This month Alumni Voices caught up with alumnus, Richard Harpin. Richard is the founder and CEO of HomeServe, a British multinational home emergency repairs and improvements business.
Which college were you in?
What are your fondest memories of your time at York? (1983-86)
When I was ‘Ents Officer’ at Wentworth college I ran a low budget but successful university entertainment called ‘Blind Date’ with some campus celebrities – it was very well attended and we even got a match out of it.
The worst moment on the university entertainment committee was when we booked Men At Work to come and play at Central Hall but they got to number one in the charts and had to cancel the gig.
I lived in a student house on Wellington Street with three girls. I remember leaving in a hurry one weekend – I was about to miss the National Express bus on a Friday and hadn’t done my washing up. I thought, ‘They’re going to really tell me off if I don’t do the washing up,’ so I put the pots and pans inside a cupboard. I got back on Sunday evening, from selling my cards of feather earrings, known as hookers, around hair salons all over the country. I was really tired so went straight to bed and guess what was under my duvet?… The dirty pots and pans!
My claim to fame at York University was that I convinced British Telecom to install a telephone line for a mile and a half (which cost them thousands of pounds but they had to do it at their fixed price of £49) into my Wentworth Hall room so that I could run my mail order fishing tackle business from my bedroom. I had an answer phone so when I had to go to the occasional lecture it would say, ‘The office is currently unmanned,’ – little did all these customers calling from America know that they were calling my student bedroom!
After leaving University, what did the early stages of your career look like?
My father wanted me to become a chartered accountant but that wasn’t a good fit for my personality. I wanted to be in Sales and Marketing so I applied to the Procter and Gamble Marketing Vocation Course. I was offered a job and within three years had been promoted to brand manager of Vortex Bleach (number two to Domestos) so now I describe my career as from the toilet bowl to down the drain!
Did your degree in Economics prepare you for your future career?
Yes, I enjoyed it and I did my dissertation on how manufacturing companies set their prices. They all did it by saying, ‘It cost us this amount and we will add a 10% margin,’ I thought it would be much better to ask the customer what they would be prepared to pay, so I learnt a lot about business.
What are the 3 HomeServe behaviours?
They underpin everything that HomeServe is about; they are the culture of the business.
What do you enjoy most about your job and what do you find the hardest part?
I enjoy coming up with new ideas and seeing the people I work with bring them to fruition. The hardest part is when things don’t happen or don’t move fast enough.
You have invested £30 million of your own money backing eight talented entrepreneurs, including Dragons’ Den star (and fellow York alum) – Sara Davies. Can you tell us more about this?
Six years ago I decided that I wanted to help other entrepreneurs at an earlier stage in their careers; inspire them, help them and make sure they avoid all the mistakes I’ve made in business. I could do this by putting a bit of money in to help them grow or to de-risk and enable them to pay off the mortgage so that, if it did all go wrong, they’re not going to be on the street.
I came across this great entrepreneur, called Sara Davies, running a craft business. I put in £2.5million to back her and she became the Dragon on Dragon’s Den, so I guess I’m ‘The Dragon behind the Dragon,’ but let’s keep that our secret.
I still see a lot of her. I sit in on her board meetings and she comes for dinner at my pub, ‘The Alice Hawthorne’ in Nun Monkton, just outside York.
What advice would you give to a student in the Economics Department who aspires to find a career in business?
Take every opportunity to go and learn about how businesses operate. Join the Industrial Society and go on manufacturing visits that will come in useful in later life, in whatever business you become involved in. Ask lots of questions and try to connect with others running their businesses and learn that way.
The biggest message would be to make the most of every minute of your three years at University; work hard, play hard and make sure you achieve some stuff that is not just academic – it will help you in future job interviews.
What else do you think is required around mentoring and support packages that can be put in place to support young people?
I think programmes like The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den are great because they’re raising the profile of business. They might not be fully true to life but they’re encouraging youngsters to think about business. I think we need to get an entrepreneur into every single classroom to inspire and guide young people.
Since Covid we have all been spending a lot more time in our homes and wanting home improvements but due to Brexit there’s been a shortage of construction skills. We need more 16 year olds to say, ‘I want to take a plumbing or heating apprenticeship’. We launched Try a Trade in West Midlands schools, getting some of our Homeserve plumbers and heating engineers into schools to talk to pupils and that is working really well. It’s got to happen in every school across the country to encourage more youngsters to take apprenticeships, not only in construction trades but also hospitality and many other sectors.
At the University of York we have a Mission for Public Good and we see enterprise as a really important part of that. What’s your opinion on this and what more can we do to grow?
I think it’s really positive that some of these events have become bigger but we need to be running them in every part of the country. It’s great to see that York is leading the way so I think trying to get the message across to many other universities and cities is vital.
It is also the responsibility of the government, as well as entrepreneurs themselves, to say, ‘Let’s meet people who are at an earlier stage in business than us and provide some help and mentoring’.
One of the businesses I have invested in is Enterprise Nation, run by Emma Jones. It is doing a great service to SMEs with mentoring and putting them in touch with business advisers and various forms of help.
I think the more we can do through these sorts of collaborations the better and that’s what you are doing here in York, as a part of Enterprise Works.