David Mairs: My biggest gamble

David Mairs' belief in his own abilities persuaded him to give up a comfortable career in corporate insurance and launch his very own firm. But just as he was about to make the leap, disaster struck.

Here, he tells GrowthBusiness how he overcame this to establish the first independent loss-adjusting firm in the UK for 50 years.

In 1992, David Mairs turned his back on the security of a good job, regular salary and bonus scheme to set up on his own. Raising £120,000, mainly through savings and by re-mortgaging his house, he was ready for the year ahead when disaster struck. Out of nowhere, the funds were urgently required to bail out a family member in dire straits. Most people might re-evaluate their position. Not Mairs. Undeterred, he secured a £70,000 overdraft extension, reduced his fixed costs and Ashworth Mairs began trading.

‘As long as I was in charge and the debt was my own I didn’t care,’ says Mairs, who admits the Ashworth component of the company name was incorporated to create the illusion the business was bigger than it was and so that it would always be at the top of directories when people searched for loss adjusters.

It worked. Today, Ashworth Mairs has 11 offices and has enjoyed year-on-year growth of 25 per cent. Annual turnover has reached £25 million and the company is valued at around £40 million, making it the largest privately-owned loss adjusting company in the UK.

Childhood aspirations
From an early age Mairs felt he was destined to run his own company. The older of two brothers, the death of their father when they were both young gave David additional responsibilities. ‘My first taste of self-employment occurred when I was at school,’ he says. ‘I had a paper round but the shop was discontinuing its delivery service. So I approached the households directly and suggested that, for a small charge, I would deliver to them. It was quite a success. I even ended up hiring other schoolboys on the rounds.’

After completing A-Levels, Mairs entered the insurance industry. It was a way for the 18-year-old to get cheap car insurance for an MGB he had purchased. Aged 21, and after working in the claims department and qualifying as a chartered insurance practitioner, he made the move into loss adjusting. The job entails impartially evaluating insurance claims that can come from individuals, organisations or even states.

The next step
Although Mairs rose up through the ranks quickly, it wasn’t enough. ‘I really enjoyed the management aspect of business. Motivating staff, team building and liaising and improving the service provided to clients was very satisfying. The financial rewards of management were also good and my company incentivised us with a profit share scheme. but we were not given shares in the business so I felt we didn’t really get to benefit from the company’s growth.’

And so, aged 32 and with a wife and three kids to support, he launched Ashworth Mairs. One reason taking the plunge was such a gamble is that no one had set up an independent loss adjusting company in the UK for more than 50 years. It simply wasn’t done. Loss adjusting, explains Mairs, is akin to a bank. The market is dominated by a few organisations, many of which operate internationally. ‘The big players in the business were perceived to be too strong to go up against, but I still had the urge to fulfil my dream of running my own business.’

Gamble pays off
The gamble turned out to be a calculated one. Within a month of setting up, the company got its first £1 million case. ‘Once that happened it became evident to me that the business was going to work out. But in order to thrive it was imperative to expand nationally. I didn’t want to take partners and I intended to expand using cashflow. Cash is king and it’s something we always kept a scrupulous eye on. After all, it’s the bottom line that matters.’

Two years later, Ashworth Mairs was operating three offices. Because the company was new with business coming in, it was able to invest in the latest technology from the outset, giving the firm a definite advantage over larger, more traditional established companies with their antiquated computer systems and methods of working.

The company has gone on to develop a reputation for being innovative. While companies traditionally rewarded good employees by promoting them to management, Mairs had other ideas. ‘Moving qualified staff into management represented a loss of sales in my view,‘ he says. ‘It’s the depth and breadth of thought that I wanted to capture from my employees, so I put them in roles they were comfortable with and instead of moving them up to management I offered attractive remuneration. Most are still with us today.’

Yet it wasn’t all plain sailing. One of the firm’s clients accounted for 40 per cent of total turnover, a common problem for many small and growing companies. When it merged with another business, a move Mairs admits he wasn’t keen on, he deliberately distanced the company from the client.

Although a risk, in that additional revenue would quickly have to be generated to make up for the loss of business, it was a sensible move that worked out well in the end. To plug the gap, Mairs looked overseas and quickly established links with Antigua, which had just suffered a devastating hurricane. The company now covers catastrophe response in the West Indies and also gained a United Nations accreditation for claims after Iraqi hostilities (when Saddam Hussein first invaded Kuwait).

Ensuring a strong future
Mairs admits that since 1992 a number of small independent players have come onto the market and, in spite of loss adjusting going through a torrid time, there are opportunities available and others could go in and take market share. For Ashworth Mairs, growth is in diversification. ‘I am looking to expand the concept of professional services, particularly on the claims management side. We have a network in place to provide our clients’ clients with complementary services such as carpet and building repairers, which we can project-manage on behalf of the customer. It’s a form of adding value.’

Looking back on his experiences, Mairs credits much of the success to his team. ‘I’ve been blessed to be able to work alongside kindred spirits, who drove the business forward. At the highest level there has been total stability and we have young people in place that are capable of taking on the baton,’ he declares. But family played a vital role. ‘I’m very lucky in that I have a secure family life. It gave me the freedom to secure my dream but at the same time it kept my feet on the ground. After all, my wife still expects me to put the bins out.’

Leslie Copeland

Gordon Yost

Leslie was made Editor for Growth Company Investor magazine in 2000, then headed up the launch of Business XL magazine, and then became Editorial Director in 2007 for the online and print publication portfolio...

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