Oct. 11--HENRICO, Va. -- When a volcano in Iceland blew its top this spring, Mondial Assistance's operations went through the roof.
"Pretty much anything you see happening in the world will affect us, one way or the other," said Jon Ansell, the company's president, CEO and founder.
Flat-screen television monitors continually flash the world's headline events all through Mondial Assistance USA's headquarters in western Henrico County.
But "we'll hear even before the news gets it," Ansell said.
From hurricanes, earthquakes and snowstorms to cruise-line bankruptcies, swine-flu epidemics and terrorism incidents, upheavals worldwide have an impact on the travel assistance and insurance company's customers.
"I assume something terrible is going to happen every year," said David Bloom, Mondial's chief underwriting officer.
And when that something happens, Mondial's customers call home.
To protect its customers when catastrophes occur, Mondial provides individuals and companies with niche insurance products, such as travel and event ticket insurance, and pairs them with personal assistance services that can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
"We're taking these niche insurance products and adding something unique for the customers," Ansell said. "People wanted the ability to call home and feel like they were home."
. . .
Ansell, 60, has been a visionary in the travel insurance business, a man with a gift for looking at the world in new ways.
That was a trait he began to develop in Boy Scouts, working his way up to being his Binghamton, N.Y., troop's first Eagle Scout.
"I became more self-confident, self-reliant, trusting of my instincts, even if they ran contrary to what other people thought," Ansell said of his Boy Scouts experience. "In fact, it was the beginning of not being self-conscious about seeing the world a little differently than others."
In one example of his forward-looking leadership, Ansell saw the need to do business on the Internet. "Technology is a core driver of our market and financial success," he said.
"He recognized that very early on, before our competitors did," said Pam Dufour, Mondial Assistance USA's senior vice president and chief services officer.
Today, Mondial's U.S. business makes it a $400 million-a-year company with more than 800 employees -- and getting bigger -- in Henrico.
. . .
What is now Mondial Assistance USA started as a test at New York's Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, where Ansell was director of strategic planning and new business development.
In the early 1980s, AT&T and IBM wanted to see if Empire could provide them overseas coverage.
"Jon was charged with putting together a travel insurance and assistance project and seeing what the market thought," said Beth Godlin, Mondial's managing director.
Providing customers with insurance reimbursement as well as active help in the middle of their emergencies, the program used a 24-hour hot line staffed by multilingual problem solvers who had access to a vetted group of on-the-ground service providers.
Empire, however, found the travel insurance-and-assistance company, called World Access then, too far afield from its core business, Ansell said.
With financing from an insurance company, Ansell and two partners bought World Access from Empire in 1991.
Attracted by the labor market here, World Access moved to the Richmond area that same year.
But "we were not international enough," Ansell said. "We needed to partner with a company that could help us" widen the firm's reach.
And the company wanted to get directly into the insurance business, rather than being just a marketer of other companies' insurance products.
So in 2000, World Access became part of the Mondial Assistance Group, which is owned by Europe-based Allianz, the largest casualty and property insurer in the world.
In 2008, the name changed from World Access to Mondial Assistance USA. Access America is the name of the company's travel insurance products.
. . .
As the company transformed, Ansell also changed, and with him the company's culture.
After examining the company's sluggish growth in the mid-1990s, he realized he had to let go of some of his control in order to allow talented associates to take risks, solve problems in new ways and move the company to a higher level.
"I am in awe of what people can do when focused on a set of common goals and then empowered to find terrific ways to delight customers, grow sales, innovate and contribute to the improvement of the community," he said, "all in different ways than I would have ever imagined."
People spend a third of their adult lives at work, so "why not make that time great, meaningful, even fun?" he asked.
"Those of us who lead must first ensure the culture is cultivated properly," Ansell said, "and then get the heck out of the way."
. . .
Ansell was a founder of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association and served for three years as its first president.
"He's made a huge impact in the travel insurance industry," said Jim Grace, current president of the association, which represents more than 80 member companies in the $1.6 billion-a-year industry.
"The core initial members were eight to 10 highly competitive travel insurance companies that really didn't get along," Grace said.
In fact, he said, "they hated each other. Jon was able to bridge those gaps. It was an amazing feat to get those people in the same room."
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Mondial has become the market leader in the online travel insurance business, said Dufour, the chief services officer.
For instance, for the second year in a row, Mondial Assistance was honored by the influential Travel Weekly national trade publication for innovation in technology.
Last week, the company received the Travel Weekly award for its AgentMax travel agent software, designed to help travel agents easily sell and service Mondial's travel insurance.
"But at the end of the day, when someone's scared, when someone's nervous, they want to speak to someone who's competent, who's helpful," Ansell said. "That's still very high-touch."
Mondial also won the International Customer Management Institute's Global Call Center of the Year Award.
"We get some 12 million calls here a year, of which 3 million are handled by people," Ansell said during a walk through Mondial Assistance's Parham Road headquarters.
The company also will handle 300,000 to 500,000 claims a year.
"We're quite unique in Richmond because we're international," Ansell said. "We have people on the phone talking to people overseas all the time."
Mondial's call center is available 24/7, and the company's associates collectively speak 40 languages. It provides assistance to 975,000 customers annually, from securing tickets to concerts to making sure travelers receive emergency care.
Its team of 28 doctors has visited and evaluated more than 1,200 hospitals in 180 countries to find the best care available for travelers.
The global firm has become a big success on the basis of small markets, selling its insurance on the websites of airlines, online travel agencies and event ticketing companies. Some of Mondial's insurance products sell for as little as $7.
Mondial's business has been beyond robust, even through the recession. "I told my people, 'Go back and recount. I don't believe the numbers,'" said Mark Huntley, the company's chief financial officer.
The past two years have been banner ones for Mondial. "We're growing 15 [percent] to 20 percent per year," Ansell said.
With Mondial's business largely focused out of the United States, "they operate very much under the radar in a sense," said Troy Bell, Richmond International Airport's marketing and air-service development director.
But "in the travel industry, they're one of the giants in their field," Bell said. "In terms of providing peace of mind for travelers, Mondial Assistance and their affiliates are industry leaders."
Contact Peter Bacque at (804) 649-6813 or [email protected]
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