Greg Johnson took the helm at Merseyside manufacturer Warwick North West in 2021 when his dad was diagnosed with cancer and, initially, he felt overwhelmed – but he has risen to the challenge, pushing revenues to £12m. Tony McDonough reports
When Greg Johnson first joined his family’s Merseyside manufacturing business Warwick North West it quickly became clear there would be no question of favouritism.
While the offspring of business owners are often fast-tracked to the boardroom, it was deemed that Greg would learn about the company the hard way.
A specialist window and door manufacturer, Bootle-based Warwick North West was launched by Greg’s uncle, Gavin Johnson, in 1998 and later taken over by his father Brian Johnson in 2008.
From its factory close to the River Mersey, Warwick produces Innolux, a premium range of PVCu windows and doors. These are supplied to installers, builders and developers across the North West and Yorkshire.
Greg had performed well academically at school and a path to university opened up. Instead he chose to start building a career at the family firm, which was by that point one of the North West’s leading trade suppliers of windows and doors.
“I was keen to get into the world of work as soon as possible,” said Greg. “And my dad made it clear from the start there would be no special treatment. I would be starting on the ground floor just like anyone else.”
His first role was in administration in Warwick’s front office. From there he moved to roles on the factory floor, working in the manufacturing of the firm’s products. He later worked in finance and sales roles.
It was, says Greg, “a progressive and immersive experience over a period of almost eight years”. He added: “I really learned every detail of the business and how it runs from the inside. It was a brilliant education and I’m grateful to dad for enabling that.”
However, as good as that grounding was, Greg wasn’t quite prepared for what was to happen next. He explained: “In December 2021 we received the news that so many families dread – my dad was diagnosed with cancer.
“It meant he would not be able to continue running the business day to day, immediately putting me in the chair as managing director. So not only did I have to cope with this news along with the rest of the family, I was also facing the biggest challenge of my life
“Those early days were tough. I felt overwhelmed and isolated. Sure, I knew the business inside out by that time but no amount of technical knowledge can prepare you for the huge burden of responsibility that suddenly lands on your shoulders.”
Of course it is only when we face seemingly insurmountable challenges that we discover reserves of resilience we never knew we had. Greg leaned heavily on the wealth of experience that existed within the company.
“There were people here who had been with the business a long time,” said Greg. “They supported me in those early days and the wisdom and experience they possessed proved invaluable. I’ll never be able to thank them enough.”
And there was to be no soft introduction. It wasn’t long into 2022 that Russia invaded Ukraine causing a global spike in energy and commodity prices. For a manufacturer such as Warwick, the financial challenges were significant.
He added: “There were major disruptions to the supply chain and, over a 12-month period, the price of glass soared by around 43%. Other raw materials such as UPVC and hardware such as locks and door hinges now also cost more.”
However, these challenges also offered an opportunity for Greg to really put his own stamp on the business. He gathered those experienced heads together and created a new, dynamic management team.
Together they implemented efficiencies thanks to what he called some “creative thinking and bold managerial decisions”. This included investing £1m in new machines and appointing a new head of production.
Greg added: “Changes we have made have allowed us to keep our selling prices competitive without eroding our margins.
“Despite the impact of COVID and rise in energy and raw material costs following the invasion of Ukraine we have seen revenues rise from around £5m a year just before the pandemic to £10m in 2021 and just shy of £12m in 2022.
“I think that is a remarkable achievement and it’s thanks to the experience, know-how, expertise, creativity and resilience of the whole team here at Warwick.”
Greg credits the experienced heads around him, as well as his dad, for nurturing his entrepreneurial instincts. However, he feels strongly that not enough attention is paid to entrepreneurialism within the education system.
According to the Federation of Small Businesses, SMEs are the real engine of the UK economy. There are around 5.5m SMEs in the country employing more than 16m people – over 60% of the workforce. They generate annual revenues of more than £2 trillion.
“It is the small and medium-sized businesses that are the lifeblood of our economy,” explained Greg. “Often they are founded by highly-driven and enterprising individuals.
“However, I don’t think the education system does enough to encourage this mindset – to encourage the idea of creativity and risk-taking. Young people too often aren’t given the knowledge and information, or the encouragement, to make life-changing decisions.
“There has been an improvement in co-operation between schools and industry over the past few years but it could still be a lot better. With more education focused on enterprise and more on-the-job learning we could release so much potential.
“Getting that right could turbo charge the small business sector and re-energise sectors such as manufacturing, creating and safeguarding jobs.
“At Warwick we are committed to offering opportunities to people who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the outside of the traditional education or employment system. I was given my chance to shine and I want to offer that to others.”
To that end Warwick has established two strategic partnerships with two Merseyside-based workforce development organisations, Nobody Left Behind and Inside Connections.
“Its a win-win,” added Greg. “Not only do we provide genuine opportunities for people from within out communities we are also addressing our own constant demand for skilled and motivated people.”
Since launching the initiatives earlier this year, Warwick has appointed four young people into full time roles with the firm. Greg says he hopes to see this number grow in the coming months.
John Burton, founder of Inside Connections, said: “We are proud to be working with Warwick North West on this exciting initiative.
“We are dedicated to changing lives by providing opportunities to gain important skills leading to employment, which can play a significant part in diverting young people from crime and reducing reoffending.”
Warwick also provides social value in other ways. Greg is a business ambassador for the charitable arm of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Alder Hey Children’s Charity.
It funds research studies across clinical areas including cancer, asthma and orthopaedic surgery. It also raises money to pay for equipment, services and projects across the whole of the hospital and the Alder Hey in the Park campus.
Greg said: “I want to be the leader of a business that is not only industry-leading and the best at what it does, but also a business that can demonstrate its commitment to its people and to the communities in which it operates.”