Twenty-five years ago Arnaud Vaissie and his childhood friend Pascal Rey-Herme spent US$100,000 to set up a small 15-member team in Singapore to provide emergency medical services. A quarter of a century later, International SOS has become the world's largest medical rescue and security service company, with 7,000 staff operating in 70 countries and annual revenue of US$1 billion. Vaissie, the 55-year-old Paris-based chairman and chief executive, went to medical school, but did not like it, switching to the Paris Institute of Political Science whose alumni include leading bankers and politicians, including former French president Francois Mitterrand. After graduating, he became a banker, working first in France and then in the United States, before his friend, Rey-Herme, asked him to join forces to set up the medical rescue business. Initially Vaissi?only wanted to spend two years with the fledgling company but has stayed there 25. 'As a banker, the passion is only about making money. But International SOS is a business with a passion to help people,' Vaissie said. The idea of setting up an emergency medical services business occurred to Rey-Herme, a doctor, when he was working at the French embassy in Jakarta in the early 1980s. He realised the expatriate community working for multinationals in Asia needed access to international standards of health care. An increasing number of tourists also need such services. The two founders thus set up AEA International, which in 1998 acquired International SOS Assistance and the combined entity was rechristened International SOS. Initially established in Singapore, the company expanded to become a global entity, including making a presence in Hong Kong in 1989. International SOS' business model is straightforward: governments and corporations sign up as members and pay a fee for the company to provide emergency medical assistance to staff when they travel or work overseas. It also teamed up with insurance companies to provide 24-hour emergency and rescue services. Its alarm centres around the world offer emergency medical and security assistance, with doctors ready to provide advice and ambulances or helicopters on standby, including for repatriations. Besides medical services, the company helps members or policyholders whose luggage has been stolen, providing emergency cash and arrangements for replacement identification documents. But the most common complaint the company deals with is usually more mundane but equally serious. 'Car accidents are the most common emergencies for travellers,' Vaissie said. International SOS receives one million calls on average each year to its hotlines around the world, for reasons ranging from anything from inquiries about a sore throat to pleas for help from someone trapped by an earthquake. Vaissie said emergency calls from insurance policyholders only formed a small part of his business, and that the company also provides preventive programmes and health care services for corporate and government clients. Its Hong Kong clientele includes such blue chip names as HSBC, Swire, Cathay Pacific and Li & Fung. Corporate clients include 70 per cent of the Fortune Global 500 companies, and the central government uses its services for its diplomats. International SOS also covers big sporting events such as the 16th Asian Games, which are now being held in Guangzhou. In 2008, it worked on the Beijing Olympics, completing five medical repatriation cases. It also covered the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and Athens in 2004. On the mainland, International SOS has an air ambulance on standby at Beijing Capital International Airport and has access to military aircraft, enabling medical teams to reach areas on the mainland inaccessible to civilian aircraft. Vaissie, the father of three children, is also keen on community work. He spends one business day each week doing such work, and is chairman of the French Chamber of Commerce in Britain. He co-founded a think tank, Le Cercle d'Outre-Manche, which looks at competitive issues among European Union members. 'Community services help people. These activities also have business value, as I can meet different people from different sectors to broaden my horizons and networks,' he said. What is the key to success in running a global medical assistance service? How do you operate a round-the-clock global service and how do you cope with language problems? It needs a lot of information technology to build up an international platform to back up such services. It needs a telephone network so the centres can have staff standing by 24 hours a day. Then it needs a clinic and doctor network to provide medical advice, and ambulances or air ambulances to bring the patients home. Teams around the world need to work together on single cases. As we have operations in 70 countries, we have local staff everywhere who can speak the language. How do you carry out your duties in dangerous places, like a war zone or a mountain top? We have a network of clinics in remote areas like the Himalayas. We also have arrangements with governments on using special flights. For example, we got the Chinese government to agree to fly a Taiwanese patient from Dongguan back to his Taiwan home. This was before the mainland and Taiwan had agreed to direct flights. We have staff negotiating with governments around the world for us to operate in special areas. These are huge exercises, but governments are willing to support our work, because we are performing medical services. Anyone who falls sick wants to go home for treatment. They want to see their family and they want to be treated by doctors they are familiar with. It takes time and effort to establish such a framework, but that is important for our rescue work to be done efficiently. Does the business go up and down with the economic cycle? No business is recession-proof. We do not lose firms as clients, but they cut down on staff travel, and some have reduced head counts. We usually can achieve growth of between 15 to 20 per cent, but this was reduced to zero in 2009 during the financial crisis. This year it has bounced back and we're back to our normal growth. We faced a similar situation in the 1998 Asian crisis and during Sars in 2003. Over the past 25 years, what do you think has been the most challenging rescue case? The tsunami in Indonesia and Thailand in December 2004. There were so many people missing. We had 200 staff to help the victims and that was a complicated and lengthy process. Our staff needed counselling afterwards. You were a banker but are now in the medical business - how do you compare the two careers? Working in a bank is to work in a large organisation. You can press a button and you have everything. Establishing the business in the 1980s, we were a small company where you could press a button but nothing happened. This is what happens when you change from a large organisation to a start-up. How do you compare the industry now to when you first joined? The technology has improved a lot. Twenty-five years ago, there was no call centre and no emergency medical services on the mainland for international travellers. There were no mobile phones nor internet. Now, we have call centres around the world, including the mainland. But even with better equipment, we still need to train people to provide good service. Imagine how panicky people are who are calling after an accident or with medical problems. The alarm centre staff need to ask the right questions to figure out what the caller's problem is and to provide the right services to help them. France is debating the retirement age now - what are your views and when do you want to retire? In reality, one has to work at least 42 years to get a full pension which means many may have to work until 66 or 67. As such, changing the retirement age from 60 to 62 does not really affect everyone. For me, I do not think I want to retire. As long as I have fun doing what I am doing, that is fine.