The Walsall-headquartered group - the one-time fledgling division of South Staffs Water - has grown into a truly international business, employing more than 4,000 people in the UK alone.

The man in the driving seat is 41-year-old chief executive Richard Harpin, who has masterminded a rapid expansion which today sees the group valued at around 2 billion, with the share price soaring from 6 when the company floated just two years ago to stand at more than 15.50.

"My background was in marketing, and I turned up here on a four-week management consultancy assignment in 1992. South Staffs wanted to know whether launching a plumbing service was a good idea - and I said that it was, and that it should be sold in the same way that British Gas sold their boiler and heating cover," he said.

Homeserve currently employs more than 1,000 people at its head office in Cable Drive, off Green Lane, Walsall, in what was once the MEB complex.

But, thanks to its spectacular growth, another 600 jobs will be created over the next three years in a new 10 million office block being built on land next door.

"At the moment we have around 71,000 sq ft of space, and the new building will provide another 40,000 sq ft. We signed the deal on the site in April, and it will be ready for occupation by April 2007. It was previously an electrical distribution depot, and we have been given some assistance by regional development agency Advantage West Midlands to secure the expansion.

"There is a global business out there. Every homeowner in the world has a problem in getting a tradesman in an emergency - it is not just limited to the UK.

"And we believe we can send a man in a van to do a repair anywhere in the world. Homeserve can become global. I believe the test will come in five or six years time, and that will be whether Homeserve is a generic name," he said.

Homeserve started life as a plumbing and drains business, and has developed to include electrical wiring, pest control, showers and appliances and more.

"We now do anything that needs cover in the home, selling people a policy to cover any event. We really are the AA of home emergencies," he said.

Homeserve has sold five million policies in the UK, and another 500,000 overseas - where the operation is still in its infancy - although it is building the business in France, the US, and is set to move into Spain in September.

The majority of its policies, over three million, cover plumbing and drains and sell for 64.95 a year. And that will cover customers for up to 6,000.

Twenty two per cent of UK households now have plumbing and drainage cover, compared with 65 per cent who have vehicle breakdown cover, and more than 30 per cent who have British Gas heating cover.

"So there is the real possibility of almost trebling business, and that is just in the UK. We have more opportunities than ever in the 13-year history of the business.

"The focus of the business is to grow organically, but we have significant funds available to make acquisitions. The plan is to look for additional acquisitions that are very much part of what we currently do - in other words buying competitors.

"The only two things we want to do as a business are sell home insurance policies, and then send a man with a van to carry out the repairs," he added.

As well as the 1,000 "branded" tradesmen, operating from a network of 37 "local" depots, the company can also call on thousands of other sub-contractors - but over time expects more and more of its people to be directly employed.

Richard actually lives in York, with his wife and three young children, and travels by chauffeur-driven car -or if the situation warrants it, by helicopter.

"I start work at 5.30 in the morning, and it takes around two and-a-half hours, but it gives me a good start to the day. I do stay locally a bit during the week.

"I also have to travel quite a bit, visiting our international operations, but it would be fair to say that I spend around half my working week here in Walsall.

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