The founder of InsureandGo is every inch the self-made man, having created the UK’s leading travel insurance provider in just nine years. But the former barrow boy is too driven to stop there. He tells Ellen Bennett where he’s going next.
Soon after Madeleine McCann went missing from that now infamous holiday apartment in Portugal, InsureandGo announced that it would start offering up to £120,000 of cover for a missing child as standard in its travel policies. Was it cynically exploiting the parents’ loss and consequent blanket media coverage, or offering a valuable new service?
Definitely the latter, says Perry Wilson, entrepreneur, former barrow boy and co-founder of InsureandGo. Founded just nine years ago, the intermediary is now one of the most recognisable brands in the sector, with its distinctive white and green advertising decorating tube trains across London. It now boasts a 12% share of the market, and is the self-proclaimed biggest independent travel insurer. Wilson recently hired a managing director, Gary Lockett, to take over the day-to-day running of the firm, while he seeks out expansion opportunities.
He has come to Insurance Times’ office to talk about these plans and to tell his story, from its beginnings on a rough Essex council estate to today, where he runs a business of 350 staff with a £18.9m turnover. It’s St George’s Day, and Wilson’s dark navy three-piece suit is finished off with a jaunty rose in his buttonhole. Broad, solid and outspoken, he looks every inch the self-made man.
He sounds it too, displaying irritation at his slower paced rivals. “Most of the industry isn’t in touch with the real world,” he complains. “Anyone can give you rates. It’s what you do with the rates that makes the product sell.”
And that’s exactly what InsureandGo did with its Madeleine McCann product – a familiar pattern, given that it was the only insurer to pay claims on travel cancelled because of the London bombings in 2001 and, more recently, one of the few to refund holidays cancelled because of redundancy.
It’s certainly clever marketing – but isn’t the company just jumping on whatever bandwagon happens to come along? Wilson doesn’t like the question and becomes defensive. “We see an opportunity and take it,” he says. “People said to us then [after the London bombs], you’re jumping on a bandwagon – but how else do you get the story out there?”
InsureandGo is a travel intermediary that sells on products sourced from brokers. It also has multiple affinity partnerships – for example, with Superdrug, Budget and the Guardian Media group. Wilson owns the business, with co-founder James Richardson and investor Martin Banbury. He had the idea some 10 years ago when trying to arrange cover for a skiing holiday to the US with a new girlfriend. “There were so many questions, I had to keep ringing off to check the answers. In the end, I called back four times, and every time I spoke to a different person,” he recalls.
“I was meeting James a couple of days later. He had a background in underwriting, I had a background in setting up schemes and call centres, so we came up with the name and off we went.”
It was not the most auspicious of starts. “We moved into a shop above a kebab shop,” says the now well-heeled Wilson. “There was plaster peeling off the walls. There were three women, me and some newspaper adverts.”
Wilson soon spotted an opportunity to sell travel insurance on the internet and, after a slow start, clocked on to the critical importance of focusing aggressively on marketing the business. It sold one million policies in 2008.
Keen to move the business on to the next stage, Wilson drafted in Lockett late last year. He freely admits his MD has a greater gift for diplomacy than he has.
“I’m far too blunt and brutal for some people,” he confesses. So Lockett is to be given a free rein to run the business over the next 12 months while Wilson looks to the future.
His growth plans centre on securing more affinity partnerships within the UK – “but not just within anyone, we’ll be selective” – a move into household and motor insurance, and new projects abroad. There’s nothing concrete right now, but Wilson says he is looking at ventures in Europe, South Africa and Dubai.
InsureandGo tried and failed to launch motor and household policies a couple of years ago, and Wilson now admits that they “weren’t very good”. So this time round, the company has partnered with specialist OutRight, which will provide the products while InsureandGo contributes the marketing know-how.
It’s an impressive success story, but perhaps the most interesting thing about Wilson is his personal journey. He’s no fool, and knows that speaking freely about his early days on a council estate, where his father died when he was very young, and the diagnosis of dyslexia when he was a teenager, will make good copy. Well-primed by the professional City PR who sits in on the interview, he reels off: “Lived in a council house, father died at the age of nine, two brothers, one’s got a roofing business, the other’s an ex-commander in the Royal Navy, used to work on the good old street markets to earn some extra pennies, car washing at the weekends.”
And so on. It clearly cuts pretty deep though, because Wilson credits the Sea Cadets – which he joined as a youngster to give some structure to his life – with having influenced his approach to management.
“If you come to our call centre, you’ll see that everything is tidy and clean,” he says, a hint of iron in his voice suggesting something of the old sea cadet lingers. “My staff wear uniforms. Agents wear blue shirts, team leaders wear white shirts, trainees black shirts, IT people grey shirts and management a shirt with a collar, so everyone knows who’s who.” Frankly, it sounds terrifying, but Wilson must be doing something right.
Tough, brash and driven, Wilson has come from nowhere, and used every tool at his disposal to build a successful business that has become a household name within a decade. Some more traditional corners of the industry might look askance at his snappy suits and populist marketing campaigns – but he won’t care. Perry Wilson is very much his own man. IT