Hayley Parsons may have skived off school but she worked hard to transform the insurance industry, as Maria McGeoghan reports.
Now I know what real success looks like It’s having not one but two personal Welsh dragons guarding your home.
And what a home it is. Perched atop a hill in rural South Wales is a glitzy and glamorous mansion owned by Haley Parsons, the woman who set up the Go Compare price comparison website.
She sold out two years ago for £50m, and she’s probably the cheeriest and most down-to-earth millionaire I’ve ever met.
After our BQ photo shoot, she takes off her bright red high heels, makes me a brew and settles down in to her sofa to tell me how she transformed from a school-dodging teenager into one of our most successful businesswomen.
It’s a tale of bravery, loyalty, life-changing decisions made over champagne and an unerring instinct about when to move on.
She’s now on a mission to help other Welsh entrepreneurs realise their potential. But back to the beginning.
“I didn’t get on with school - it wasn’t for me,” says Parsons with a giggle. “I’d skive off at any opportunity. I craved for the day that I could leave school and have my independence.
“I think I held the record for six weeks of continual skiving. My mum worked in the afternoons and my skiving buddy’s mum worked in the mornings. We would watch them drive away. When the school called I’d answer the phone and pretend to be my mum. I pretty much pulled it off. My brother skived off just once and got caught by my mum. I was better at it than him.
“I’ve always been quite stubborn and determined. I wanted to make my own rules. Yes, my mum was called to the school. It didn’t do me any harm.”
And looking around her bright, shiny and vast home - which features a bar that wouldn’t be out of place in a top end hotel, and a six foot model of Betty Boop - it’s hard to disagree.
Parsons, 43, who is married with two children, sat her GCSEs but never bothered to go back to school to pick up her results. “I wasn’t bothered. I’ve never really needed them on my CV. I got my first job straight from school and after that I was usually head hunted for other jobs.”
So is that good luck or charm or both? “Oh, it’s all of that,” laughs Parsons. “I’ve always been an extremely hard worker. I‘ve always loved the work environment.”
Her first job was with an insurance broker making the tea and coffee, doing the filing and writing out cover notes. Remember them?
“It was just half a mile from my home in Cwmbran. I could roll out of bed and get in to work. I wanted to push myself forward to dealing with customers. I loved working with people.”
She stayed there for two years until she had a call from an insurance chain to run a branch in Caerphilly at just 18. Even as a teenager her reputation went before her. “My reputation has served me well throughout the industry. I think I’m someone who makes things happen and gets things done.”
And nice with it? “Not always,” says Parsons with a grin. “I remember someone saying that I would do whatever I could to get my own way, which is a bit harsh. I have mellowed over the years.”
From there she went to work for Admiral insurance in Cardiff working on the sales team where she pestered the managers to set up an insurance broker for them. So she set up Gladiator insurance, which is still going strong.
A big change in the industry was on its way and Admiral was at the forefront with the idea of Confused.com. “The next evolution was to quote the whole market in one place. This was a really fundamental change in the insurance distribution market. It completely turned everything on its head,” says Parsons.
“There was nothing in the market place already. Technology was a lot easier and we’d moved from face to face, to telephone, to the internet.”
She started work on Confused in 1999 and it was launched in 2002. “It took us a long time to get it off the ground. My job was to convince the insurance companies and brokers that this was the next big thing. That was the hardest job I’ve had in my life convincing them.
“There was a shift in power, and it was all for benefit of the customer. It gave them more and more control.
“It completely rocked the industry. Bit by bit I ground the insurance companies down. I said ‘Just trust me. Give it a shot. I promise you that we will make this work’.”
Parsons worked hard, had a lot of fun, and met her future husband while working on the launch of this insurance game-changer. “The group that was launching Confused, we were in our 20s. We were single. We were out on the town. We were having lots of fun. We would go to work. Go straight out in to town. Stay out most of the night. Get a couple of hour’s sleep and then rock up in to work again at 7am the next morning. I met my husband during those Confused days.
“I told him I would go out with him but not for months. I didn’t have the time before the launch. He waited two and a half months. Two kids later we are good and fine.
“By the time we got to Go Compare we were settled down, we were married, we had kids. No staying up all night unless it was for baby sick and poo.”
The spark for leaving Confused to set up Go Compare is both breath-taking in its audacity and the perfect story for anyone who has failed to get an internal promotion and dreams of some sort of spectacular revenge.
“I was really peeved,” says Parsons, still looking annoyed all these years later. “Really, really peeved. It should have been me. I worked with the new person to make sure everything was ok and then thought ‘What is the next thing for me?’ I knew the price comparison market better than anyone else in the industry.”
