GROWING up on one of Manchester’s most deprived council estates didn’t confer many advantages on the young Peter Horton.
However, he was blessed with a willingness to work and a drive to succeed which has remained with him throughout his 30-year career as one of the best-known figures in the UK insurance industry.
As chief operating officer of LV= General Insurance and managing director of Huddersfield-based roadside recovery firm Britannia Rescue, he now has responsibility for eight sites employing 3,000 people.
And his enthusiasm for an industry he helped to reshape – through his involvement with other major brands, including Direct Line and Churchill – remains undiminished.
Peter, who grew up on the Withenshawe estate in Manchester, first sampled the world of work as a 14-year-old – earning a bit of money caddying on golf courses and offering to wash cars.
He says: “When I left school, I originally planned to be a chartered accountant and went to Manchester Polytechnic to take a foundation course and become articled.”
But unimpressed by a starting salary of £10 a week, he applied for and got a job as a household underwriting clerk with Refuge Assurance.
He later moved to Cloverleaf Insurance, where he earned £17 a week – and supplemented his earnings with three part-time jobs working in supermarkets.
“I didn’t go to university,” he says. “Instead, I studied in the evenings for a Chartered Insurance Institute qualification which was the equivalent of a degree and provided the possibility of moving up in the future.”
When Direct Line was formed in 1986 – and began to transform the insurance industry – Peter’s qualifications helped him land a job as claims manager, working with founder Peter Wood and co-director Martin Long.
Peter Wood remains a personal friend, while Peter himself went on to work with Martin when the latter set up Churchill Insurance.
Peter was operations director at Churchill from 1989 to 1993, taking responsibility for claims and customer service.
He introduced a new claims system which resulted in Churchill achieving a lower loss ratio than its competitors, enhancing its relationships with suppliers and making millions of pounds of cost savings each year.
He also oversaw the introduction of the first claims unit in the UK insurance industry to have courtesy cars, faxing from screens and no claim forms.
When Churchill was sold to RBS in June 2003, Peter stayed on for a further three years as managing director of claims – overseeing 3m claims a year, 8,000 staff at 27 sites and an annual spend on £3.2bn.
During that time, he was also responsible for the integration of Churchill and Direct Line under the banner of RBS Insurance.
In 2006, he left RBSI with four others with a view to forming a new insurance company “putting the customer and our people at the heart of the business”.
Says Peter: “We went through various ‘Dragon’s Dens’ but LV= wanted to work with us from the outset. LV= already had an existing insurance company, but it wasn’t in a very good condition. If we had not come along, it would probably have ended up being sold or broken up.”
After completing a management buy-in, Peter and his colleagues set about turning around the business. “It was losing £200m a year, losing 10,000 customers a month and had a staff turnover exceeding 50%,” he says. “We had to stop the rot, make the investment and create a great culture.”
By focusing on staff development and investment in people and technology, LV= now has more than 4m customers and is on course for profits exceeding £100m this year.
It won 35 awards during 2012, including General Insurer of the Year and is recognised as an industry leader in terms of employee engagement.
Peter sees the acquisition of Huddersfield-based Britannia Rescue in 2007 as another major achievement.
Britannia provided LV= with “a perfect fit” as the company already had a good reputation for its service and the commitment of its staff. LV= built on those foundations by investing in new telephone systems, facilities and the staff.
Peter now rates Britannia Rescue as a market leader in terms of the quality of its people and its service culture.
The company is expanding, having recently taken an extra floor at its Folly Hall Mills site following the recruitment of 35 call centre staff towards the end of last year.
Britannia is looking to fill a further 40 roles in the next few months – and take on 120 people during the course of the next 12 to 15 months.
Says Peter: “Our vision is to be the UK’s best-loved insurer – best-loved by its customers, its people and by the communities in which we have our branches.
“A lot of it is about recruiting the right people with the right attitude at the right time.
“We try to look after our staff, communicate with them, recognise them for the extra things they do and provide real career progression.
“We involve them in any developments and encourage them to make suggestions for improving the business.
“Senior management go back to the ‘shopfloor’ to work alongside staff and some great ideas come out of that for improving the way we do things.
“We have a business improvement team of 25 people who continually look at processes and ways of working. It makes work exciting.
“Every 12 months, just after Christmas, I treat the business as if I have just joined for the very first time. We look at everything and ask if there is a better way we could be doing things.”
Peter divides his time between the insurance firm’s offices in Croydon and Bournemouth – where he generally spends three to four days a week – and its six other sites, including Huddersfield.
Away from work, Peter is a Manchester United fan, but can also be found following Harlequins RUFC, which is sponsored by LV=. The company is also a sponsor at Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium.
“I spend three nights a week away from home, so weekends are about family time, socialising and dinner parties,” says Peter.
He also enjoys the view from his Croydon office, which is just 15 minutes from home – and can’t resist a sly dig at one of his former firms. “We look down on the Direct Line building,” he says mischievously. “It means the people there can come to us for their job interviews during their lunch hour!”