Twenty Questions: Hamish Ogston, founder of Card Protection Plan (CPP)

'At 17 I was sent off around the world. It taught me not to rely on other people'
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1. What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

1. What single event or person gave you the impetus to succeed?

At 17, I joined the Norwegian Merchant Navy and worked my way around the world. My Dad gave me £50 at Euston station and that was the last he saw of me for a year. I worked on building sites in Toronto and in uranium mines in Canada and I was on my own. It wasn't like today, with credit cards and mobile phones, all you had was a c/o bank address in Darwin or something. It taught me you can't rely on other people.

 

2. What is the worst investment you've ever made and the best?

The worst and most frightening was when I bought cocoa futures while still a student at Manchester University. The broker told me it was a foolproof way of making money because he'd put a stop-loss on the account. So if the price fell I would not be exposed.

I started buying the Financial Times and smoking cigars and being a pest to all the other students because my wealth kept doubling everyfew days.

Then a cocoa trader jumped out of a window in Amsterdam and the price plummeted with him. The broker phoned my father to arrange for tonnes and tonnes of cocoa beans to be delivered to my parents' house.

My father was a dental surgeon so it was all a bit of a shock to him and bad news for me. I got out of it because the broker had mucked up the stop-loss agreement. My best investment was setting up Card Protection Plan.

 

3. What's the first lesson that you learned in business?

That the initial cash flow never works out. With any new business you have to put your finger in the wind and say: "How many widgets are we going to sell today?"

If you've never sold one before, you have to guess. I started CPP with £1,000 and hoped it wouldn't cost many more thousands than that. It took eight years and £1.2m before we saw any positive cash flow.

 

4 You've been described as a "serial entrepreneur". Have you ever worked for anyone?

Not since 1970, when I left university. I think the year I graduated we had super tax on interest under that fool Dennis Healey. You kept only 17 pence in the pound.

What was the point of going to work for Shell or whoever was doing the milk rounds, when I could keep 70 per cent of my income and work for myself? I then founded Countdown, which was a retail discount card that eventually operated in 16 countries.

 

5. Last month you won Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the year award for the London region. Has the award made any difference to your business?

Being cynical it was probably just another way for Ernst & Young to get their tentacles into another organisation that they're not auditing at the moment. But, good for them.

 

6. Do you have a business philosophy?

It's got to be truthful and enjoyable. If the day-to-day dealing with people is confrontational and political, then it's not for me.

 

7. If you didn't run CPP which company would you most like to run?

I don't want to run any company because I'm not a good people manager. My forte is business ideas and honing then into successful propositions, which I can then get a management team to run. These huge companies are an anathema to me.

I'm different from most people because they come in and buy things. Everything I've done I've started from nothing.

 

8. Which single task do you hate doing?

For 30 years I did everything myself, including the filing. I've now got a personal assistant so I have a charmed life.

 

9. What was the happiest day of your working life andthe worst?

In 1987 when we signed a deal with Marks & Spencer to launch our service under their name. Having M&S gave us credibility and scale, and from then we managed to get other business. There have been subsequent huge things such as signing with Nat West, but by then we were established.

The worst day was in 1986 when I opened a letter from Barclaycard saying they weren't going to work with me, they were going to work with my competitor. That was almost the death knell to the business. We knew that American Express, Diners and Access were all doing their own thing. I just thought: "I'm going to carry on and win". Eventually we did win the Barclay Branch business. In retrospect, I must have been mad to go into a business that took 10 years to turn a profit.

10. How did you manage to keep the business going when you were losing money?

Through sheer determination and persistence. Most of the card issuers didn't want CPP to exist in the first six years because they didn't want anyone coming between themselves and their customers, particularly when cards were lost and questions needed to be asked to prevent further fraud.

We eventually overcame that problem and now 80 per cent of the card issuers in the UK promote CPP. My vision was to create a business that would make money. I had no idea whether we would end up with one million customers, or 5.5 million, as we have today.

 

11. Are you easy to work for and what makes you lose your temper?

I'm a pushover to work for, but other people may not agree. I'm an equanimous person. I rarely lose my temper. I'm not someone who blows hot and cold and I'm not particularly confrontational.

 

12. Who do you most admire in business?

Charles Dunstone, the managing director of The Carphone Warehouse. He's done an amazing job in 10 years and is probably the most financially successful person I've met.

 

13. If your briefcase were about to be stolen, which three things would you retrieve?

I'd only take my passport and probably not even that because I have another at home. I've had dispensation from the passport office to allow me to have two British passports. It saves me not being able to go somewhere if I lose my passport, as I did coming back from a skiing holiday in April.

 

14. How many credit cards do you have and what is your total limit?

I have lots because I like to know what's going on in the industry. I carry about six and have 20 more I don't use. When you've started something from nothing, you value money more than most people, so I'm generally quite careful. I pay everything off by direct debit at the end of the month.

 

15. What's your greatest personal indulgence?

My three children: six-year-old twins and a nine-year-old.

 

16. If you went bankrupt tomorrow would you start again?

Yes. I've got three children to feed

 

17. Does Britain encourage young entrepreneurs?

Our entrepreneurial culture needs to be broadened. Many parents don't encourage their children to be self-employed. They tell little Johnny to go university and get a degree and be safe. They then get plucked by Shell at £30,000 a year and don't start something that will pay them peanuts for five years. Schools have "careers advice", but not "starting your own business advice."

 

18 Are you pro-Europe and the single currency?

I don't want to be part of socialist federal Europe, but if anyone can mess up the pound the British can. I remember my parents going on a skiing holiday to Switzerland in the 1950s and getting 15 Swiss francs to the pound. We now get 2.5. On my first holiday in America we were getting $4 to the pound. I feel I've lived through the devaluation of sterling.

 

19. In terms of personal wealth, how much is enough?

One answer to that is bound up with success in that it's never enough and one always wants to be bigger and better. The other is a simple equation: if you work out how many months you have left to live and I've probably got 280, then work out how many pounds you can spend a month after tax, then that's the answer to what is enough.

And what's the point in earning more than that if you don't believe in inherited wealth.

 

20. Do you ever think about retiring?

With only 280 months left, I'm well aware of it.

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