5 0 Y E A RS O F SOS I NTERNATI ONAL
It all started with self-drive tourism SOS International celebrated its 50th anniversary on 3 May 2011. Here is the history of the organisation from the very start in 1961 to 2011.
Towards the end of the 1950s, the level of affluence in Denmark was rising, and more and more people could afford cars. As a result, many families chose to drive to other countries in Europe for their holidays. This inevitably led to the first incidents of mechanical breakdowns, accidents and damage abroad, and generated a
An ambulance from Räddningskåren, which was one of the original owners of SOS International.
need for roadside assistance schemes that extended beyond Danish borders.
base of language skills and an impres-
The full-time staff increased to ten,
The Royal Danish Automobile Club
sive ability to improvise and come
and three of the employees handled
(Kongelig Dansk Automobil Klub –
up with smart solutions. These two
all calls and divided the on-call shifts
KDAK) was one of the first organisa-
companies therefore decided to ac-
between them. One of these three
tions to provide this kind of service,
quire the business and on 3 May 1961,
was actually the company’s head of
via a collaborative venture with the
SOS International was established as a
accounts, who was happy to take on
Zone Rescue Corps. Together, they
limited liability company with KDAK,
extra shifts because there was not
formed SOS International, which
Räddningskåren and Thule as its own-
enough accounting work to keep him
started off with a staff of 4–5 people
ers. In the meantime, the company
occupied full time.
working from a small office in the
had expanded its coverage to include
centre of Copenhagen.
the whole of Western Europe, and
Becoming big business
had incorporated personal assistance
The company had its hands full as early
services abroad into its concept.
as in 1965, when almost all Swedish,
Improvisation and effective solutions
Finnish and Norwegian insurance
SOS International was initially an
companies – along with the Danish
operation that ran at a significant loss,
The 4–5 full-time staff moved into
company Europæiske Vare- og Rejse-
but as the number of people travel-
new premises in Copenhagen, which
godsforsikring A/S – signed agree-
ling both on business and for pleasure
were to remain the headquarters of
ments to use SOS International as a
was rising sharply, the future looked
SOS International for the rest of the
shared Nordic assistance organisation.
very bright. It did not take long for the
decade. The company’s operations
This led to a new round of appoint-
Swedish assistance company Rädd
then underwent a period of vigorous
ments and resulted in the hiring of
ningskåren AB and – later – the insur-
development. In 1962, an agreement
medical professionals. Annual turn
ance company Thule to become aware
was signed with the Scandinavian
over, which had been barely DKK 1 mil-
of the activities of the little Danish
airline SAS and the Swedish Minis-
lion when the company was founded in
emergency centre. Not only did the
try of Foreign Affairs, and in 1963
1961, had grown to an impressive DKK
Danish operation possess a good deal
Thule launched the world’s first travel
13.5 million by the end of the decade.
of knowledge in its chosen field, but it
insurance package that included SOS
There was no doubt that SOS Interna-
had quickly acquired an appropriate
tional was becoming big business!
2 / 50-year anniversary
A rescue helicopter from Osterman has just brought in a patient for onward transport.
The 60’s In the early days, the most advanced piece of equipment SOS International possessed was a telex machine.
A patient is transported from an air ambulance to a local hospital in Sweden.
Assistance and recovery vehicles from Räddningskåren at the scene of a traffic accident.
A helicopter from Osterman lands at a local airfield in Sweden.
How to find your way to the City of Light – without the aid of Google Maps…
SOS International staff in front of a Sikorsky rescue helicopter from the Danish defence forces.
The interior of an Aérospatiale Caravelle air ambulance.
Emergency centre staff discuss a claim with their supervisor.
The 70’s The telex department at SOS International on Vesterbrogade.
4 / 50 års jubilæum Even a shiny new BMW can need a lift from SOS International.
There is always room for one more when SOS International takes care of the towing.
Børge Brandt, CEO, at the entrance to SOS International’s new premises in Copenhagen.
5 0 Y E A RS O F SOS I NTERNATI ONAL
New owners and new assignments Despite the oil crisis and international stagnation, SOS continued to grow throughout the 1970s. Danish automobile insurance companies joined the circle of owners, and SOS International added large new assignments to its order book via comprehensive shared insurance schemes.
1 January 1970 was a red-letter day for
In fact, improvisation was very much
SOS International. That was the date
the order of the day as the only tools
on which all Danish automobile insur-
that the assistance coordinators had
ance companies entered into the SOS
to work with were a telephone, a case
collaboration scheme via a European
registration form, a pen and a long list
roadside assistance programme known
of important phone numbers.
as Det Røde Kort (“the Red Card”).
