Richard Harpin: The home emergencies expert who commutes by helicopter

A day in the life of the chief executive of Homeserve
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The Independent Online

Wake up. Collect gym kit. Quick breakfast. Get into chauffeur-driven car at 5.30 for the two-and-a-half hour journey to work. Richard Harpin, the chief executive of Homeserve, insists on living near York, even though the company's headquarters are in Walsall.

"I see myself as a northerner. I want my children to have roots in one place. We live in a little village, with a green and a maypole. The kids go to the local school," Mr Harpin, who was born in Huddersfield, says.

He has his own helicopter but uses it only to fly himself back from work: he says it is "unacceptable to find the weather is too bad" to fly first thing in the morning, so he goes by car, which allows him to work on his in tray.


The car pulls up at a gym just outside Walsall. He plunges into the outdoor pool for a swim. "Come rain or shine, I need that reinvigoration." He works out in the gym. Then he puts on his suit.


Returns to the car and starts his calls. Homeserve provides 24-hour "man in a van" repair for plumbing, drainage and heating problems to households that pay an annual fee for membership. The company also carries out repair work for insurers and repairs after a break-in or flood. "We see ourselves as the AA of home emergencies."

The company sprung from an idea Mr Harpin, 41, developed with South Staffordshire Water in 1993. It has grown and grown, and was demerged from the parent company in 2004. Homeserve has a stock market value of £1bn, and Mr Harpin's 17 per cent stake is worth £170m. He borrowed nearly £8m last year to add to his holding. This investment has doubled in value in nine months.


Gets to the office. By that time, he has worked on his in tray for two and a half hours. "The day when I get through my in tray is the day I give up business." Spends half an hour with his two secretaries "for a catch-up".


First meeting. Works through the make-up of a new product for a household insurer with the head of new product development. Homeserve would be sold on the back of general household cover, using the insurer's brand. Customers would receive a one-call Homeserve card.


Meets the top commercial team for a review, as it is a Monday. They consider last week's performance. They review the take-up from sales calls, examining the number made, response rates, the number of complaints and the quantity of no-quibble payouts made to unsatisfied customers.

They run through progress on the "29 big ideas" to grow the business. There were supposed to be 10 but new ones kept being added. "So there's no likelihood of running out of ideas and growth opportunities."

Only 23 per cent of UK households have plumbing cover, compared with 65 per cent of people who have covered their car against breakdown. So, though Homeserve has 4.3 million UK policyholders, Mr Harpin thinks there's plenty of room to expand. The company has also operations abroad, including the US and France. It's either older retired people who take the cover or "busy career men" who don't want their wives hassling them at work because the pipes have sprung a leak. "They delegate responsibility to Homeserve."

The treatment of customers is an obsession for Mr Harpin, who started out as a marketing man at Procter & Gamble.

Everyone at the meeting has received and already listened to a CD containing recordings of 10 calls chosen randomly from customers. A call centre worker is identified from the CD and those who perform badly are spoken to by a manager. They discuss ways of tackling "bad" calls.


A City analyst is visiting the company. Mr Harpin meets him for a quick sandwich lunch, though as he is doing the talking, he gets to eat only a small amount of the sandwich. The analyst agrees to cover Homeserve.


A business client from a household insurer has arrived. Mr Harpin tries to persuade him that, rather than use hundreds of different builders to do repairs for policyholders, they should use Homeserve for this work. It would be similar to a deal the company pulled off with the insurer Liverpool Victoria, worth £23m a year to Homeserve.


Mr Harpin has agreed to listen-in on callbacks where the company checks up on how the householder felt Homeserve had performed 48 hours after its engineers had visited. "We're only as good as the worst engineer, on his worst day of the week."

He says listening to calls, live, gives him a feel for how the company is performing. He collects three pages of notes, to be circulated to management. The call centre is on the headquarters site and he will discuss his thoughts with the call centre worker.

Mr Harpin rings back some customers unhappy with the service. He has "no qualms about calling people myself" to see things are put right - be it with a bouquet or cheque.

The level of "delighted" customers makes up 20 per cent of those the company calls back, he says. These are people who found Homeserve's work well exceeded their expectations. The objective is to get this to 50 per cent. "If they're delighted, they'll spread the word to neighbours and friends and that will mean we'll sell more policies."

The delight factor is a major goal for the next few years. All repairmen have to put on plastic boot covers before stepping on carpets, and their pay contains a 20 per cent incentive element. Engineers who do not perform are out.

The company dealt with 500 "home emergencies" on Christmas Day. "How many plumbers from Yellow Pages would come out on Christmas Day?"


Mr Harpin holds a review of possible acquisition opportunities with the four-strong team charged to ferret out businesses Homeserve might buy. It has pulled off 12 deals since 2002 at a cost of £140m. It buys businesses that could add a service to those it offers or would bulk up operations in one of its trades. "I've never bought a business that's been for sale. No good business is ever on the market and I never buy in competition with others. We persuade people to sell."


Time to go home. Mr Harpin's helicopter is kept in a barn near his village and is flown down by a pilot so Mr Harpin can fly himself home. He got the helicopter four years ago, fulfilling an ambition held since childhood, when he used to watch Lord Hanson arrive by helicopter to have Sunday lunch with his parents who lived nearby. "It took me 36 years to get one but it means I can fly home with no frustrations and be there for the kids' bath time."

Today there is low cloud and rain, so the helicopter could not come. He has to take the car back - "another broken promise to the kids". But it means he gets to spend time with his in tray, again.


Home. But his children, two boys aged one and three, and a five-year-old girl, have gone to bed. He has also missed Disaster Masters, the reality TV programme that follows Homeserve engineers.

He has supper with his wife Kate and they "catch up". He then allows himself to relax and read the newspapers. It is then, and only then, that he checks the company's share price, on Teletext. It is a mistake to worry about the share price rather than the customers, he says. "That's when things go wrong." Bed at 11pm.