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50-year anniversary


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

Explosive development

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

service worldwide.

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.


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

department store

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

SOS International.

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.

and orange.

50-year anniversary / 5


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

their investment.

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

companies involved.

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

biggest savings

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.

related cases.

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.

absolutely defensible.”


50-year anniversary / 7


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


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-

Nordic countries.

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

even keel.

the results actually achieved exceeded

quality at a lower price.

even the most optimistic projections.

Work was already underway to op-

Colossal potential

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 Web

SOS International, 50th anniversary 2011, English