Margareta Pagano: Curtain falls on an insurance impresario's incomparable career

Whatever you think of the beehive-haired singing trio who star in the Sheila's Wheels pink Cadillac or the fictional Italian singer in Gio Compario, you've got admit that the insurance tycoon behind them, Peter Wood, is little short of a genius.

It was his Direct Line business – remember that dreadful speeding red phone on wheels – which first alerted the public to the benefits of switching insurance, and Esure which used the late Michael Winner to front the TV ads with the memorable "Calm down, dears, it's only a commercial."

Winner had complained about his policy to a Direct Line call centre, but it was Wood who ended up threatening to cancel the grumpy film director's policy. The two had lunch and became friends, with Winner telling Wood how bad his ads were; which is how he ended up starring in the Esure one.

You can blame Wood for all those irritating ads as he does all his own publicity. But they worked, because Esure now insures about 5 per cent of all British drivers.

On Friday, Esure floated on the Stock Exchange for £1.2bn, two years after buying a 70 per cent stake in the business from the state-backed Lloyds Banking Group for £260m. Wood, 66, is already worth about £500m from Direct Line and other ventures, and made another £198m from selling a chunk of his shareholding. He still owns about a third of Esure, worth £390m at Friday's prices, and it's hard to begrudge him a penny, as at least he's made the business amusing.

He says this is his seventh and last insurance venture. With insurance being hit by bond prices, pressure from regulators, and new online competitors, Wood's market timing may just be as irritatingly brilliant as his advertising.

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