to drive change I think there is a place at the table for you. You will know when you haven’t got that.”

How? I ask.

“Someone will tell me,” says Mike.

About the interviewer

Ian Mean is currently the Gloucestershire Director of Business West. He was editor of The Gloucester Citizen for 10 years, Editor-in-Chief of Gloucestershire Media and editor of the Western Daily Press.