Interview; Deborah Ross talks to PATSY BLOOM
Last year, Patsy Bloom earned more money than any other woman in Britain. She made pounds 16.6m from the sale of Pet Plan, the insurance company she set up in 1976 after complaining to a friend about the cost of treating her sickly shih-tzu, Jamie, who had a dicky tummy and kept coming down with enteritis.

She was working for the Central British Fund for Jewish Refugees at the time. Her salary was pitiful, the vets' bills painful. She phoned around insurance companies to ask if they insured pets, and got laughed at. "Ho, ho madam," they went. "The very idea..." So she said to her friend Annie: "Annie, if you could pay a tenner a year, say, to insure against your dog getting ill, would you?" Yes, replied Annie, she certainly would.

So Patsy borrowed pounds 250 from her father and set up Pet Plan - the first Bupa for pooches and pussies, if you like - from her living-room. Twenty years on, the company employs 220, has 400,000 policyholders, annually turns over a gross premium income of pounds 45m and was worth pounds 32m to Cornhill Insurance, which bought out Patsy and her business partner, David Simmonds, in May last year. Patsy's share was 51 per cent.

Was it hard to let the company go? "No!" Patsy cries gaily. She doesn't miss it, then? "No," she says, quite the opposite. She is having the time of her life.

"When I was running the business, if my diary wasn't booked every second of the day with appointments and deals and activities, I was lost. Lost! Now I'm learning how not to work. And I'm loving it. Loving it! I'm doing all the things I never had time to do."

She says she spends her mornings doing "ladies things". It may be a massage. It may be a manicure. It may be a facial. She has her hair done daily by someone who comes to the house first thing. She always does some exercise. It may be a round of golf. It may be a session with her personal trainer. Or it may be a dash to Bond Street.

"I like Asprey's. It's my favourite shop. It's Gucci for shoes, because I have weak feet, but it's definitely Asprey's first.

"I don't ever have to look at bills, which is a great freedom. What did I buy yesterday for pounds 200 that I just fancied? Can't remember. Something silly, I imagine. See these coasters [she points to the pile of six or so green leather, gold-rimmed coasters on her desk], I was in Asprey's, saw them, and thought: `Oh, those would be nice for my desk.' Years ago, I would have seen them and thought no, I'd better wait until next month, but now I don't have to add things up.

"A Big Bertha Number 5!" Sorry? "A Big Bertha Number 5. That's what I bought yesterday." Oh. "It's a golf club. Trouble was, I took it to where I play and couldn't bloody hit anything with it.

"I used to play golf years ago but have only taken it up again recently. I bought all the gear, the electric cart, the clubs. I bought everything but the bloody ability to play."

Is there any downside to all this? you ask hopefully. "No," she replies. "It's all fantastic, frankly." You didn't lose your friends as you clawed your way up? "I have tons of friends. Many go back years and years. I play a lot of bridge."

Do you ever suspect people are being nice to you just because you're rich? "Sometimes. But I can roll with that."

Have you ever had a facial go so drastically wrong you've woken up in the morning only to find your face has dropped off? No, that's never happened, either.

OK, I continue, you're a nice Jewish girl from north London, and so am I, which means I am already two-thirds of the way there. All I need now is the fortune. All I need is to spot that gap in the market which, of course, is what it's all about, when it comes down to it.

How, Patsy, do you spot that gap in the market? You don't, she says. "The starting point is finding a need, which is very different from spotting a gap. Most people start their own businesses to provide a service they themselves need. You sit there and you say: `I really need this.' Helena Rubenstein started making face-creams on her stove because she couldn't find the creams she wanted. Sophie Mirman set up The Sock Shop because she kept laddering her tights and she thought wouldn't it be brilliant if there were these little kiosks everywhere so you could dash in and buy new pairs? We all do it all the time. The difference is, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you'll do something about it, whereas if you don't, you won't."

She lives on the edge of Regent's Park, in one of those huge, creamy- fronted Nash jobs. The road has security barriers at both ends and is glitteringly lined with Bentleys, BMWs, Range Rovers, Porsches. She drives a Mercedes convertible. She tried having a driver, but it didn't work out. "No point in central London." No, she doesn't have a butler or maid or anything. "I just have Kitty, my daily, who's been with me for 25 years."

We meet in her office, which is just over the road. She is still a non- executive director of Pet Plan, and still does charity work for Blue Cross, Jewish Care and the Pet Plan Charitable Trust. She is connected to her house by some kind of intercom. "Kitty, darling, can you bring a bottle of Perrier over? I am dying of thirst."

She is wearing a navy Gianfranco Ferre suit, navy Gucci loafers, Cartier glasses with a chunk of gold across the bridge and even huger chunks of gold hugging the lenses each side. Jewellery-wise, we are talking diamond necklace, diamond brooch, fat gold earrings, at least three gold bracelets on each wrist and, on her fingers, gem-heavy gold rings that go up to the knuckles. I think we can safely assume that Ms Bloom is not a regular at The Gap. Or is a follower of the "less is more" fashion philosophy.

