TU Group

Celebrating 50 years of helping travellers travel confidently
By Leah Kellar

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When Herb and Georgina Robinson started a travel insurance company out of their kitchen a half-century ago, they may not have imagined just how remarkable the trip would become to attain recognition as a leader in Canada’s travel insurance industry.

For two consecutive years, in 2012 and 2013, TU Group has been named as one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies. The award is granted to 50 leading private organizations that demonstrate business excellence in a number of areas, including business planning, processes and leader development.  Nominees are put through a rigorous application process, whereby they are evaluated on management capabilities, best practices, business performance and sustained growth. TU Group, based in Richmond, British Columbia, is Canada’s largest independent travel insurance provider. It has an impressive record of pioneering firsts that have paved the way for the company to receive the Best Managed recognition, after 50 years in business.

“I remember when I got the phone call. It was very exciting, but then I thought, ‘That’s it? But we could still be so much better,’” said President and CEO, Patrick Robinson.  The family-owned company has focused extensively on innovation and customer experience. Robinson says it is the spirit to understand and tackle the unique operational opportunities and challenges as a relatively small fish in an ocean of insurance giants that really set TU Group apart.

With so much more to do and improve upon, TU Group paused to celebrate its 50th anniversary in February of this year. Robinson finds reassurance from the advice he received from someone affiliated with the Best Managed program who said,

“Being best managed isn’t about being perfect, but being an organization that has the willingness to find problems and improve them, to go find opportunities and exploit them.”

This is exactly what TU Group has done, and continues to do. In the 1960s, TU Group was the first Canadian company to launch missed flight insurance. In the 1970s, they followed that up with the introduction of annual excess emergency hospital/medical insurance. In the 1990s, TU Group was one of the first to sell travel insurance online.

Today, more than 170 employees work for TU Group across Canada. TU Group combines component services of underwriting, claims management, and call centre customer care service. The company distributes its insurance products through various partners such as insurance brokerages and agencies, associations, airlines, travel and tour companies, financial services, and Fortune 500 companies. The award-winning company also takes care of adjudicating travel claims, paying claims, providing travel assistance in the event of medical emergencies abroad, Cost Management and more. 

The company’s roots date back to 1964, in Patrick Robinson’s parents’ kitchen.  His father, Herb, had personal lines to P&C brokerage, and his mother, Georgina, was a stay-at-home mom eager to run a business. Years later, Patrick stepped in to help with the business, along with his sister, Kathy Starko (TU Group Executive Director), after their aging parents required help with the company, shortly after they were in a serious car accident.

“The company remained small for a long time,” Robinson recalled. “But it allowed us to have a good childhood. Once we grew up, they began growing the business more aggressively… until the accident happened,” he recalled.

Robinson originally intended to help only for the short-term until the business could get off the ground again; but with success he ended up staying. Robinson comes from an advertising background. He produced advertising, training and promotional videos and comedy spots for radio in the United States.

“My original plan was to help for just a little while; twenty years later I’m still here, and still enjoying the process,” said Robinson.

He notes that one of the strategies that TU Group employs to set itself apart from the competition is effectively facilitating communication with customers through new technologies.

“There is a fundamental lack of effective interaction in the insurance industry with customers. What we’re doing is coming at the process from a true customer-centric place,” said Robinson.

For the company, this means using technology to focus solely on the issues concerning travel insurance, especially at the most critical of times—when  customers need fast and effective solutions.

“When you’re in a country 3,000 miles from home, where you don’t know anyone, aren’t familiar with the facilities, culture or language, your stress level goes up exponentially. So for us, staying innovative is about looking at how our customers use our product. We really understand that,” said Robinson. “We don’t have the considerations and constraints of a large institutional insurance company. We’re a company that tries to help people have better travel experiences.”

As in the story of David versus Goliath, TU Group must focus on its strength in travel insurance and client relationships to succeed.

“We’re the kind of company that tries to find ways to be better. There is so much opportunity in our industry right now that we can’t help but be excited about coming to work. We are a group that love the challenge because that means we will find ways to do more innovative things, continue to improve the experience and help our customers have even better travel experiences” said Robinson. “That kind of opportunity doesn’t always exist in your work environment but when it does, it is very motivating.”

Social responsibility in business practice and community outreach is another initiative that TU Group takes seriously.

TU Group has developed a long-term partnership with Make-A-Wish® Canada. To date, TU Group has contributed over $1 million to Make-A-Wish Canada, sending many sick children and their families on wish trips. The challenges affect the whole family, who often struggle with trying to achieve some sort of normality.

“There is evidence that the wishes help the children physically,” said Robinson.  “From the comments we have received from the families, the benefits clearly extend to them as well.”

The company is commemorating its 50th anniversary with an initiative called Wishes Across Canada. This initiative will grant a travel wish to a courageous child with a life-threatening medical condition, in every province! TU Group and its employees are committed to contributing $100,000 in 2014.

As one of its fundraising pursuits, thirty of TU Group’s employees competed as a team in Tough Mudder, an obstacle course mud run race, to raise funds. Together, the team raised nearly $20,000.

Employees also participate in many other charitable events in and out of the office, such as Daffodil Month to raise funds for the Canadian Cancer Society. Every December, the company teams up to create holiday hampers for families in need. This is in support of the Westcoast Families charity.

“It is something near and dear to our hearts. We generally try to focus our efforts on situations where—whether people, the environment, or animals—the common denominator is that they need help. Our customers use our products when they’re outside of the country, so we’re exposed to opportunities to be socially responsible outside of just our local communities,” said Robinson.

TU Group has also built long-term relationships with Lloyds Underwriters in London, as well as Industrial Alliance Insurance and Financial Services Inc. 

“Industrial Alliance has an entrepreneurial attitude and a great ethical approach to the way they do business. They’ve been really helpful to get us to where we are today,” said Robinson. “With the outstanding partnerships we have, we can look forward to another 50 years of helping people have great travel experiences.”