I paid £62million in tax – why can’t Amazon cough up? Asks Insurance tycoon Sir Peter Wood

Judged by the standards of most tycoons, insurance entrepreneur Sir Peter Wood, founder of Direct Line, Esure and Go Compare, is a laid-back figure.

A fit septuagenarian, he likes nothing better than to spend time on the tennis court or playing golf, and loves personally to direct promotional campaigns as he constantly invents and backs innovation.

A spare figure with a glint in his eye, Wood is a great patriot who never thinks twice about paying his full whack of taxes in Britain when so many on the Sunday Times Rich List choose to base themselves offshore.

Flipping Florida: Sir Peter Wood, founder of Direct Line, Esure and Go Compare, with Weflip mascot Bruce 

In August 2018, Wood sold most of his personal stake in Esure – the insurance company that specialises in providing cover to women drivers – to private equity firm Bain, collecting £360million for his holding. 

The deal landed him with a capital gains tax liability of £62million, placing him among the UK’s top ten taxpayers.

Wood cannot abide high-rolling tax avoiders, who he regards as essentially unpatriotic. ‘I have no problem paying my taxes. 

Maggie (Thatcher) brought them down. Remember the 83 per cent tax, 98 per cent for some people?’ he recalls over dinner in his favourite restaurant, Mosimann’s, in London’s elegant Belgravia.

‘What I really hate are people like [Sir Richard] Branson who drones on and on and uses tax havens.

‘Then there are Amazon and Apple that take advantage of tax havens. That’s disgraceful. They are wiping out the High Street. Amazon’s a great company and I have bought shares. But it should be paying up.’

Wood is irritated by the inaction of the Chancellor. ‘Philip Hammond’s talked about it. But he’s never done anything. Competition [from Amazon] is fine.

‘I know it’s quite difficult but sometimes you have got to go there and level the playing field.’

Hammond has started to listen. Last night he called for global action to fix the digital tax issue.

In spite of his frustration with the Conservatives, Wood cannot bear to even contemplate a government headed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

‘My grandfather was in the First World War, my father in the Second World War.

‘To think we might get a Marxist, anti-Semitic prime minister is horrifying,’ he says.

‘I’m a full taxpayer here, even though I could easily go somewhere else. But this is my home. I would do anything to make sure he doesn’t get in.’

Wood has an estate in the billionaire’s playground of Palm Beach, Florida, adjacent to President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. He also has a sprawling home in Esher, Surrey, and a mansion in elegant Beacon Hill, Boston.

Flipping Florida: Sir Peter 's Florida estate in Palm Beach. He also has a sprawling home at Esher in Surrey and a mansion on elegant Beacon Hill in Boston

Flipping Florida: Sir Peter ‘s Florida estate in Palm Beach. He also has a sprawling home at Esher in Surrey and a mansion on elegant Beacon Hill in Boston

But at home he is the biggest donor to prostate cancer research at UCL Hospital in London, where he has paid for the latest radiology equipment and sponsors a leading professor.

He said: ‘I’m away a lot but proud of being British. I’m not so proud as I used to be because I am ashamed of the politics. Corbyn is a step too far.

‘I couldn’t live with the idea that when you turn on the TV, he’s coming out of Number 10.’

He is a huge fan of Thatcher and bought many of her clothes and effects when they came for sale and is arranging exhibits in both the US and in London. 

But he finds it disappointing that the Victoria & Albert Museum has such a limited display of effects from Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.

The botched Brexit and the prospect of Corbyn has not stopped Wood investing in Britain. His latest project is to re-invigorate the comparison website he pioneered at Esure.

The comparison space has become very crowded and very competitive with players that include the ‘meerkat’ Compare-The Market, MoneySuperMarket and Confused.com.

So Wood, who maintains a 29 per cent stake in Go Compare, has been investing heavily in next-generation algorithms and IT with the goal of stealing a march on competitors. The solution he and his executive team have come up with is a new service called Weflip.

Once you are signed up to Weflip it will scan the market for services and automatically switch you to the best deals as they come up, without you having to do anything. It has even incorporated a payments system which will automatically transfer direct debits and standing orders.

‘When I explain Weflip I always use the analogy of my six daughters. They never say to me, ‘Dad, I’m going to renew my car or home insurance tomorrow. I am so looking forward to it’.

‘But if I say to them, ‘Would you like to go to Worth Avenue [the upmarket shopping emporium], in Palm Beach, to Rodeo Drive or Bond Street in London and we will go to Chanel or L’Oreal’, they say, ‘Oh, Dad, wonderful’.’

His point is that nobody wants to spend time shopping around for utilities, so Weflip will free them up to do what they enjoy.

Wood has to be cautious about doing Weflip for insurance because he is still chairman of Esure and doesn’t want to upset owners Bain.

But it is ready to go into the energy market having secured deals with almost all of the providers.

The new service could flip customers as many as four times a year or, if you are on a good deal, it ‘may not flip you until the end of the year.’

Having sorted the technology, Wood, who has always enjoyed being his own creative and marketing director, is turning to promotion of the brand.

His chosen emblem is a chameleon Bruce, which has an Aussie accent.

He said: ‘I am really good at brands and love doing that stuff. That’s what I enjoy much more than audit committees and risk committees.

‘I’m looking at silly things like why don’t we give out badges at underground stations. ‘Have you flipped? We flipped’.’

When Wood launched Direct Line, he had no money so he sponsored a tennis event. Now he can be more inventive in his marketing.

Wood also enjoys dabbling in property. He has become a property developer in Palm Beach. And in London he has redeveloped the old BBC studios in Marylebone High Street.

‘I built 19 apartments and five town houses,’ he said. ‘We have sold most of them, including one for £6.5million three weeks ago. In the current political world, that is amazing.’

He may lead the millionaires’ lifestyle but is proud of the fact that unlike so many contemporaries, he does not hide away in tax havens and come and go to the UK without checking the calendar and the number of days in residence.

Wood is a modest entrepreneur who still gets a kick out of building enterprises.


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