Richard Harpin takes quite a few risks in life, with his taste for hair-raising sports. As well as flying, skiing and waterskiing, he also indulges in heli-skiing.
Heli-skiing involves jumping out of a helicopter onto off-piste slopes and skiing down them. Quite a challenge.
But then challenges are meat and drink to Richard Harpin. How else would he have turned an emergency plumbing business backed by South Staffordshire Water into a multinational company turning over more than half a billion pounds a year. That’s the story of Walsall-based Homeserve, and it’s a story that has made Richard Harpin’s fortune and won him the prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Richard Harpin, aged 43, graduated from the University of York and joined Procter & Gamble’s marketing department. He became a brand manager but left after three and half years to become a management consultant with Deloitte. He stayed there a year before setting up his own management consultancy. It was when he saw how difficult it was to get a reliable plumber in an emergency that he formulated his business model; an insurance product which would ensure a fast and efficient plumbing emergency service.
After several let-downs, he managed to sell the idea to South Staffordshire Water who gave him £100,000 for 52 per cent of the company. Homeserve was born, offering plumbing and drains insurance to water company customers.
Within two years Homeserve was turning in profits, and Richard Harpin successfully marketed the idea to other water companies, giving him total UK coverage. Having access to a large customer base through the water companies, he was able to offer other services. Homeserve now covers electrical wiring, pest control, home decorating, central heating boilers, and glazing.
As well as its Walsall headquarters Homeserve, which employs more than 1,000 engineers and is the biggest employer in the town, has operations in Weston Super Mare, Norwich, Nottingham, High Wycombe, Preston and Beverley. Richard Harpin has now taken his business model into international markets with a joint venture in France, based in Lyons, an office in Australia and an operation in the Florida called Home Service. Homeserve recently bought Reparalia, one of Spain’s biggest home appliance repair companies, and is on the lookout for opportunities in Germany, Italy and Benelux countries. Worldwide, Homeserve employs around 5,500 people, although the company has warned that some jobs will go as part of efficiency savings.
Homeserve has a market capitalisation of more than £1.2 billion with an annual turnover of £555 million. 2008 operating profits for the six months to September were £23.8 million – up 10 per cent on the previous year, but the announcement was accompanied by a warning that full year profits could take a hit of at least £2 million because of the poor retail environment.