Computers still belonged to the world
SOS International now organised
of science fiction back then. The most
roadside assistance throughout
advanced piece of equipment that SOS
Europe and handled travel claims in
International possessed was a telex
most parts of the world for Nordic
machine, which was used for corre-
insurance clients. The company grew in step with the
spondence with hospitals, airlines and Aérospatiale Caravelle air ambulance.
recovery companies, for example.
increasing popularity of package holidays and the rise in self-drive
veterans of the French Foreign Legion.
From barber’s shop to
A trait they all shared was the fact
The period 1971–73 also saw the intro
that they had travelled the world and
The staff therefore did a lot of writing,
duction of the Danish public travel
acquired experience in a variety of
both longhand and on typewriters.
insurance scheme, and SOS Interna-
areas before returning home for one
Their desks groaned beneath the
tional was chosen to deal with cases
reason or another. As such, they pos-
weight of stacks of paper, which were
of serious illness abroad that neces-
sessed good language skills, extensive
passed around between the growing
sitated hospitalisation and transport
knowledge of other cultures and the
number of assistance coordinators.
back to Denmark. In 1973, the Danish
ability to tackle problematic situations
SOS International first attempted to
automobile insurance companies also
on their own initiative. These skills
deal with the lack of space by renting
joined the group of owners behind
were worth their weight in gold at SOS
a former barber’s shop on the ground
International’s emergency centre.
floor of the building. Nevertheless, the staff were still
An eclectic group
A telephone and a pen
packed into the offices like sardines
The company now employed around
The vast majority of assistance cases
in a tin and the company was forced
30 people full time and had links to
still stemmed from European holiday
to recognise that the only option was
coordinating physicians and a team of
destinations. A call from Thailand
to move into more roomy premises. In
medical escorts comprising 50 or so
or Africa, for example, was a special
1978, SOS International took posses-
doctors and nurses. Slightly more than
event. Only a select few members of
sion of spacious new premises at a
half the full-time employees made up
staff were authorised to handle such
central location in Copenhagen, where
a rather eclectic group comprising
cases, which were reserved for the “old
it set up an ultra-modern office envi-
former ship’s officers, travel agents,
sweats” who had proved their worth
ronment in trendy shades of brown
embassy staff, waiters, chefs and even
and were skilled in improvisation.
50-year anniversary / 5
5 0 Y E A RS O F SOS I NTERNATI ONAL
Reports and records In the 1980s, the owners of SOS International commissioned an independent survey whose results finally quashed any doubts that might still exist concerning the profitability of the assistance organisation. At the same time, SOS International set new records – for the longest air ambulance flight, the number of assistance cases handled and annual turnover.
Aérospatiale Caravelle air ambulance. A medical escort checks that the drip is working properly.
Aérospatiale Caravelle air ambulance ready to pick up a patient from a Greek island.
The 1980s had barely begun before
had already been booked to bring the
appropriate network and sufficient
SOS International was called upon to
other patient home to Sweden. As a
volume, but questions still remained
deal with a very special assignment.
result, both the insurance companies
concerning what return the owners of
A young Swedish man was lying in a
involved received the best possible so-
SOS International actually received on
coma at a local hospital on the island
lution at half the normal price. More
of Tahiti and initially needed to be
over, the 4-day air ambulance flight
Against this background, the organi-
transferred to an ultra-modern hospi-
from Sweden to New Zealand and back
sation commissioned an expert from
tal in Auckland, New Zealand. While
again was entered in the Guinness
the financial research institute at the
he was hospitalised there, the com-
Book of Records as the longest of its
Stockholm School of Economics to
pany was to organise an air ambulance
kind in the world to date.
prepare a report on “The value of SOS
to fly him back to Sweden.
International to the non-life insur-
A few days before the scheduled take-
SOS laid its cards on the table
ance companies”. He was given access
off, SOS International was contacted
In spite of such examples of savings
to all SOS International’s financial
by a Swedish insurance company. A
made, some of the insurance com-
conditions, agreements with suppli-
comatose female patient at a hospital
panies in the circle of owners still
ers, expenses for dealing with claims,
in Lund, Sweden, had to be trans-
harboured doubts about the financial
work methods and the like. In June
ferred to Wellington in New Zealand,
benefits of outsourcing the handling
1981, the report – which comprised 32
and the company wanted to know how
of accidents and claims abroad.
closely typed pages – landed on the
much the air ambulance flight would
Everyone was well aware that it took
desks of the CEOs of the insurance
cost. SOS International replied that it
vast resources to build an emergency
would cost around half the standard
centre up from scratch and to ensure
price of DKK 880,000 as an aircraft
that it had the necessary skills, the
6 / 50-year anniversary
A helicopter lands at the airport in Hannover with casualties from a serious coach accident near Kassel.
