Personal Column: Rich women

Within 15 years, more women than men will be millionaires, according to new research. Lisa McPherson, 39, came from humble beginnings, and made a fortune in insurance
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The Independent Online

Money doesn't make you happy, but it does make life easier. I've got a five-bedroom house in Sunbury-on-Thames, a BMW and my two children are at private schools. I have a housekeeper who helps with the shopping and cleaning, and every month I treat myself to a beauty treatment such as a facial or pedicure. Two or three times a year we'll go on a family holiday, maybe to Florida or to the Caribbean. But I don't live the high life.

I'm actually pretty cautious with my money. I want value for money: I would rather buy my clothes from Karen Millen than from Harrods or Harvey Nichols. Besides, I've got a sister with multiple sclerosis and I'd rather treat my family than buy things for myself. I'm taking some of them on a cruise shortly.

I think it's because of my upbringing. I'm one of six and my father instilled good financial values into all his children. He always said, "If you haven't got the money, then don't buy it", and I still don't use credit cards. I take quite a modest salary out of the business and reinvest a lot of our profits back into its development.

I wanted to be a nurse when I was growing up. I left school at 16 and started working for my father's company, a small insurance brokerage in Bognor Regis.

I didn't really want to, but he said, "Come and try it out for a while." I thought I'd do that and then perhaps go into nursing. But I quite liked earning my money. I was there for about seven years.

By 23 I wanted to try working in London and moved to a big insurance intermediary. About a year later I fell in love with one of the managers, who's now my husband. I was there for 13 years and eventually became operations director, but I wanted a new challenge and left. Part of my role had been setting up businesses and I felt it was time to do it myself.

While it was very nice and safe to work for somebody, I really felt that I wanted to put my mark on insurance. I wanted to be able to live or die by whatever I chose to do. My husband realised it was right for me and supported me.

When I was 19 my father gave me £6,000 to invest in property. Over the past 10 to 15 years I've bought properties at auction. I sold a couple and remortgaged some and set up Fresh! Insurance Group with £200,000 in 2002. It's a holding company and Ladybird is our main product, which provides car insurance for women. I didn't have to go to the bank. It was wonderful to steer my ship in any direction I wanted without anyone breathing down my neck.

It was a slog in every way possible at the beginning. You couldn't just ring someone when your computer went down like you could in a big company. It was a humbling experience but brilliant fun. There were five of us sitting round a couple of desks in a tiny office just outside Birmingham. Sometimes I was in the office until 10pm. As it was all my own money and all my own savings; it really did focus my mind on it being a success.

I did a budget and showed it to my husband who said it was quite a lot to achieve. While I believed in myself, there were times when I was in meetings with insurance companies telling them what I was doing and I'd think "I can't believe you're taking me seriously".

There was so much to do I didn't have time to think about being scared. I didn't want to set up a small business. I wanted to put the foundations in place so that the company could grow, and now I look back and think that was absolutely the best thing I ever did.

I set my target of writing £1m of business within the first 12 months and achieved that within eight months. Within two years the business was worth in excess of £1m. It's now worth more than twice that and I have more than 50 staff. I've also got property that's worth about £1m, but I don't really think about how much it's all worth. It is not like winning the Lottery: you can't just go out and blow the money on fast cars or jewellery. I have a responsibility to my staff to run a profitable business.

There are differences between male and female entrepreneurs. As a mother and wife I have to do massive amounts of juggling, and I'm very organised. I don't think men are like that. If I take a risk it's a very calculated one. I don't have a big ego and some men do.

I just get on and do my job whereas men might go out and buy a flash car. I think more women are becoming millionaires because they hold on to their money. They're more cautious and don't take as many risks.

My husband, who's very successful too, is really supportive and says he's very proud of me. He did describe it initially as a bit of a hobby. I don't think when I set it up he thought I'd have more than 50 staff. I think he was quite surprised.

Insurance is completely male-orientated. There are probably fewer than 10 female brokers like me in the UK. Often when I go to events, it's mostly men. You get noticed a bit more, but they've been very supportive.

In terms of employing men, there has been the odd chap who I knew wouldn't want to work for a woman. I could tell by the fact that they wouldn't answer my questions during the interview and only spoke to the man in the room.

I don't do the business to make money, I do it because it's satisfying to have a successful business. I feel uncomfortable with the label "millionaire" and would much rather be called a "successful business woman".

I'm surprised that I am a millionaire. It wasn't until recently when my husband and I were updating our wills that we worked out all our assets, and I suddenly thought, "Goodness - I didn't realise I had that much."

Lisa McPherson was talking to Julia Stuart