Nick Johnson, together with Jenny Thompson, co-directs Market Operations: the genius behind Greater Manchester’s Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor. A wealth of experience from both parties has seen both indoor food halls become a roaring success, drawing in punters from across the north west. Prior to the opening of these two wonderfully charming market spaces, Nick founded ‘Independents’ in 1999, with the aim to celebrate the culture of individuality in Manchester that many locals know so well, but were in danger of forgetting. We caught up with Nick to find out more about his ventures and his vision of independent business.
How did the story of Independents begin?
Jen and I founded Atlas Bar, Deansgate, in 1992. At the time there was nothing quite like it and it was voted cities bar of the year, twice! In 1997, I chaired the reactionary McEnroe Group which was born out of outrage to the post-IRA bomb publicity slogan “We’re up and going”, led by the council. The bomb wiped out much of the city centre, but actually did more good than anyone anticipated. Manchester’s reaction was one of determination: to build a more connected, approachable city than the one left behind in the rubble. I therefore felt as though they had got the slogan all wrong. The McEnroe Group challenged it with the “They cannot be serious” campaign and drove the retraction of the slogan. From the McEnroe Group then came Independents, a group aiming to work in Manchester as well as other cities, to promote independent business and bring passionate traders together. Combined with my architectural experience as Deputy Chief Executive at Urban Splash – a regeneration company aiming to bring empty, wasted buildings back into use as residential accommodation or work space – and experience of founding Atlas Bar with Jen, we threw caution to the wind and invested in the regeneration of Altrincham Market and later, Mackie Mayor.
Back when you founded Independents, what was the independent business landscape like in Manchester?
I feel as though, back then, people sleep-walked into corporate jaws. It was easy to mistake a mimic shabby-chic corporate company for the real (independent) deal. To some extent this happens today, but nothing like Independents existed back then and few people quite realized what damage could be done to the character of the city if brands and chains took over the streets of Manchester (or any other city)! Between 2000 and 2008 we saw a real boom in activity surrounding the growth of independence but, unfortunately, the economic collapse put the brakes on this. I now feel like over the past two decades, regional identity has been eroded but more people are now more aware of the importance of what independence means.
Why do you think independent businesses are important?
I believe that to be independent is a celebration of regional identity. What it means to belong to a certain region will naturally shine through what you do if you’re passionate enough about it. Practically speaking, wealth capture – keeping money local – is hugely important. All the vendors at Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor source their ingredients and products locally, there are no middle men controlling money from offices outside of the city.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing people looking to start an independent business? What advice would you give them?
I would say that the barrier to enterprise is greater now than ever before. Back when I started out, it was easier to access capital, and the way financial institutions were run was very different so it was easier to get off the ground. These days, you have to be very tenacious. The key piece of advice I would give is: don’t think you have to know everything before you start. Naivety can be your greatest asset. If you are passionate enough and are willing to go at it without too much fear of the challenges that may lie ahead, you’re far more likely to succeed.
If you could pick a district of Manchester next in line for one of your projects, where would it be and why?
I wouldn’t actually pick anywhere else in Manchester. Bristol is home to a fantastic culture of independence. George Ferguson – an independent politician who was directly voted as Mayor in 2012 – drove the regeneration project of the Tobacco Factory at the Imperial Tobacco site, saving it from demolition. This project – Strike a Light – was founded on George’s belief that independent businesses are the lifeblood of a city, and the Factory is now a multi-purpose building that houses a cafe bar, a restaurant, meeting spaces, a gym, the offices of several creative organisations, a performing art school, residential apartments and Tobacco Factory Theatres. If I had to choose somewhere else for another project, Bristol would be a great option.
What do you think drives the success of Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor? Can this success be emulated elsewhere?
Collective endeavour holds the markets together. They both run on a tightrope, and the phenomenally dedicated teams at both Altrincham and Mackie ensure their smooth operation. That’s not to say that it’s perfect, but for us the tightrope works. The formula we generated at Altrincham has been adapted to Mackie Mayor, but I’m not so sure that anyone else would be able to replicate that formula elsewhere.
If Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor were people, how would you describe them?
I would have to say quirky and idiosyncratic, as well as hardworking and incredibly generous. We see a lot of generosity between strangers at both markets.
Altrincham Market | Market House Altrincham
Photos by Claire Harrison