A Sterling Airways Aérospatiale Caravelle ready to fly accident victims back to Denmark from the airport in Hannover.
The 80’s A German Federal Border Guard helicopter carrying crash victims lands at the airport in Hannover.
The crew on board the Sterling Airways Aérospatiale Caravelle at the airport in Hannover.
A board the plane, preparations are being made for transporting the people hurt in the coach crash near Kassel
Casualties waiting to be transferred from a helicopter to a passenger aircraft.
No price tag on the
Number of cases doubled
Travel insurance became
The owners of SOS International now
a lucrative business
The documentation was overwhelm-
had concrete documentation for what
At that time, the company Europæiske
ingly convincing. Whatever the owners
they had long suspected. There was
was more or less the only operator that
invested in SOS International, they
still room for improvement, however.
sold travel insurance policies – and
received more than twice as much in
Even though computers had been in-
the company had its own emergency
return in the form of savings. But that
troduced in 1982 to handle the organi-
centre. The Danish insurance compa-
was far from the biggest benefit. The
sation’s financial system and invoicing,
nies had in fact entered into an agree-
report stated: “Total savings amount
it was not until the end of the decade
ment not to use SOS International
to DKK 20 million, which is twice the
that the emergency centre started to
as their emergency centre for travel-
sum of the administration costs. The
make full use of the new technology.
biggest savings are achieved through
In the meantime, SOS International
However, more and more people were
services whose effect is difficult to ex-
continued to set records every year.
starting to travel abroad and travel
press in purely monetary terms, such
During the 1980s, the number of cases
insurance had become a lucrative field
as days in hospital saved at the site of
handled by the organisation doubled
of business. For this reason, more
the incident. SOS International’s
from around 10,000 to 20,000, and
and more of the companies were keen
linguistically skilled and experienced
turnover rose from almost DKK 100
to put an end to the old agreement –
contact doctors ensure not only
million to more than DKK 200 million
although several more years were to
that the stay in hospital is no longer
over the course of the same period.
pass before SOS International became
than necessary, but also that return
And this did not include the Danish
the pan-Nordic assistance company
transport is never approved until it is
insurance companies’ personal injury
for travel insurance policyholders.
50-year anniversary / 7
5 0 Y E A RS O F SOS I NTERNATI ONAL
Travel claims organisation for the Nordic region In the 1990s, the Danish insurance companies finally terminated the agreement not to use SOS International to deal with travel claims. The emergency centre continued to expand and new premises had to be found once more. However, SOS International was facing much more far-reaching changes.
A patient is waiting to be taken on board an air ambulance on Gran Canaria.
Jan Vanderhaegen in the former transport department on Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen.
In the early 1990s, Børge Brandt
Old agreement finally terminated
Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, from
celebrated 30 years of faithful service
The previous year – i.e. in 1996 – Alm.
where it still operates today. It was
to SOS International – including
Brand became the first Danish insur-
quite a task to move what had become
almost 20 years as its CEO. Backed by
ance company to start selling travel
an enormous emergency centre and
a strong management team and execu-
insurance backed by SOS service. The
the associated administration depart-
tive board, SOS International con-
Danish insurance companies had long
ment. To make the move logistically
tinued its good, stable development.
clung to their old agreement not to
possible, the organisation invested in
When Børge Brandt turned 60 in 1992,
use SOS International to handle travel
a data server identical to the one it was
he handed over the reins to Per Wulff,
claims, but the other Danish compa-
already using. Following the move, the
who had worked for the company
nies that sold travel insurance soon
old server was used as a back-up to
for 20 years and was therefore fully
followed Alm. Brand’s lead and turned
ensure 100% uptime on all crucial sys-
familiar with all the ins and outs of the
responsibility for handling their over-
tems. Moreover, a diesel generator and
business. Curt Gylling was appointed
seas cases over to SOS International.
an extra telephone switchboard were
Deputy CEO on the same occasion.
The organisation set up a special
installed as added security measures.
