How I started a successful business in my 50s

Elaine Fairfax explains how she was broke at 50, but 10 years later her company is making £52m a year

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Elaine Fairfax left school at 15 with no qualifications, and after a career in the legal sector she set up pet insurer Animal Friends, remortgaging twice to do so. She explains how she did it to High50's Lucy Handley.

"From a very young age, we'd always have animals in the house. I didn't want children and for me having a houseful of kittens was far more appealing.

When I was approaching 50, I thought the one thing I actually feel passionate about is animals. By chance, my husband and I met wildlife activist and Born Free actress Virginia McKenna, whose passion for animal welfare holds no bounds.

That meeting started to make me think about whether I could combine what we did [to make a living] with our passion, so we could help raise some money for animal welfare which was very deep in my heart.

I didn't want to set up an [animal] charity as when you do that you're expecting people to give money to you. Because of my business skills, I thought I'd like to be the person who makes the money and I could give it back to animal welfare, so I thought long and hard about what the best vehicle would be.

Pet insurance was the obvious choice because I hoped people would be gripped by the concept – let's face it, no one likes paying out for insurance. It's a bit like taxes: you know you've got to do it. But if people don't claim on their policy, then at least they know that some of their money is going to help the less fortunate animals than the ones that they own.

The difficulty I had was that I had no insurance experience and as we didn't have any business, we couldn't go to an underwriter and say 'We have X amount of policy holders, will you underwrite me?'.

We didn't have an awful lot of money at the time, so we couldn't set up our own facility. After a few years of traipsing around London, we found that we could get an underwriter to underwrite us but we couldn't get anyone to administer the policy, and vice-versa.

We eventually outsourced to two different companies. However, that meant allowing someone else to run the business and that really didn't work. Although the first people made an effort, they weren't really very good, and they had their own customer base so we weren't a priority. The second company? I think they diddled us out of a lot of money.

Going For Broke

I thought if Animal Friends is going to do something, we have to do it ourselves, so we re-mortgaged our home twice. We'd had two business loans secured on our home and went for broke.

So in 2002, just a couple of years off my 50th birthday we set up our own facility. To start with, it was a little bit wobbly: we had to put our money into getting premises, getting telephones and the whole infrastructure and by the time you look at staff there wasn't much money left.

My husband went back to being a solicitor to support us, so I didn't have to take any money out of the business. I ended up going back to work too, temping as a legal secretary just so we could get some money in and live.

Looking back at the time it was dreadful, we didn't know what would happen, we were getting such a small amount of money, but it was sheer determination that this was going to work.

By 2008 we had 12,000 policy holders, but now we have more than 400,000. In 2008 we had a turnover of £3m and now we turn over £52m.

[In terms of what we give to charity], we don't think about percentages, [rather] we get projects coming to us on a regular basis so we look at those that we think are worth funding.
When there was that awful situation at Manchester Dogs' Home [which suffered a fire in September 2014, losing more than 60 animals], we were on holiday in the South of France and I was so upset I got in touch with the office and immediately sent £25,000 to them.

I had such a strong belief that it was always going to work no matter what life threw at me. I had no idea it was going to grow to the extent that it did, but I always had this belief that we would be able to turn a corner and make it a successful business.

Now we have more than 100 staff and they're all animal-lovers: people bring their dogs into the office and it's a very pet-friendly environment. We want to be the biggest pet insurer in the UK and within the next couple of years we will be.

I've had lots of offers [to buy the business] over the years, but I wake up every morning and I have a purpose in life, and I know some people [would sell] and retire and go off and have a lovely time but I also know there is a large percentage that sell their business and after a year they [become bored and] are looking around to set up another company.

Even though I'm 60 now I've got so much more that I want to achieve in life and it's just such a rewarding job, I think I would just be lost without it."

Elaine's tips for starting a business at 50

• You have to be prepared for a lot of knocks. It's very easy to look at a successful business and think 'oh gosh, you're really lucky' but when you look back at what we went through for all those years a lot of people would have given up.
• It's important to have a family that is going to support you. There is a bit of controversy about this because some women say it's not all about work and you've got your home life, but if you want to be successful you have got to have that support. Nothing's worse than your husband coming home huffing and puffing because his dinner isn't ready.
• Think very carefully about what will happen, how your children or grandchildren will react, whether you are going to get support from them. A lot of people don't take that into account. They will sit at a computer and put a spreadsheet together and go to the bank for funding but that is such a small part of running a business.
• Pick something that you enjoy, don't pick something you dislike. I think I'm an example of that, my passion for animals has made Animal Friends into the business that it is today.
Animalfriends.co.uk

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