When Dr. B.R. Shetty first set foot in the United Arab Emirates 43 years ago, he could never have imagined the impact he was going to have on the newly-formed country. He opened the New Medical Centre, one of the region’s first private healthcare facilities, from a single room in his home in Abu Dhabi in 1975, with his wife as his first and only employee. Today NMC has around 30 facilities worldwide, with over 8,000 members of staff, including 1,200 doctors treating over 11,000 patients a day.
As a trained pharmacist, Shetty began his journey on Arab soil as one of the country’s first outdoor medical sales representatives, selling pharmaceutical products across Abu Dhabi. “I remember it as if it was yesterday,” Shetty recalls. “I landed on May 3rd 1973. It was a hot summer day. I had one pair of clothes and had lost my luggage. There were less people then and they were warm and welcoming and knew one another well.
“I initially came to the U.A.E. looking for greener pastures and because I wanted to pay off a loan that I had taken for my sister. In my hometown of Kaup, Udupi in Karnataka, I served as the Vice Chairman of the Municipal Corporation, so commitment to community and public service was not new to me. I always found the medical field intriguing, so providing healthcare services and setting up a hospital was an obvious and easy decision.”
In those days, at the birth of the U.A.E.’s healthcare sector, all residents received free treatment thanks to the vision of the country’s rulers, but Shetty remembers patients struggling to get appointments. “I saw this as an opportunity. I worked towards providing quality healthcare with very little waiting time at our hospitals. We identified such capacity gaps and started building the infrastructure to address these issues. The journey of 1,000 miles began with this single step.”
Now one of the region’s most recognized billionaires and one of the world’s richest Indian leaders, the pioneer is far from done with his to-do list. The NMC group continues to eye up expansion through acquisitions and investments, recently partially opening one of the U.A.E.’s largest private hospitals, a facility Shetty calls “the hospital of tomorrow”.
The NMC Royal in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi, which will have a 500-bed capacity once it’s fully operational, is the realization of a dream that the CEO says was first discussed in a meeting between himself and His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Zayed reportedly asked Shetty to build the largest, most advanced healthcare facility in the private sector—and the NMC Royal is the result, offering patients a continuum of care covering world-class emergency, critical and acute cardiovascular treatments.
This is just one of four hospital openings since 2012, when NMC became the first GCC healthcare company to be listed on the London Stock Exchange—a shrewd move putting the company firmly on an international footing. Shetty insists that the decision was not made to raise funds, but to expand NMC’s geographical reach and open it up to the world. But then with group revenue increasing from $643.9 million in 2014 to $880.9 million in 2015, profitability is on the up regardless. The CEO however prefers to attribute his and NMC’s success to the value of people rather than dollars.
“Success to me lies in creating success for other people and giving back to society, along with helping people achieve larger goals than they had envisioned for themselves,” he says. “I never wanted to get into the healthcare business to make money; I wanted to do all I could to provide services that would have an impact on people’s lives. Success, then, is just a by-product. With these founding principles we are now the sixth largest healthcare provider in the world outside of the U.S.”
With the fast-growing healthcare market still largely dominated by the public sector, opportunities for private players are abundant. “When you realize that in spite of all the rapid growth of the last few years, the private sector is still less than 30% of the healthcare market by value, you see the tremendous opportunity ahead” Shetty says. “The private sector is now starting to take up the lion’s share of investments into healthcare by setting up hospitals, investing in state of the art equipment and instruments, and investing in the most important asset of all—quality clinical manpower.”
The last year has seen some major acquisitions, supported by an $825million financing facility that enabled the group to buy into fertility brands Clinica Eugin (86.4%) and Fakih IVF (51%), as well as long-term homecare brands ProVita (100%) and Americare (90%), and the Dr. Sunny Healthcare Group (100%), which added six medical centres and three pharmacies to NMC’s presence in Sharjah. A glance at the group’s financial statements also shows capital growth in 2015—the Healthcare division alone increased its revenue by 55.7% to $517.1 million, with net profit increasing by 10.6% to $85.8 million.
The group is currently focused on going beyond the norm and providing specialist tertiary and quaternary services, making NMC now the world’s third largest fertility services provider. “We have invested in home care services, and made major investments in obstetrics and gynecology by setting up BrightPoint Royal Women’s Hospital, Abu Dhabi’s first private women’s hospital” Shetty says. “And we continue to focus on oncology, cardiac services, ophthalmology, dentistry, urology, neurology and neurosurgery.”
As well as a strong M&A strategy, the CEO’s “service before self” approach is what he believes sets his company apart from the crowd. He tells his doctors to look at the pulse and not the purse of a patient, never forgetting that although healthcare is big business, it is still in the business of saving and enhancing lives.
“We look for ways to ease people’s suffering and provide preventive healthcare support. We have always looked at the needs of the patient and then worked backwards. Our patients come first, then my people, and then the company’s profits.”
Also on the list are the needs of the country, with NMC recently announcing places to create a new medical university in Abu Dhabi. Reportedly earmarking up to $2 billion for the project and with hopes to start receiving students in 2017, Shetty believes the new university will go some way to encouraging local talent. “The dependence on foreign doctors is the biggest challenge facing the entire healthcare industry,” he says. “The U.A.E. has over 25,000 registered doctors today and over 95% of them are expats. The government has realized the importance of producing local talent and I am on a mission to create the most modern medical university in Abu Dhabi.”
Sanjay Modi, Managing Director, APAC and Middle East for recruitment site Monster.com says demand for healthcare professional is soaring, growing by 46% in June 2016 compared to the same period last year. “This includes all type of positions, including auxiliary staff” he explains. “Demand for professionals, such as doctors, nurses, etc, also significantly increased by 31%, according to our Monster Employment Index, which monitors all jobs listed online.”
Ahmed Faiyaz, MENA TAS Healthcare Leader at EY agrees that meeting this demand is one of the biggest challenges currently faced by the U.A.E.’s healthcare system: “Given the rising demand in other parts of the world, as well as the dependence on imported talent from the East and West, efforts to improve the medical education infrastructure and roll out medical schools and universities is an essential step to develop home grown talent and help bridge the acute shortages in clinical talent the country faces.”
Taking on such a significant new mission after already serving four decades in the business may sound exhausting to any average person, but even in his seventies Shetty is not ready to step down. For a man who reportedly arrived in town with just $8 in his pocket, this philanthropist and business leader has a lot to be proud of. He modestly thanks the royal family for most of his key moments, expressing his gratitude for their guidance and support, as he proudly wears the Order of Abu Dhabi on his jacket, a highly-prestigious civilian award that he received in recognition of his contribution to the development of the community and the emirate.
Despite not easing up in his schedule, however, the CEO is these days finding ways to merge social and family commitments with his continued work ethic. “In this long journey I missed out on some key moments in my family’s lives,” he says wistfully. “Now I create opportunities to be with them by travelling together. And I try to make it to as many social gatherings as my schedule permits. It helps me connect with all sections of society and understand their needs.” As he ploughs ahead with ambitious plans for both his business and his community, Shetty displays the energy and enthusiasm of a person half his age. “There is still so much more to achieve”, he says. It seems that for some, a 40-year legacy is still a work in progress.