IT may be a local landmark, but the insurer now known as LV= was not thriving when its new chief executive first took a job with the business.

Bournemouth-born Richard Rowney returned to the south coast in 2007 to become the organisation’s chief operating officer.

As a local, he had grown up with some knowledge of the Frizzell brand, largely because it had given its name to the County Gates roundabout. It had since been taken over by Liverpool Victoria.

“Liverpool Victoria was a company that was financially very strong but wasn’t making any money at all,” says the 45-year-old father-of-one.

“We were 1,700 staff and shrinking and now we’re 6,000 staff and growing. We had two million customers and shrinking and now we’ve got six million customers and members and growing.”

Mr Rowney had known the mutual’s recently appointed chief executive, Mike Rogers, during his own 15-year career with Barclays.

“I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Mike as a business leader. I knew whatever he wanted to achieve would be something that would be interesting and worth a look,” he says.

The growth, under the new brand name LV=, would be based on the idea that “customer service is everything”.

Mr Rowney says he got a grounding in customer service in childhood, when he helped his family run the Bourne Dene hotel on Bournemouth’s East Cliff.

“I did everything, from a very young age,” he says.

“Some of my earliest memories were being the person who would greet the guests as they arrived and I would take their bags up to their rooms for them.”

A family-run business is “incredibly hard work”, he says.

“It does teach you a lot of basic discipline of being there on time, being able to juggle a lot of different things, working under pressure.”

A lover of the outdoors, he went to the University of Leeds to study geography, and earned a first class degree.

While considering a career in business, he inadvertently picked up information about Barclays instead of British Gas Exploration and decided to fill it out anyway. He went on to do an MBA with Barclays and to work for the bank at locations including Canary Wharf and Leeds.

But he “fell out of love with Barclays” shortly before the banking crisis. After completing the general management programme at Harvard, he decided to make the move back to Dorset.

During his time at LV=, as chief operating officer and then MD of life and pensions, an operating loss of £20.1million has been turned into a £195m profit. More than 80 per cent of customers renew their policies, while 92 per cent of staff say they are proud to work there.

Mr Rowney insists customer service has been key to the transformation. The company is the UK’s most recommended insurer, but wants to measure itself against favourite brands like John Lewis and Amazon.

“We stick to things like UK-only call centres. We’ve probably got one of the most expensive call centres in the country,” he says.

In November 2013, when storms wrecked many cars parked at Dover Docks while their owners were on a cruise, customer service staff took it upon themselves to react.

“They’d worked out that one in 10 cars in the UK are insured with us – there were 200 cars that had been damaged, therefore there were at least 20 that LV= insured,” he said.

Staff set up a stand at the docks and had 25 hire cars ready for LV= policy-holders when they arrived home. The experience is now “cascaded” through the company as an example of excellent service.

“They just did that off their own bat,” says Mr Rowney.

At a time when many customers buy purely on price, Mr Rowney insists customer service can be more important.

“It’s easy to just shop around on price but wait till the time you need to make a claim,” he says.

Despite its size, LV= is “entrepreneurial” and can make decisions quickly, he says.

“The industry don’t like us. We frustrate the industry because we want to be a challenger brand.”