He created two of the UK's top insurers from scratch and bought the company he first worked for. So how can Churchill's boss claim to be ordinary. Christine Seib reports.

Martin Long loves to be seen as an ordinary bloke. He's dished out meals in the Churchill Insurance canteen. He's met every one of the insurer's employees. He has even hammed it up as Fagin, accompanied by his four sons, at Churchill's Christmas party. And he insists on three weeks' holiday in Spain every year.

By his employees' accounts, he likes a drink and a dance at office parties. He's even happy to be interviewed straight from the gym, in immaculate white trainers and a blue tracksuit. It is almost possible to believe he is an ordinary bloke.

But no ordinary bloke becomes the only person in the UK to set up two direct insurers from scratch. No ordinary bloke starts work as a lowly motor underwriting clerk at 17, then ends up buying the company in a spectacular stock market raid. And no ordinary bloke makes his company the most prolific insurance outsourcer in the UK.

That level of achievement requires an incredible inner drive. That Long has plenty of it was proved by his departure from Direct Line. Long set up the direct insurer with Peter Wood in 1984, but left in 1987 because, he has hinted, one company wasn't big enough for the two of them. Ten years later, Long said he and Wood "could have ruled the world, but we both have powerful personalities and we agreed to go our separate ways."

Prestigious list
Despite his terrifying drive, he lets slip only once how much he likes to win. Churchill recently came 19th in a poll on the best companies to work for. Long's feelings were mixed. He said: "The Sunday Times Top 50 Companies to Work For is a prestigious list and it's nice to be there, but I don't like to come 19th in anything."

Another clue is his selection of a favourite quote: Winston Churchill's "My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best."

Long is likely to notice quicker than most chief executives if his staff are not doing their best. Until recently, when he started delegating more to his senior managers, he knew how many phone calls each staff member made every hour.

He spends 30 minutes with every new staff member, as soon as they've hung up their coat, explaining what he wants from them and what Churchill can do for them.

Long says he spends 70% of his time on "people issues", with the human resources and customer liaison departments reporting directly to him. He admits that staff turnover is high in the first six months of employment, as new employees get used to Churchill's "work hard, play hard, carry no passengers" ethos. But employees with grievances are encouraged to march through his office's constantly open door and talk directly to him.

"I don't understand what chief executives are doing if they're not taking care of the people issues, because you can only look at balance sheets and go to lunch with analysts so much," he says.

Good guy
Long's theory seems to work. Even when asked to comment off-the-record, his employees insist he is a genuinely good guy. And so they should. Every year he takes about 50 senior managers and their partners on a surprise weekend jaunt somewhere in the world. In 1999 it was snowmobiling in Lapland. Last year it was casino-hopping in Monte Carlo. At these jaunts the only thing he won't allow is anyone to talk about work, one attendee recounts.

Given the difficulty of getting him off the topic, Long truly believes that if he treats his staff well, they will treat customers well and the business will grow, although he is not sure where the theory came from.

"I have no idea why I crusade for customer service," he says.

"My mother was a school cook and my father was a bricklayer, so I had no exposure to retail, I just got appalling service everywhere."

Long says he is determined to keep this personal touch as Churchill continues its rapid growth.

"We're now a big insurance company, but if we behave like a big insurance company I'll have wasted 13 years of my life," he says.

"To be a big insurance company, to me, is how not to look after customers, how to abuse staff and how to antagonise your distribution network.

"I'll let my peers do that and we'll carry on as we are."

Churchill certainly is getting big. Long set it up in 1989 with fewer than 100 staff. Churchill now has £2bn premium income, 7,000 staff and 43 offices. It received a big boost, pushing it into sixth place in the Top 50 UK insurers list, when it signed its recent £353m deal with Prudential to buy its general insurance business. The Prudential deal came soon after Churchill bought AMP's UK business, Pearl Assurance for £80m.

Shopping list
Long is typically confident about the price he paid for the Prudential business, despite speculation by analysts that it was too much.

"They were happy and we were happy so it was the perfect deal for both parties," he says.

"I'm very comfortable with what we paid. We were up against the great and the good and they were all bidding around the same price."

Despite also looking at both Folgate Insurance and Groupama Insurances this year, Long swears he does not have a "shopping list" of potential purchases.

"We don't go out and knock on doors, these things happen but I don't set the agenda," he says.

"After the Pearl deal, we were busy and I wasn't looking for things to do. When I went back and asked the Swiss for a third of a billion pounds for Prudential, they asked if we should sort out everything with Pearl first.

"I said that I didn't set the timing, but this was an opportunity we couldn't afford to miss."

He swears he is now going to put the cheque book away, but Long can't resist tacking on a clause.

"There isn't anything good left to buy and we've got enough on our plate," he says.

"That said, if something good came along, I'd have to have a look."

It must be a powerful feeling for the south London boy to buy part of Prudential, the company that gave him his first job.

"I walked out of school in January 1968 and I didn't have any A levels or a university degree," he says.

"I didn't tell my parents or my headmaster, I just caught a bus to Croydon and the bus stop was outside Prudential House."

Motor department
Long stayed for 18 months before moving to Guardian, then to Sphere Drake, where at 24 he ran the 80-strong motor department. He became Halifax Insurance's managing director at 33, before being approached by Wood to set up Direct Line.

Long still sees Wood, despite Wood's new Halifax-backed venture Esure pushing Churchill off the Halifax panel.

"We get together three or four times a year to have lunch and criticise the competition," he says.

It is said as joke but still, the conversations must be interesting. N

Churchill's roll of honour

Devitt Insurance Services Ltd - October 1999
NIG - March 2000
Inter Group Insurance Services - June 2001

June 2001: AMP Pearl - general insurance
November 2001:Prudential - general insurance

Churchill underwrites and administers branded insurance for -
August 1997: Lloyds TSB - car
Sept 1999: Royal London - home
January 2000: Nationwide Building Society- home
June 2000: joined AA car panel
August 2000: Alliance & Leicester - car
September 2000: Standard Life Bank - home
October 2000: Nationwide - car
November 2000: joined Help The Aged car panel
February 2001: joined Marsh and Aon car panels
March 2001: joined BDML car panel
August 2001: :joined Kwik-fit and HSBC car panels