Enigmatic Peter Wood has been keeping a low profile since the launch of esure. But, with a little coaxing, Helene Dancer persuaded esure's top dog to open up
When did you last read an interview with Peter Wood? He must sidestep the media spotlight quite skilfully because few can say when they last read a profile on this insurance entrepreneur.
We all know that Wood has shaken up the industry once or twice, what with running seven insurance companies and creating motor pioneers Direct Line and esure. And we saw him make national news with esure's refusal to provide flood cover to homes in flood risk areas. But who is the man who makes these decisions and will he talk about them?
Wood's great love is insurance. He lusts after dynamic, new ventures and says this has definitely been a pattern over the last 20 years. "It's a hobby really," he says.
"One way for me to learn about something is to have a stake in it. I have a variety of investments. Lots of little bits and pieces," he says.
The sparkle in Wood's eyes reveals an active mind and considerable business acumen.
"If I didn't do insurance, I'd probably try to learn golf. It's much harder than running insurance companies. More frustrating," he quips.
While rivals claim esure is failing, Wood defends his baby calmly.
"We said that within five years, we'd be a top five motor insurer with a million policies," he says.
"We're well on target to achieve that and will probably beat it. The name of the game is not to be the largest, but to offer the best service and have the happiest colleagues and make a reasonable return on capital.
"We're just bang on target and expect to break even next year and go into profit the year after that."
However, Wood has a history of itchy feet. He has been with many companies and speaks of his love for travel and how he gets frustrated with being in one place for too long. So, how long can he be expected to stay with esure?
"I don't know. I've just started it. It's only 14 months old. I'm getting old now - I'm 55. I've got the rights to call for a float in four years if I want to, but I haven't really thought about it. You don't think about the endgame when you're only 14 months old."
He's content with his new venture for now and draws many comparisons with his previous company Direct Line. He set up the company in 1984 with colleague Martin Long, who subsequently left and started Churchill Insurance. Word is that they are still friends and often meet up for a chat.
"Esure is the fastest growing insurer in the UK," Wood says.
"We are where Direct Line was after four years. I've set up quite a few insurance companies and you start to learn a few things from your mistakes."
The comparison is a little unfair as esure inherited more than 100,000 of Halifax's Churchill policies.
Wood quips that his ex-colleagues had to twist his arm to start up esure.
"I have a very short memory, so I forgot about when I used to moan and groan," he says.
His face grows serious: "The fact we have brand new systems and a clean sheet of paper and we know we've done it before means we're not making the same mistakes we made before."
He also attributes much of esure's success underwriting expertise and building a good brand. So what advice could he offer to someone who wants to start an insurance business?
"Don't do it," he says, smiling wryly.
"Actually insurance has been very good to me and I've saved consumers a lot of money and shaken up the industry once or twice. It's a tough market to come into. We are particularly lucky."
"When you start a business and you end up with several thousand policies, that's hard work. Overall, since it's a company that's only 14 months old, it's unbelievable. We've now got nearly 700 people working at esure."
Wood jokes that, in a perfect world, he'd like to master his success by controlling the competition's acumen and service. More seriously, he adds: "Regulation is also an issue as it takes a lot more work and you need skills across the whole operation.
"An insurance company is a big job to put together. A lot of the competitors now have their life funds under stress. We are a very risk-averse company so our reinsurance costs should be a lot lower."
This view has been made tangible by esure's refusal to insure houses in flood risk areas. Because esure is a new business, it does not have to adhere to the ABI's two-year moratorium for flood cover.
"Don't insure the guaranteed claim," is Wood's unequivocal response to the stir he created with this decision.
While Wood may sound unequivocal about many business issues, in fact he has been thoroughly media-trained. He expounds his views with a blend of subtle arrogance and debonair delivery. He maintains his manner when discussing his family, explaining that one of his five daughters is studying at law school. Would he prefer his children to be in insurance?
"I want them to do things differently," he replies. "If they want to follow in my path, fine, but entrepreneurs are strange people. You don't wake up one day and become an entrepreneur. You either are one or you aren't. I want my kids to be healthy and happy and if they talk to me, it's a bonus. Until last year, my 27-year-old came on holiday with me, so I can't be that bad."
Perhaps the questions have become too personal, as Wood suddenly assumes the role of interviewer. After some artful deflection, he starts to answer the questions and reveals some more information about what makes him tick.
"I like a lot of classical music, some pop but not this rap stuff which blows your ears away like garage music. The last concert I went to was Celine Dion. I went to see Barbara Streisand last year. That was brilliant. I'd probably be happy to go and see Kylie Minogue," he says, but cuts off the Kylie conversation there.
"I read some rubbish books," he continues. "When I've read so many business papers, I don't mind getting a bestseller and getting lost in it."
At this point, the PR person makes an entrance and Wood is reminded of his other engagements for the day. The interview is officially over.
Top five favourite things
1.Red wine and unfussy food
2.A good golf shot (never happens)
3.Beating the tennis coach (also never happens)
4.Early evenings as opposed to early mornings
5.People who talk to you rather than those who send emails