Over 60 senior business leaders attend first-ever Northern Growth Forum

Josh Peachey's picture
by Josh Peachey

Jonathan Warburton and Nisha Katona MBE featured in last week's Northern Growth Forum, which saw over 60 senior business leaders come together to network and discuss industry challenges.

In partnership with Alliance Manchester Business School, the half-day event was curated to gather the region's key decision-makers and successful entrepreneurs to take part in multiple roundtables and hear from some truly inspiring speakers. 

Attendees were designated two roundtable topics each, which included Financing the North, Innovating through Tech, Communicating to the market, Recruitment, Retention & Apprenticeships, Health & Wellbeing in the workplace, and Leadership & Culture.

After the opportunity to network over breakfast, guests sat for their first roundtable of the day and the room was filled with knowledge sharing. 

A number of experts who work and lecture at Alliance Manchester Business School chaired the roundtables throughout the morning, sharing their own analytical perspectives on the challenges Northern businesses face.

On the issue of retaining talent, many agreed that the perception of the North is changing and more people are considering launching or locating their businesses in northern cities.  

On wellbeing, there seemed to be a consensus that whilst there is now better awareness, not all companies have policies in place and although mental health first aid is a positive step in the right direction, evidence that it works needed to ultimately be qualified to properly make a difference.

After the first set of roundtables, there was a break for teas and coffees before the first speaker session of the day.

Nisha Katona MBE, Founder of Mowgli Street Food

"Staff need to feel every day, as I do, purposeful, nourished and fulfilled."

Nisha Katona MBE took part in a Q&A session with Prolific North Editor David Prior and spoke on her experience of growing her business, as well as writing three cookery books.

She said how during her early days when she was a child protection barrister (the first female Asian barrister in the region), she didn't see anyone like her at the CEO level in the hospitality sector. She didn't even think it was achievable. Her food journey began when she first reached out to Jamie Oliver's publicist and got her heritage-focused recipes published.

She said: "There are two types of people in this world: the entrepreneurs, and the happy normal people. We are risk-takers and we are optimists." Nisha also talked about how the mentality of a founder needs to be relentless in the face of "punitive" funding rejections. "In the UK, failure is failure, but entrepreneurs in America are more likely to be lent to if they have failed before. We're not of that mind here yet."

David asked her about her growth strategy, specifically about when she said that she would never dream of starting a business in London. With soon-to-be 11 restaurants open across the midlands, south, and the North, she said that "London chews up businesses and spit them out. It costs eight times as much to set up a restaurant in London than elsewhere. I've got to be commercially wise."

Like some of the roundtable discussion participants, Nisha stated that culture is the most important thing in her business, and elaborated on how the company enriches the lives of the company's staff through initiatives that fly out every member of staff out to India once a year to help out on community projects. "They need to feel every day, as I do, purposeful, nourished and fulfilled."

After Nisha Katona's Q&A, forum guests moved onto their designated second roundtable topic for further talks, before Chairman of Warburtons, Jonathan Warburton, took to the stage to talk.

Jonathan Warburton, Chairman of Warburtons

Jonathan Warburton addressed the forum's guests with a talk that ran through some of the fundamentals behind the success of one of the nation's biggest brands. There are more Warburton products bought on any given day than any other product group, and he attributed it all down to ensuring that as a business, they "did one thing better than anyone else on the planet."

"The harder you scratch at great brands, the more truth you'll find. We're a company that never tries to be something that we're not." He spoke about the decision to not make white-label products, the need to keep their bread competitively cheap, and what makes a good leader.

He divulged about working with family members, times during his career when he was frightened, and his practice of writing down his annual ambitions at the start of each year.

Jonathan said: "We are now a logistics company. This year, we're actively looking to become the specialist day-fresh product distributor... which means my role is considerably different to what people presume when I introduce myself as a baker." The downside of being restless is that you're never satisfied, he says, as he echoed points raised by Nisha when he spoke about a business leader's mindset.

The retelling of his career stories had a recurring theme of keeping things simple, which including him saying: "If anyone in our business can't articulate what we're trying to do to a stranger, it's too complicated."

Lunch was served after Jonathan's talk, which was then followed by a panel discussion chaired by Prolific North Editor David Prior that included Jonathan Warburton, Nisha Katona MBE, and Simone Roche MBE, the founder of Northern Power Women.

The panel shared their views on the queries raised at the morning's roundtables

David Prior quizzed the panel on how they successfully implemented a successful culture, leadership qualities, and how attractive the North has become for investment.

Nisha said that she would rather set up a business in Preston than Fulham because of the North's improved perception but she also mentioned how London-centric brands are terrified of moving outside of the M25 because of uncertainty over price points and rate of failure. "We still need brands to come up here, modify their price points, and provide good eateries up here to continue to build that image."

Simone believed there's a real story to tell about the "amazing businesses that have started in the North", and those who have moved here, mentioning GCHQ, Channel 4, and the creative film culture in Liverpool. "I'm a strong believer that it's not grim up North. If we're to have the thriving Northern Powerhouse, then we have to invest in ourselves to nurture the talent we have."

Jonathan talked about, as a leader, it's important to ensure that people wake up and, more times than not, look forward to going to work, ensuring that "they don't have to change themselves when they step into the workplace."

The end of the panel discussion brought the first-ever Northern Growth Forum to a close.

Companies that attended the Northern Growth Forum:

Active Profile

Drop A Pin Ltd

Metamorphic PR

Snowball Alternative Finance

AMBS Careers Team



The Growth Company

Anattic Limited

Foodinjoy UK

Northern Power Women

The International Stock Exchange




Tree2mydoor Ltd

Barnsley College

Intellectual Property Office


University of Manchester



Reason Digital


Blue Wren Limited

Knight Corporate Finance

Reckless Agency

Vita Skills

Central Bank of Mexico


Shout Platform Ltd


Conker Communications

Manchester Enterprise Centre

SKV Communications

Your Flock



Smoking Gun PR



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