Ms Bloom, now 57, never had children. Or married. But regrets neither. "I'd have been a terrible mother. I'd have hated the responsibility. I'd have never been there." She'd have made a rubbish wife, too. Sure, she's received proposals in her time - how many exactly? "Lots, and thousands after I sold" - but it never appealed.

"It just wasn't within me to be a housewife. It wasn't of any interest. People would say to me: `Make him feel important, dear.' And I would think `why?'

"I can't cook, either. Not a thing. In my last flat, I had the oven taken out so I could put in a dishwasher. I can open a packet and put it in a microwave, but can't do anything hot for more than two people because I don't know how you fit it in. I am waiting for them to invent the four- person microwave. I'm having a bridge game next week at my house for eight people and I have to get it catered because I don't know how to do a buffet for eight. I do a great line in champagne, though."

She eats at Daphne's or Pizza Express. She has a boyfriend called Robert, she says, who is also her bridge partner. She is not troubled or sad or lonely in any way. She has the perfect life, she says. "And when you are done with me, darling, I think I will go and practise my golf."

She was born in north London to Len and Frieda Bloom, who, having bought a sweet shop on Caledonian Road, built the business up into a chain of three. Patsy hated school, and left at 14 without having sat exams. She was a terrible pupil not because she wasn't clever - she was - but because she couldn't stand being bossed about. She was always naughty, always misbehaving.

She wanted, when she left, to work in one of the shops. She had always worked in them during her holidays, and had loved it. She was a natural saleswoman from the word go. "My first commercial endeavour was selling Easter eggs on a stall outside the Holloway shop." She did a roaring trade. However, her mother said she'd get bored very quickly if she worked in the shop full-time, so she was sent to a secretarial college instead.

She worked first for the trumpeter Eddie Calvert's manager, then got herself a job at an advertising agency, where she eventually worked her way up to managing accounts. "It was almost unheard of, then, for a woman to go from a secretarial to an executive position. But I was very driven."

From there, she moved to the Gala Group, where she was put in charge of marketing cosmetics. It was a great job - Mary Quant was one of her clients - but she hated all the travelling. "It just didn't suit me."

She was 30 when her mother spotted the job at the Central British Fund advertised in The Jewish Chronicle and pointed it out to her. "I thought well, I'm not very happy doing what I'm doing now, so I'll go along and see them." She went along, then accepted a job creating all the fund-raising committees. "I was bloody good at it. I made them a lot of money."

After six years, Patsy asked for a pounds 1,000 raise. She was refused. Simultaneously, she had the idea for Pet Plan. She left to pursue Pet Plan. Had she got her raise, she probably wouldn't have done. She still sees the bloke who turned her request down. "I always say to him: `I owe you everything. thank you.' He hates it."

Building up the company was an incredibly hard slog. She thinks she visited every vet in the country. Certainly, she went to all their conferences. She spent evenings leaflet-dropping in Wembley and weekends standing on a corner in Primrose Hill, handing out flyers. She'd go to dinner parties and flog, flog, flog. A lot of her first orders were scrawled on wine- stained napkins.

What was her prime motivation in all this? Money? Success? The Jewish thing about having to achieve? No, she replies, "it was the product. I was just so passionate about it. It was a fantastic product and I wanted people to have it. I was a crusader, if you like."

Yes, she is fond of animals, but no, she isn't one of those Jilly Cooper- style loonies. "I'm not one of those people who has 17 dogs and goes out in the middle of the night to rescue cats. I feel compassion for animals. I would hate to see an animal suffer. But then I'd hate to see a child suffer, too."

She sold out when she did, she says, because she knew it was the right time to do so: "The company had got very big. To big for me. I remember when we had 11 staff I one day had an hysterical fit in the middle of the office because I didn't know how to cope with 11 staff. By the end, I had over 200. Plus Tony Blair was coming along, who seems very nice now, but at the time I was advised he might change the rules. A business friend said to me: `Patsy, you could be working for the next five years and be no better off than you are now.' So I weighed a few things up and decided the time was right. Everyone fainted when I said so."

She has had lots of offers to sit on other people's boards, but she doesn't want to. "I've found it surprisingly easy to leave the commercial world." Anyway, she's very much enjoying being massaged and hairdressed and being crap at golf and nipping down to Asprey's and reading Hello!. She's not a big reader, as a rule - she can't remember the last time she read a book - but she never misses an issue of Hello! "I think it's much better now they're not so obsessed with Princess Di. And I like looking at all the furniture." We agree you can never inspect Jane Seymour's dining-room too many times.

In short, Patsy Bloom is happy and rich, which is, hopefully, what I'll be when I've borrowed pounds 250 from my dad and gone into business making very big, four-person microwaves. It's a brilliant idea, non? In fact, I'm planning my first trip to Asprey's already. I think an pounds 892 enamelled pill box would be a very nice thing to have, don't you?

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