Over the next five years, Børge Brandt
department to focus exclusively on the
SOS International had thus taken the
travelled the world as an “SOS ambas-
Danish companies, and SOS Interna-
“belt and braces” approach to cover
sador”, spreading the word about the
tional had now grown so big that a new
breakdowns, outages and equipment
assistance organisation, making new
move was necessary.
failures of all kinds.
new business. He finally stepped down
Belt and braces
New deals and discounts
in 1997, bringing a long, illustrious
In autumn 1997, SOS International
The steadily increasing desire to travel
career to an end.
moved into new premises in
did more than just create a lucrative
contacts and preparing the ground for
8 / 50-year anniversary
A patient is collected from a hospital close to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Paramedics helping to transport an unfortunate Swedish skier to the airport in Innsbruck.
The 90’s A patient is transported by local ambulance to an airport in Nairobi.
Curt Gylling, Deputy CEO of SOS International for many years.
The SOS International passenger transport department on Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen.
An SOS Alarm ambulance collects an injured skier from an airport in Sweden.
market for the insurance companies.
This marked the start of the discount
the costs in accordance with a distri-
When people were injured or fell ill on
agreements that SOS International
bution template. A new budget was
holiday, private clinics and hospitals
currently has in place at all the most
drawn up each year, and every effort
were ready and waiting to treat them
popular travel destinations.
was made to abide by it. No funds
– but always at a price. In some cases,
were set aside for the development of
the medical providers even demanded
On the threshold of change
SOS International itself. At the end
financial guarantees before allowing
During the 1990s, SOS International’s
of the 1990s, the organisation’s sales
hospitalisation or treatment to com-
customers – the insurance companies
department in reality consisted of just
– were competing fiercely with the
a single person. Customers were pretty
Fortunately, by this stage SOS Inter-
banks for market share. The comba
much taken for granted, and contract
national had achieved such a size and
tants started to move in on each
negotiation was an unknown concept.
handled such a huge volume of cases
others’ core areas, and the insurance
However, the development that the
that the organisation had the muscle
industry became an arena of hectic
market was undergoing made it clear
to negotiate agreements and obtain
change, distinguished by new value
that SOS International simply had to
sizeable discounts on behalf of the
sets and new ways of selling insurance.
be transformed into a market-driven
insurance companies. With a folder in
All the while, SOS International
business if it was to survive in the long
her hand, SOS International’s Susanne
continued on its merry way, working
term. As the millennium approached,
Holst headed off on a negotiation tour
on the basis of a non-profit philosophy
SOS International stood on the thres
of the most frequently used suppliers.
where the owner companies covered
hold of major changes.
50-year anniversary / 9
5 0 Y E A RS O F SOS I NTERNATI ONAL
New threats – new opportunities The new millennium had barely begun before the familiar world order was shattered by terrorist attacks, epidemics and natural disasters that combined to create a new global image of risks and threats. In the midst of this great upheaval, SOS International was successfully transformed into a market-driven business. And then the financial crisis hit.
New life was breathed into the debate
a constant increase in turnover, new
about whether to turn SOS Interna-
products, new customers and strategic
tional into a market-driven business
acquisitions of companies in the other
when the time came to find a replace-
ment for Per Wulff, the outgoing CEO,
In January 2006, SOS International
at the same time as changes were
purchased the Swedish company
being made to the company’s board of
Skade och Räddningslarm AB (SOR-
AB); in January 2008 it added the
When Bo Uggerhøj took over top spot
Danish company Euro-Alarm A/S to
in 2001, he joined forces with the oth-
the portfolio, and in November 2008 it
er members of the management team
Local transport by air ambulance in Sweden after a patient has arrived on a scheduled flight.
took over the Norwegian organisation
to draw up a strategy plan. SOS Inter-
Global Medical Support. In addition, a
national was no longer to be owned by
Finnish division of SOS International
an association, but by shareholders, on
was opened in Helsinki in January
normal market terms.
However, the company had hardly started full-scale work on the process
Same quality at a lower price
when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took
The financial crisis broke in 2008 and
place. The volume of travel activity
knocked the bottom out of the insur-
plummeted, and the situation was exacerbated by the Bali bombings in
A giant tsunami crashed into the coast of Thailand on 26 December 2004.