A meeting in 2006, and two bottles of Champagne, changed her life. “I was out one night with a business contact at Celtic Manor, and we drank a couple of bottles of Champagne. I was feeling really miffed with the industry, with not getting this job.
“We got drunk and chatted about the future. I told him I wanted to launch my own comparison website because I could do it better than anyone else could do it. We drank more champagne, we laughed. And we shook hands and said we would set up our own site. I’ll say something and then I’ll think ‘Shit, I’ve said it. I’d better do it now’.”
Even though she was told that there was an investor who would back her, she wouldn’t see him until she had completed a big project at Confused six weeks later.
She talked to her Confused colleague and best friend Lee Griffin who agreed to come with her even though they had no business plan, name or office. She added IT expert Dan Cassell to the team and met her investor.
“Within 20 minutes of meeting him he had agreed to back me for £1.5m. He’s called Tom Duggan. I knew he was the one for me. At the end I told him we were resigning the next day. My loyalty wouldn’t allow me to do something in the background while carrying on working. We were all ready to move on. People overthink and scare themselves off doing things.”
Her news was met with shock, disappointment, and a bit of panic. “They asked me to leave straight away and come back the following day. It was a really tough time, I had a cold sweat come over me and I thought I’m responsible for Lee and Dan for the rest of my life. They are proper, good, true friends. They still are.”
Go Compare was started with nothing but an idea, a lot of drive and a willingness to succeed. “We had nothing. No office. No laptops. We started planning while sitting around my dining room table in my little house in Newport.” Her son was just three at the same and great support from her husband and her mum allowed her the time to make everything work.
Remembers Parsons: “We didn’t have a clear plan. We were making it up as we went along. The name took us a long time. It was really bloody hard.”
When they hit on Go Compare the domain price was US$10,000 but they negotiated it down to US$3,000. It’s now priceless.
The do it yourself theme continued when they bought books on how to develop in .NET, SEO and PPC for dummies. “We learned how to do it all ourselves,” says Parsons. “We all worked remotely but we used to meet at the local pub to plan everything out, mainly because the boys liked the clotted cream ice cream they had there.”
The next step was to buy office space in Newport and start to fill it with people and equipment. “I remember standing in this big space and thinking how are we going to fill it. We bought desks from Ikea and every new member of staff had to build their desk.”
Steadily and surely, in between space hopper races and games of poker, they got the business ready to launch.
Parsons’ second bout of cold sweat happened when she took out a £30m loan to build up the business. “I remember the cold sweat. This was an exciting moment. We decided to go aggressively for market share and we got stronger and stronger. Our timing was right. Our proposition was right. It was a beautiful thing to see an amazing thing to be part of.”
They then heard on the insurance grapevine that Tesco was about to launch its own comparison site and they took their business up a few gears.
“I thought this could be the end of us. There were flashing lights. Danger, danger, danger. We had to become the dominant player in the next six months before they launched.
“We spent four years of budget in a year. We predicted a £10m loss but it came in at £8.5m. I was delighted with that. We threw the kitchen sink at it. Their plan was to take us out so we went as big and crazy as we could. We’d had that time to really build our brand and dominate the market. Having that threat really made us change our plans.”
The now iconic – yet annoying – opera singer ads were unleashed, and the rest is history.
When Hayley sold out two years ago the turnover was £100m with £36m profit. It was the right decision for her but tough to do. “Go Compare was a well-oiled machine. It was time. It was always about build it, grow it, and sell it, but it was heart-breaking to walk away.
“I try and deal with my emotions separately to the business. I never look back and regret anything. Everything happens for a reason. I cried the whole day that last day and stayed to turn the lights off.”
She spent the first year concentrating on her health and wellbeing and lost more than eight stones. She still has a strict 2,200 calories a day, works out every day and completed a charity bike ride around the Canadian Rockies.
She helps, mentors and invests in some businesses and is part of Be The Spark, a Welsh Government project to boost the entrepreneurial agenda. Parsons is also part of Inspire Wales, where she and 19 men invest and help in businesses. She has a reputation for helping and supporting people, spotting skills they haven’t seen in themselves.
“They are a fantastic group of people. We invest in high-risk exciting things. I have no intention of running anything myself but I see my role as bringing through the new, young entrepreneurs. I won’t do the work for them, but I will help them on their journey.
And her advice for those upcoming entrepreneurs? “Don’t think about it for too long. You can convince yourself not to do it. Shit is always going to happen. You just have to deal with it and move on. Strap your balls on and go for it.
“I walk around this house and I appreciate and enjoy everything that I have.”
I ask if she would like to be part of the Dragons’ Den panel – which she would be perfect for. Her answer is typical Parsons. “Oh no. I like to go to the Harvester with my family and no-one know who I am.”