Richard Sear, chief executive of National Friendly, on how he got to the top

How did you make it to where you are today?

My plan 30 years ago was to study medicine, but that sort of got lost along the way. I have always been interested in business and business dynamics, as I was always convinced that business succeeded or failed largely due to people and purpose, and often considered running a business of my own.

I was fortunate in realising my dream after securing a chief executive position many years ago for a company in Manchester, where I had the chance to put my experience and attitude to the test. I see the same sort of challenges and opportunities with National Friendly. What I didn’t foresee was that my appointment would virtually coincide with the financial tsunami. Just to keep me awake at night!

What are the key challenges ahead?

Pulling through the economic and financial morass while building a unique proposition, and then reinforcing that proposition to build a viable and long-term business for the benefit of our customers.

What has changed most since you started?

Regulation and people’s perception of the financial services industry. The regulation has not all been negative but has been somewhat overwhelming, particularly for small players in the market.

Perception is a real negative, and one that our mutual proposition can, to some extent, shake off and pull through. Over the past 12 months people have called our customer contact team to ask if we are a “mutual provider” as they are sick and tired of dealing with big players. The trust has largely gone. When someone encounters National Friendly, it is largely positive; people stay with us. They tend to like the experience, and our member engagement events are always enthusing.

What advice would you offer to someone just starting out?

Maintain a ruthless commitment to your core purpose and focus on people. Don’t deny risk and do not become arrogant. One of the worst failings is hubris.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

Taking an eye off the people – the key people.

What was your biggest success?

Seeing people achieve things they never thought possible and providing an offer that has literally changed people’s lives.

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends in the insurance market

To name individuals would be wrong. I have met people who have altered my way of thinking and I have been inspired by others.

When you are not working, what do you do to relax?

I am told that I never relax. I enjoy the company of interesting people and beautiful architecture and music, for my emotional stimuli. Hard physical activity – rowing and the treadmill – keeps the body attuned to what life has to throw at it.

What is your favourite book / film / football team?

I enjoy re-reading the diaries of James Lees-Milne – a truly different world and what a great role in life he had. My favourite film is The Godfather, and I support Manchester United.