CBL boss Peter Harris is a reluctant 'entrepreneur', finds Hamish Fletcher.

Peter Harris doesn't like being called an "entrepreneur" - but that's the category in which he will be representing New Zealand.

The insurance boss and founder of CBL Corporation has been crowned EY Entrepreneur of the Year, and next June will head to Monte Carlo to face off against 50 businesspeople in a global challenge.

"I've never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur," the 62-year-old said on the night of the awards.


"I'm not sure I particularly enjoy the label frankly, but it's worked out."

A week on from getting the top prize, Harris says he is beginning to warm to the idea.

"I think I am accepting it a little more, I don't want to appear ungracious at all," he tells the Weekend Herald.

"It's a little hard sometimes to make insurance sound sort of sexy and entrepreneurial, but it was good to be able to do it the other night."

Harris, who grew up in the Waikato but spent the bulk of his working life in Auckland, has been in the insurance industry for almost three decades.

When he took the helm at CBL, the business had two workers and one office.

Over 17 years, managing director Harris has grown the company to become an NZX-listed specialist insurer and reinsurer with almost 550 employees across 25 countries.

CBL's "DNA" is in the building and contracting industry, Harris says.

In the residential market, that involves giving home owners guarantees that a builder will finish the job.

"If the builder can't finish the house -- and generally it's because they've gone broke -- we will step in to finish the house and deliver it to the owner and guarantee it's free from defects or fix those defects," he says.

One of CBL's most successful programmes has been in Mexico, where it has more than 5 million homes under warranty.

CBL provides structural guarantees on new homes for 10 years, and that cover has allowed young Mexican couples to access Government loans and buy their first homes.

"And it's been phenomenally successful ... since [the homes] are all poured concrete, we've had very few claims," he says.

When doing business in Mexico, says Harris, being a New Zealander is a definite advantage.

"This is probably a little controversial, but we can be in Mexico for example, and as soon as the Mexicans realise we're not gringos then it all gets really easy," he says.

CBL has projects coming up on the Mexican-US border, and asked if President Donald Trump has caused any complications, Harris says: "Not really, although it's a little embarrassing to be sitting with some pretty wonderful Mexican businessmen or colleagues and seeing some of the rhetoric that was coming down. It's not so much directed at Mexicans right now, but it was for a while."

As well as North America, CBL also does building warranties in the likes of France, Australia, and Scandinavia.

And while some 98 cent of its revenue -- which hit $333.5m in 2016 -- comes from overseas markets, CBL also provides these guarantees in its home country.

Building guarantees, however, aren't compulsory here -- and Harris can't understand why.

"I'm talking my own book a little bit if I was to say it should be mandatory ... but most home owners are not qualified to look at a builder's financials and their financial ability so some of them get into trouble".

While the company has benefited from New Zealand's construction boom, Harris says CBL needs to be "very careful in the good times".

"Some people think your claims will go up and it's more risky when the building sector is going down. But in fact it's the other way round. When you've got a hot building sector, that's when the cowboys come in. People are taking on a lot of deposits and maybe more in some cases than they're capable of building," he says.

CBL also deals with most of the world's airlines, protecting them in the event that travel agencies fall over and don't pass on ticket money.

"We don't do travel insurance, but we do guarantee that the travel agent's not going to go broke. If they do and they haven't passed on travellers' monies, the airlines will say 'we'll still carry you, we'll honour the ticket' and in reality they're claiming on our insurance policy," he says.

Harris travels a lot in his role but enjoys sailing in his spare time and has an interest in a racing keelboat.

And although he spent yesterday sailing in the Coastal Classic from Auckland to the Bay of Islands, Harris says he doesn't get out on the water as much as he'd like.

"But when we do it's pretty special."