MY BIGGEST business mistake was an ill- fated venture into the United States in the early 1980s when, although I was convinced we were going to be a success, we were still a very small company.
It started at Cruft's dog show, where we had had a stand. A New York dog breeder who had seen us there phoned and said she'd like to take the idea to the States. She had worked in public relations; her husband was vice-president of an insurance company.
I met them in a flat they had in London. The situation seemed ideal; they had the right credentials. She was not an insurance broker but said she would sit the exams. I like America very much and was very excited. I called my partner, David Simpson, and told him we could go into America and it wouldn't cost us anything. He came over in a cab to join the discussion. We didn't ask for references because of her husband's job. In the end, we left to draw up plans.
Because a number of pet insurance schemes had failed in the US, we decided to offer a scheme aimed specifically at breeders. The woman said she had the contacts. It was decided I would go to New York to set things up. I was there for three weeks. I should have been home minding the shop.
The contracts were being set up when I got the first signs that all was not perfect. She said she had got involved in dogs after seeing one left in a car with the window open only a fraction: she smashed the window with a brick and took the dog out. And the husband was never available to give insurance advice, which was what he was going to bring to the arrangement. She had taken her exams and wanted to open an office but had no money. So we advanced her funds against her customers for an office and equipment. Some months later, all we had done was spend money.
In about eight months she had sold 10 policies, including those for her dogs, for a gross premium of dollars 5,000. We faced one claim for dollars 10,000 on a show dog that had a heart attack and about dollars 15,000 in other claims.
The deal cost us about pounds 30,000 at a time when we could ill afford it. It almost cost us our international underwriter and nearly cost us our partnership.
We've not been back to the US since, although we have a successful franchise in Canada. I'm not saying we won't go back - but getting carried away by the glamour of wanting to do something was nearly catastrophic.
Some months later, a competitor was able to set up in the market and I'm sure it was because my eye was not on the ball. In some ways, though, it may have been the best money we ever lost - because it may have saved us making the same mistake years later, with a few extra noughts.