“I worked in many industries after graduating from university, including live theatre for eight years, and one day a friend who worked in insurance introduced me to his manager. We spoke for an hour and he impressed me a lot. He became my mentor, and trained me for two or three years.
I was always looking for something I could do a little differently, and in 1994 Ontario stopped covering international students under the provincial healthcare programme. There became a need for healthcare for international students and there weren’t any products out there. At the same time the brother of a travel client of mine, who worked in Germany, had a student insurance programme (Care Med)and needed someone in North America to manage his business. So we became partners. I wound up as Executive Director and was there for four years, and then ended up starting guard.me (or Student Guard as it was at the time).
When I started doing insurance for students, very few people understood the concept. The study travel industry was in its adolescence we had to educate a lot of people. But the world has changed. When I first started there were around five countries that were considered dangerous, and there are now close to 90. People want to keep themselves safe and realise the importance of insurance now.
His love for the study travel industry
I’m an enigma in this industry I’ve never studied abroad. It wasn’t that I never wanted to, I just never got around to it. But I get to travel and get all these experiences that these students are getting. It’s exhilarating and keeps the business alive. I still enjoy every moment of it.
Now I can’t imagine myself working in any other sector. In what other industry in the entire world can you have a friend in every country? Even though you’re all in the same business and are technically competitors, you’re not everybody is helping each other because the market is so large. It’s an incredible sharing environment. You don’t get that feeling in any other industry and I’ve chatted to plenty of people on planes!
I guess my most memorable moment is winning our first award (LTM Star Award Insurance Provider 2006)! The first award was a pat on the back, a pump of energy, that said to us, you’ve done good. It is the best feeling in the world.
In 10 years’ time...
...I’ll be right here doing the same thing. When I first started, my business plan had two words written on it: world domination! It’s a lot of work, but it’s still something I would like to achieve: to be totally worldwide and have achieved that on a good basis.
It’s a challenge and it’s getting more challenging every year. Countries are getting strict with regulations, and the world is changing from a security point of view. Money moves faster, and the internet has made things even worse from a global and regulatory point of view, so things are a little tighter than they were maybe 10 years ago.
One of the directions we would like to go in is to be a resource for international education. We will soon be launching the International Student Support Programme for mental illness and we will be providing this service to universities, colleges and school boards. The unique thing about this service is that it is culturally oriented and in a students’ own language, so a Saudi student can speak with an Arabic speaker. It is something that has been missing from the industry.
An underlying case
We do 35,000 cases a year, but one we keep referring to is probably the most expensive (CAN$750,000). It was sad after handing in his PhD dissertation, a Chilean student suddenly keeled over. He was in a coma for three months, intensive care for 4.5 months and then rehab. He was completely paralysed but gained use of his upper body. Sadly he passed away.
I used to sit down with the doctors and go through his status once a month. We were concerned about his wellbeing and were not just the insurance company paying his bill. What made it memorable was the cooperation of the hospital and the school, and what we did for them and the family, and what we’ve done thereafter. To this day we still receive letters from his wife everyone was thankful for what we did and that’s the kind of thing we want to be remembered for.
We deal in a very negative business: everybody is either injured or sick or hurting in some way and we have to make it better. Most insurance companies will just pay the bill, but we go one step further and that was the philosophy from the start: these people are people.
Altruistically, insurance has given me the opportunity to assist in negative situations and make them better. What I am very grateful for in this industry is the acceptance they have given us: making us feel as if we are not just a supplier but are a part of it.”