Back in the Seventies, the insurance industry was very conservative, recalls the insurance mogul Peter Cullum, 57. As a 24 year-old, he had the audacity to challenge the received wisdom of the business world.
After 20 years spent working his way to the top of the mainstream insurance industry, resuscitating ailing companies en route, he decided it was time to do things his way. Towergate Partnership Ltd, which he founded in 1997 with some equally enterprising industry colleagues, has mushroomed into one of the UK's major providers of specialist insurance. In doing so, Cullum has amassed a personal fortune estimated at £1.7bn, putting him at number 40 in the Sunday Times Rich List.
Having gone straight into insurance from school in his home city of Norwich, ("I could have joined Norwich Union but somehow that would have been too easy"), he decided that he needed to boost his business skills and enrolled on a Masters course at what is now Cass Business School in the City of London.
The lack of a first degree proved not to be a barrier. As the youngest person ever to pass the Chartered Insurance Institute exams, he was given special dispensation to move straight to a Masters. A year later, Cullum graduated from what was then City University Business School with an MSc in administrative sciences, now recognised as equivalent to the MBA.
"That year was life changing in many ways. For a start, I became incredibly poor, but a scholarship from a firm of insurance brokers saved the day. The Cass learning experience has shaped my whole business career."
It was tough doing such an intensive course comparatively young, he says. "I was studying alongside very bright older people who had a lot of management experience. I felt I had to work twice as hard as they did to keep up. Our tutors encouraged us to challenge the traditional way of doing things in business. I became so convinced that I had to do this with every aspect of the curriculum that I was in danger of becoming a real pain in the neck."
Cullum found the modules on leadership and organisational psychology particularly fascinating. He recalls being told by one of his tutors (who was also a Labour MP) that he would never succeed in business unless he learnt to appreciate the subtleties of internal politics within any organisation. "As an immature 24-year-old, I didn't fully appreciate the message but have since seen how right he was."
The aspect of the course that has had the most lasting influence on him was studying the discipline attached to problem solving. "I saw things totally differently from that point on. It's easy to be caught up with the symptoms associated with the problem rather than defining what the problem actually is; where you are currently and where you want to get to. The strategy needed is – how do I bridge that gap? It's a very simple concept and has helped me achieve many things in both my personal and working life."
In 1991, Cullum was headhunted to run a small insurance company, Economic, which turned out to be in a perilous state. "When you are in a stressful situation like that, you fall back on the knowledge and techniques you have acquired on the MBA," he says. He and his team put together a management buyout before selling the company on as a viable entity.
Then came the birth of Towergate in 1997. It has grown exponentially by making 150 acquisitions over 10 years and now has nearly 5,000 staff and 100 offices. "We spotted a gap in the market for niche areas of insurance, ranging from military kit to private yachts. Ours was a totally different model to the one followed by the mainstream insurers.
"It was a high risk strategy but gaining control of distribution has been the key. We've since built up a portfolio of 200 products. And, as we are now the main interface with the customer, the big insurers, who were initially sceptical, come to us to gain access to the market."
Despite his reluctance to take holidays, Cullum acknowledges that fun is an important part of the mix of working life. His mantra is "Make money, do good, have fun".
All too often, the last element is missing, he says. "At Towergate, we have appointed a head of fun who organises social and sporting events. You need to carry your people with you to ensure that they feel connected."
What about the "doing good" element of his mantra? Cullum is wary of the PR-led approach to corporate social responsibility and has become a hands-on supporter of charities, working with some of the most disadvantaged children in the UK. He has also been giving back to his alma mater, Cass, in the form of scholarships for graduate students working in insurance and finance. A passionate advocate of the value of business education, he feels strongly that it should be available to all budding entrepreneurs.
Cullum has backed his words with a gift of £10m that will enable Cass to create its Centre for Entrepreneurship. "You need energy and drive to succeed as an entrepreneur but you also need the basic skills to put together an easy-to-read business plan. This new initiative will not only enable young people to understand the rudiments of business strategy and implementation but also give them access to some seed funding for their ideas.
"Cass made a big difference to me. I came to understand that if I had not had that experience then the success of Towergate would never have happened."
Football remains a passion, although he gets little time to attend matches. Is he tempted to invest in ailing Norwich City Football Club, where he played for the junior team as a schoolboy? "Never say never" is the reply. This, arguably, would be one investment where Peter Cullum would allow his heart, rather than his cool analytical business head, to rule the day.