Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Elaine Fairfax, founder of Animal Friends

ELAINE FAIRFAX’S father was a pianist with a love of animals. “He always gave half his meal away to our cats,” she recalled about her father Frank Booth, a leading arranger for music publishers in London’s Tin Pan Alley and for several bands.

Fairfax, 60, inherited her father’s passion for pets, which led her and her husband Chris to set up Animal Friends, a pet insurer that has given more than £2m to animal charities since 2000. “Anyone passionate about animals would rather their money did some good than disappear into a faceless corporation,” she said.

Since it was founded in 1998, Animal Friends has sold more than 400,000 policies. Gross premiums have risen from £3m in 2008 to £45.5m in 2013.

Its growth earned the Wiltshire company a place in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list of the fastest-growing private businesses. In 2013 Animal Friends generated revenues of £11.7m and gave £500,000 to charity from profits of £2m.

Born in Brighton, Fairfax is the second of three sisters with one elder brother. The family moved to Thornton Heath, near Croydon, when she was four to cut the commute to London. Her mother was a housewife.

Fairfax left Norbury Manor School for Girls in south London at 15 with no qualifications “except some horse-riding exams”. Her first job was as a General Post Office telephone operator in London. She hopped between secretarial jobs before getting work with the Formula One team Trojan Racing in 1974. “Unfortunately they managed only one season, but it was an amazing experience.”

Fairfax left Trojan to work for a Ford dealership in Croydon for two years before joining Ranks Hovis McDougall in its transport department. When the office was closed in 1980 she moved on to manage transport fleets for British Gas.

She met her husband in 1984 at a riding stables in Croydon, and they married two years later. Chris, a solicitor and barrister, set up a legal practice in Poole, Dorset, in 1990, specialising in the marine leisure sector. Elaine joined that year, becoming practice manager.

The couple sold the firm in 2000 to concentrate on Animal Friends. They moved to West Sussex and ploughed £120,000 into the fledgling business.

“We were treading water for two years, trying to get the business off the ground,” said Fairfax, who is the managing director. “We went for broke, took huge loans and sold our souls living off credit cards — it was a pretty desperate time but we always had the belief Animal Friends would work.”

The insurer offers seven different policies for dogs, cats and horses, including lifetime cover for conditions such as arthritis. “To be honest, all pet insurance policies are fairly similar,” said Fairfax. “We stand out because we give so much to charity.”

The recipients of her largesse include the Born Free Foundation, World Horse Welfare, the RSPCA and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. In December, Fairfax, dressed as Santa, drove around the country giving out cheques totalling £150,000. “Winter is a tough time for any charity,” she said.

“Helping animals comes first but it is important to support the people mucking out horses or feeding hedgehogs on Christmas Day. They need a pat on the back.”

Animal Friends is one of the biggest pet insurance providers in Britain, alongside the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Fairfax is aiming for top spot. In June last year she bought office buildings in Amesbury, Wiltshire, and has permission to build two more on the site.

IT systems are a priority for her business. “Technology is changing every second. It’s a huge job to stay ahead of the market. You can’t stand still,” she said.

Last year, Fairfax introduced Pawtal, which cuts the need for policyholders to fill in a claim form by processing information straight from the vet.

She has also hired more customer service staff. “I take customer interaction very seriously. I want to run this business the way I would like to be treated.”

If a claimant’s pet dies she sends a handwritten letter of condolence. “I love to write and it brings some comfort to the owner.”

She owns 60% of Animal Friends. The private equity investor CV6 bought the balance in 2008.

Fairfax’s great extravagance is the 1942 Spitfire she is restoring. The plane, called Mabel, may be ready to fly later this year. She and Chris, 57, live in Shaftesbury, Dorset.

Her advice to entrepreneurs is: “Be realistic about your achievements, stay focused and believe in what you want to do. And ensure you have the support of family and friends: nothing is worse than leaving a busy day at the office only to receive grief at home.”

Link to Sunday Times website

PDF – Elaine Fairfax of Animal Friends

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