FIVE YEARS ago Ryan Howsam was locked in a fit of soul-searching. Go 2 Spain, his online travel agency, was struggling as Howsam was caught out by fluctuating exchange rates. But Staysure, a travel insurer for the over-fifties, was paying off, thanks to pricier policies.
Go 2 Spain went into liquidation in August 2008. Howsam concentrated on Staysure and started to offer holidays and medical cover alongside travel insurance.
Today, Staysure employs 200 people at its headquarters in Northampton and 40 in Sri Lanka, where the company’s technology is developed.
Staysure turned over £20m last year and made a profit of £1m. It expects to report revenues of £30m when it files accounts in December.
That performance put Staysure in 28th place in last year’s Sunday Times Fast Track 100 of private companies with the fastest-growing sales. It showed an annualised growth of 97%.
Howsam was born and raised in Sheffield, where he attended Chaucer School with his younger sister Lindsey. His father was a carpenter, his mother a housewife.
He left school at 16 and began selling double glazing in an attempt to fund his dream of becoming a professional golfer.
A year later he moved on to selling burglar alarms for Nationwide Alarms in Leicestershire, and within two years he was southern sales director. “I knew sales had a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” said Howsam. “I decided to go into that and stopped playing golf.”
It meant that Howsam could squirrel away some savings. In 1997, he used his cash to buy 50% of Travel Talk, an adventure holidays company. Two years later he sold his shares and planned his own venture — travel insurance for golfers.
Starting off in 1999, First for Golf offered two-for-one golfing trips in Europe and insurance for golfers. “I employed underwriters to decide how much clients should pay for insurance and how much cover they should receive,” he said.
Howsam used developers in Sri Lanka to build his website. “I put a case to the Sri Lankan government and its board for overseas investment.”
He was granted permission to set up Intervest in Sri Lanka to house the developers for his British venture and to offer technology and software services. Today, Intervest has its 40-strong workforce and turned over £4.9m last year.
First for Golf stopped trading in 2002 because Howsam wanted to concentrate on Staysure, which he launched in 2004 after using his technical team in Sri Lanka to develop it.
Howsam invested £100,000 and set up a call centre in Gibraltar, where he had moved with his partner, Corinne Mandon, a property developer and interior designer.
Concerned that British consumers would be deterred by a business operating offshore, Howsam moved Staysure’s offices to Northampton in 2010.
His biggest business rival is Saga, which also focuses on the over-fifties market. “There are more consumers in that age bracket,” said Howsam, who makes his money from brokerage fees, claims handling fees and commission.
Travel insurance continues to be the company’s bestselling product, and he has poached staff from Saga. “I have vision and energy but there are better people to run this business day to day,” he said.
Howsam will spend £9m on marketing this year, £3m of it on television advertising. The company’s first television ad aired last December.
“The philosophy is to spend as much money on marketing as possible,” he said. “It’s all about having the balls to get ahead of the consumers by predicting their needs.”
He owns 95% of the business. The other 5% is held by his sister Lindsey, 41, Staysure’s head of HR and facilities. “I don’t want to bring in a private equity firm and sell part of the company,” he said.
Howsam, 47, lives in Gibraltar with Corinne and their 14-year-old daughter, Romane. He visits Britain on business six days a month.
His advice to entrepreneurs is to be patient and to persevere with one idea. “My biggest error was not staying focused on one business for long enough,” he said. “If you have a good idea, stick with it. You could be much richer.”