Arnaud Vaissié: a French Success Story in London

When Boris Johnson recently visited International SOS for the opening of its new headquarters in Chiswick Park, the Mayor of London described the company as a “very clever AA for human beings”. Indeed, with 30 clinics and 10,000 employees around the world, including over 1,100 doctors, the business founded in 1985 by French entrepreneur Arnaud Vaissié (57) is now the world’s leader in international healthcare, medical and security. The only company to provide global integrated medical and security services, it counts amongst its clients the US Department of Defence and 70% of the Global Fortune 500 companies. And if as that didn’t keep him busy enough, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2009 is also chairman of the French Chamber of Commerce in the UK, co-founder of French London think tank Le Cercle d’Outre-Manche, founder of the new Bilingual French College in Kentish Town and a published author. Here, he talks to Chic-Londres about his life as an entrepreneur in London.

How did you start International SOS? I founded the company in 1985 with my best friend Pascal Ray-Hermé, a doctor whom I have known since I was 4. He was sent to Jakarta as a doctor at the French embassy and realised that there was no such thing in Asia as emergency medical assistance of the type we had in France, and identified a need for a new type of business. At that time, I worked for a German company in the States but decided to join him in Asia to create the company with him. We first settled in Singapore, which was at the time and still is the most sophisticated place in Asia in terms of medical care.

Geographically, your professional journey has been made in reverse… Yes as most companies develop their model in one country -often theirs- before reproducing it abroad. So not only did we start abroad, but there was also no domestic market for us in Singapore- which means we started as an international company straight away, targeting other countries. We have developed geographically in reverse, starting in south-east Asia, then China, then the States, and then at last Europe and Africa.

Were you already a budding entrepreneur when you were a student? I studied politics but never saw myself working in this area.  I was very good at funding my student life by doing menial jobs, as a tutor or a wedding photographer, and my main goal back then was to work abroad. As soon as I graduated I was recruited by a German company to set up their French branch, so even though I wasn’t an entrepreneur per se settling my own company, my job was nonetheless to create a new business.

Do you see yourself more like a Londoner or a Parisian? Both as I was born and bred in Paris, but now divide my time between the two cities. In London, I really love the courtesy and respect that people show to each other, the village atmosphere and most of all the incredible mix of nationalities. London is a Babel tower, while Paris by contrast seems only full of French.

What are you the most proud of professionally? I am happy to have invented a new profession, providing excellent medical care and safety standards for the expat communities while developing the concept of « duty of care »- the responsibility companies have towards their employees outside their own country. The company’s objective is to save lives and manage difficult crises, sometimes by physically finding people and bringing them back to safety, as we did last year in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and then Japan. On a more anecdotal note, we were the first people in 2007 to operate a flight between China and Taiwan since the advent of communism in China in 1949, which was considered as a massive event there.

What has been the company’s biggest challenge? The tsunami in December 2004, by far the most complicated, difficult and psychologically challenging crisis we ever had, looking for missing people over several long months.  Our teams had to be in permanent contact with families who couldn’t accept that their dear ones were dead, which was enormously stressful. That’s when we decided to set up a psychiatric unit for our own employees, to help them go through that.

How do you organise your schedule? In a way, the biggest the company becomes, the easiest it is for me to manage crises because there are now so many competent people who can deal with problems just as well, if not better, than me. That said, what helps a lot is that I always recruit a very smart, hard working and motivated collaborator whom I trust completely for each of my different activities. So the first rule is to surround myself with the right people.

What is a typical day for you? There is no such thing. But a typical month would involve a 10 day trip to Asia or the States, and a typical week when in Europe, three days in London and two days in Paris. I usually start with a business breakfast at 8am and finish the day with a business dinner- around 8pm when in Asia, 10pm when in London and midnight when in Paris! I always have many meetings and take two hours to work on my own, writing a piece or reading some files for example. One day per week is always dedicated to my associative projects.

What is your recipe for success as an entrepreneur? I think it really helps to start a business with a partner, not only because you double your work load capacity, but also because you share the stress and motivation, as well as different competences.  You must also be totally passionate about what you’re doing and incredibly determined.  Creating your own company is a bit like raising a child: it takes a lot of time for it to work!