A Day In The Life Of: Homeserve boss Richard Harpin

Richard Harpin is a keen pilot, which is coming in handy as his company grows.
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The Independent Online

8am

Richard Harpin touches down at Heathrow, fresh from a gruelling 36-hour business trip that has seen him taking in stops in California and New York. He barely has time to freshen up at the airport lounge before he is heading for his waiting helicopter, which will whisk him to the company's headquarters at Walsall in the West Midlands.

"I like to fly it myself whenever I can, but after a long transatlantic flight it's probably better to use my pilot," Mr Harpin, 43, says. "He's an ex-military pilot who flew the Leeds air ambulance before joining me. There have been a few accidents recently and my wife's certainly happier that he is there. It is better and safer to have two qualified pilots when you fly," he adds.

Mr Harpin is at pains to stress that his beloved chopper was bought by and is maintained by himself rather than Homeserve. He also employs the pilot.

The journey lasts for around 40 minutes and will have him at hq in time for the first appointment of the day. Mr Harpin's energy is almost frightening. He built the business himself after founding it as a joint venture with South Staffordshire Water in 1993, from which it was demerged in 2004, and says he needs little sleep.

"I usually find that I sleep as well on a plane as I do at home," he says, although with three young children that is perhaps unsurprising.

10am

Homeserve is not a company many will have heard of, despite the fact that it has 6 million customers in Britain alone. That is because the company sells insurance policies covering almost any type of home emergency one could think of, through a wide range of partners such as Halfords, nPower, Thames Water, Anglian Water, and Barratt. The company then promises to send out repair staff at the drop of a hat, employing 1,000 of its own skilled tradesmen and 4,000 subcontractors, to people with policies.

As well as selling insurance, however, Homeserve also provides tradesmen for the insurance companies dealing with the aftermath of the floods that drenched large parts of Britain this year.

Says Mr Harpin: "My first meeting is with Ian Carlisle, who is the chief executive of our UK repair business and joined us from Autoglass. He is updating me on volumes following the summer floods. We were the biggest supplier of flood restoration work, and our priority is making sure those jobs are progressing well."

While most of the work is carried out by subcontractors, Mr Harpin says increasing numbers of the company's tradesmen will be directly employed in future. He is a strong advocate of apprenticeships, sitting on the National Committee of the Apprentice Ambassadors Network. He believes many more school-leavers should be encouraged to take up apprenticeships to counter Britain's oft-lamented "skills gap".

11am

Next up is Jon Florsheim, chief executive of Homeserve GB, whom the company hired from Sky, where he was chief marketing officer and managing director, customer group. One of Mr Florsheim's jobs is to expand the company's customer base.

"Our customers tend to be older people who are heavily insured but we also want to attract more younger, career people who we are missing out on. Jon did a brilliant job at Sky and we were really pleased to get him.

"The meeting is to get an update on the launch of our combined policy, and look at take-up rates. I'm happy with how things are going and it is performing in line with our expectations," says Mr Harpin.

11.30am

Mr Harpin is back in the helicopter for a 35-minute flight up to Preston, where he will meet the Lord Mayor and top-performing staff for the opening of an extension to the company's calls centre. He will not be piloting again because he wants to go through his speech and deal with other bits and pieces from the red file – Mr Harpin describes it as his inbox – which travels everywhere with him.

"We have spent £3m on the building which will enable us to house another 500 people, taking our headcount up to 1,500," Mr Harpin says.

He insists that he will not be following the trend for "off-shoring" calls centres to locations such as India to save cash. "I strongly believe that our calls centres should be UK, because what we do is all about the customer, and we need to be close to our customers. The calls centre handles claims and I meet up with management of that business informally later on to go through how things are going."

2pm

Mr Harpin takes a call from Rachel Hughes, chief executive of the company's fast-growing European business. She tells him that they have secured a deal with Spain's equivalent of the Yellow Pages that will see callers referred to Homeserve's Spanish business.

International expansion is something that is very much on the agenda for the business – Mr Harpin's US jaunt was aimed at furthering the company's ambitions in that country.

"It's a potentially huge market for us and I see myself spending more time out there. Nobody really does what we do out there, but Americans seem to really like our product," he says.

Despite this, the shares have been drifting recently. Mr Harpin, with a 17 per cent stake in the company, has previously borrowed seven-figure sums to increase his holding when he has felt those shares are under-valued.

It is the UK operations that occupy the next two and a half hours, however. He will spend the time listening in to calls to the Preston claims centre. "I'm taking notes to see how we handle things, how we are performing. We have a 96 per cent customer satisfaction rating, but we are really only as good as the worst tradesman at our worst contractor. When people have been paying in for a couple of years, and have never claimed, they have to know that we are there when they do."

A feedback session follows with management to discuss Mr Harpin's notes and observations.

4.45pm

Harpin is back in the helicopter, heading for his home in a village near York. He does not use it every day – he is usually picked up by a driver at 5.30am, stopping en route at Lichfield, in Staffordshire, where he uses the gym before getting into work at 8.40am. However, it does not take much to persuade him into the air, and he has a fixed-wing aircraft's pilot licence as well as his permit to fly his helicopter.

"The scenery across the hills flying due east over Ilkley on the way back is just fantastic," he says, eulogising about his flying excursion.

It is back to earth when he arrives home, however, because he has domestic duties to perform. "I've made a commitment to my wife to get back for bathtime at least twice a week, although she would probably tell you it's usually only once," he says.

The CV

Name: Richard Harpin

Educated: York University(Economics)

Career: Started in brand management at Proctor & Gamble before joining Deloitte as a management consultant. From there he formed his own consultancy firm, leading to his contact with Staffordshire Water, with which he founded Homeserve as a joint venture in 1993.

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