A climber is reaching the summit of the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. It is 8848 meters above the sea level, very far from the closest restaurant, bathroom, or hospital.
However, once you're at the top you are only half way. If something goes terribly wrong, the mountaineer cannot descent on his own.
This is a real life example from the 1990's of the type of problems that Robin Ingle and his group solves. They create logistics to get that mountaineer down from top of the world. Robin Ingle is the CEO of the Toronto-based insurance company and health care group Ingle International, which his Finnish mother and Canadian father originally founded in 1946.
Their family's immigrant background gave a direction to their business: Ingle International offered insurance for the new immigrants to Canada after the World War II. It was a difficult time for immigrants. They came to a new country to live but other insurance companies didn't want to issue insurance to them and there wasn't proper social health care system. It came later in the 1960's and 1970's.
"By 1949 our company had salespeople here in Toronto from all over Europe speaking different languages. The company was multilingual before it was popular", Ingle says.
Internationalist with Finnish roots
Ingle is very proud of his parents, two labour workers without university degrees, who managed to build an insurance company with millions of customers worldwide. Before starting up the business, Ingle's father John Ingle worked as a machinist, in mines and ran a lumber camp. His mother's family were Finnish socialists who moved to Northern Ontario from Finland in the 1920's.
"Everything in my life has helped me to think globally. When my father moved to Sudbury in the 1930's from Southern Ontario, he met Finns at the mine he was working at. Not only did he meet my mother Muriel (Miirja) but he also met and worked with the tough but gentle Finns. That experience helped my father become an internationalist. The world became a smaller place and one where business could be done anywhere."
Ingle describes his mother as one of the strongest people he has ever met. Muriel Ingle was one of the first licensed insurance woman in Ontario. She used to be one of the few women at the Scandinavia Businessman's Club in Toronto.
"You could see that in other meetings too. When insurance companies got together there were 200-300 men - and my mom the petite blonde woman in the front row."
Ingle's Finnish roots have had a big impact on the way the business is managed. He calls the company’s values a combination of capitalism with a socialist conscience.
"We care about what we do and it has never been all about the money. We have always worked with charities, governments, consumer groups. For example, when we designed student insurance plans in the 1950's we worked with universities and colleges."
Nobody can be a leader by oneself
Robin Ingle started his first business, a pizzeria in Toronto, at the age of 17. He thinks that working in customer service can teach a lot to anyone.
"You know immediately if you did something wrong and you get the chance to change it. If in a restaurant a customer doesn't leave tip and they will never come back, you know that you have done something wrong. The feedback is instant", Ingle says.
Robin Ingle has been the CEO of Ingle International since 1985. He says that a good CEO has to remember that people are the most important asset, not money.
"It's more about building your team. Once you have a good team, you can't be defeated."
"I think a good example of not caring about the people, the team, is the recent economic crisis. There was a focus on greed in the financial markets, including Wall Street, and little urge to build good teams or help people."
Ingle also encourages CEOs to distribute power within their companies.
"You can't be a leader by yourself, you can't be everywhere. CEOs should build strength around them by teaching others. Encourage them to make their own choices and take risks. If they fail, they fail. That's life, move on. Winning can come with a little bit of failure, don't be afraid."
Ingle International had 5.5 million customers in Canada when Robin Ingle sold his family's insurance company in 1998. Ingle wanted a change. His plan was to semi-retire and concentrate on business outside of Canada and other things in life.
Semi-retirement didn't quite work out though. In 2003 he started out again building a virtual technology-based insurance and health care group. Today the Ingle Group offers products that might be abstract for someone getting travel insurance for a week off in Europe: They provide health care navigation, technological innovations for other insurance and health care companies, security analysis of high risk countries and evacuation for travelers, just to name a few.
"I'm a geek"
Ingle strongly believes in technology as a tool of progress. He has studied computer science and graphic design.
"I'm a bit of a geek myself. Technology enables you to do more and to keep costs down."
Ingle gives an example: With the help of customized web sites, we can help a customer find the right medical facility. In the case of non-critical events the insured party goes to a clinic instead of an emergency room. That decreases the company's loss ratio so we can keep the price for insurance low.
Ingle considers his membership to the World Travel and Tourism Council, where the world's top travel industry leaders meet, as one of the biggest achievements in his career, alongside with attending the World Economic Forum with some of the top diplomats, academics and business leaders in the world.
"It's important to me because I was invited there for what I have done in life, not what I have."
Ingle has been to the World Economic Forum many times since the 1990's and says that he has learned an important lesson there.
"Many people who are in an important leadership position are no different than all of us. We forget sometimes that in the end we're all the same. We have the same passion, fears and concerns about life and death. We are human beings."
Text: Annika Martikainen
Photo: Jaana Hein / Ingle Group