2002, the SARS epidemic and the first
ance market. Turnover and revenues fell, while new operators and niche companies started to take new ap-
Gulf War in 2003 and the terrorist
general meeting. Shareholders then
proaches to selling insurance. Against
attack on Madrid and the devastating
injected DKK 20 million in new equity
the background of this sluggish mar-
tsunami in 2004.
into the company. Following a 3-year
ket distinguished by fierce competi-
In just a few years, the conventional
transitional period, SOS International
tion, the insurance industry – just like
world image had been completely
was to operate completely on normal
most other commercial sectors – was
redrawn by terror attacks, disease and
market terms as from 1 January 2007.
battling hard to crack the cost curve.
natural disasters on an unprecedented
Many people considered the expecta-
This increased demands on suppliers
scale. The main issue for the company
tions outlined in the plan to be unreal-
such as SOS International, which had
now was to keep the business on an
istically ambitious, but as it turned out
to work harder to deliver the same
the results actually achieved exceeded
quality at a lower price.
even the most optimistic projections.
Work was already underway to op-
Buoyed by the favourable market con-
timise and improve the efficiency of
In 2004, the new goals and plans for
ditions, SOS International embarked
systems and organisations, but the
the future of SOS International were
upon a development tour de force
new conditions made it a matter of
finally approved by an extraordinary
whose distinguishing features were
some urgency. Moreover, a variety of
10 / 50-year anniversary
A rapid response team of doctors and nurses from SOS International arrives in Phuket in Thailand.
The 2004 tsunami claimed thousands of lives and caused widespread damage.
2000+ Smartphone apps
Hectic activity at the emergency centre in 2000 – in the days before flatscreens became standard office equipment.
Two girls at a children’s hospital, and a hospital clown from SOS Smile.
Coffins to bring home victims of the 2004 tsunami.
“The banana” is used to help an unfortunate skier down to where a rescue helicopter is waiting.
products and concepts were created on
SOS International can still see clear
Turnover now totals DKK 1.8 billion,
the basis of SOS International’s plat-
potential for new business and new
of which 60% stems from customers
form comprising emergency centres
acquisitions in the Nordic region in the
associated with the circle of owners,
staffed 24/7 combined with medical
medical, healthcare and automobile
and 40% from new customers. This
and logistical expertise. In spite of
assistance fields, for example.
ratio was previously 95% to 5%.
the financial crisis, SOS International
Within the company’s core business
Furthermore, from being a Danish-
succeeded in increasing turnover sig-
area – travel assistance – the opportu-
based company with Nordic custom-
nificantly in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
nities for additional Nordic consolida-
ers, SOS International has become a
tion on a major scale must, however,
truly Nordic operation with customers
Growth through acquisitions
be considered limited. It therefore
all over the world. SOS International
Here at the start of the 2010s, SOS In-
seems almost inevitable that SOS
has been awarded the title of “best
ternational has formulated an extreme-
International will start to look to the
assistance company” no fewer than
ly ambitious growth strategy with the
rest of Europe and even farther afield
five times during the past decade.
working title of “3in5”. The name refers
for attractive acquisitions.
A look at the whole history of develop-
to the company’s stated aim of trebling
ment over the past 50 years makes
turnover within a 5-year period. Much
Good reason to wave the flag
it clear that there is good reason to
of the growth is to come from addition-
What is undeniable is that during
wave the flag. Only a few companies
al acquisitions. As a debt-free company
the first decade of the new millen-
make it to the ripe old age of 50 – and
with equity of DKK 130 million, SOS
nium, SOS International succeeded
even fewer are given the opportunity
International is actually in a position
in transforming its operation from an
to remain true to themselves to the
to make acquisitions without negative-
administration centre into a fully com-
extent that, in spite of everything, SOS
ly impacting its financial key figures.
petitive and future-oriented business.
International still is.
50-year anniversary / 11
Visit the special anniversary website for more A special anniversary website was created as part of the celebrations to mark 50 years in the business. The site features text articles, video clips and photos that present the people, the culture and the history behind SOS International, and show how the company developed from a small roadside assistance operation in 1961 into a multifaceted commercial group in 2011. Each decade is depicted using contemporary pictures, and you can read more about selected events that had a crucial effect on SOS International as a business. These include a number of outrĂŠ contributions and anecdotes, which simultaneously help to explain and provide insight into the work, values and special spirit of SOS International.
There is a link to the anniversary website at
SOS International a/s Nitivej 6 2000 Frederiksberg Denmark Phone +45 70105055 Fax +45 70105056 E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Web www.sos.eu
Published on Apr 11, 2012
50 YEARS OF SOS INTERNATIONAL. SOS International celebrated its 50th anniversary on 3 May 2011. Here is the history of the organisation from...