A young, indebted and jobless Indian who came to the UAE in the early 1970s is today one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world and among the list of Forbes’ richest billionaires.
Dr. Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty, better known as B.R. Shetty, came to the UAE with nothing more than a degree and a few dirhams in his pocket.
He stepped in the UAE with a mission to repay a bank loan that haunted his family but, 43 years later, Dr Shetty is one of the most successful businessmen in the UAE, employing nearly 40,000 employees.
Then owning just one shirt, Shetty started off as a medical representative and also undertook part-time jobs including canvassing advertisements for yellow pages.
The young man from Karnataka, India, was born in an aristocratic landlord family, but he came to the UAE as a last resort, losing everything in life.
Dr Shetty (centre) from back in the day
An Indian bank was after him for not settling a personal loan of Rs50,000 (Dh2,250 at today’s exchange rate).
Dr Shetty, who spearheaded the growth of a single-doctor clinic and pathology lab from a dilapidated building in Abu Dhabi now heads the London Stock Exchange-listed NMC Healthcare and the NMC Group, present in different continents.
Speaking to Emirates 24|7, Dr Shetty, a self-made billionaire, recalled the challenges that he had to overcome before starting a long successful journey through the corporate ladder.
“I came here on May 3, 1973, in search of a job because I had lost everything back home due to my excessive social work as the Deputy Municipal Chairman of the local municipality and generosity to help everyone seeking help,” he said.
Dr Shetty with his entire family today
When he landed at Abu Dhabi airport, he had just the shirt he was wearing. “My dream was to get a government job in Abu Dhabi to repay the bank loan, but I was disappointed because without the knowledge of Arabic, it was impossible to get a government job.
"I had no money and was desperate for a job to survive here. In India, I’d studied pharmacy and had worked as a pharmacist for some time,” he said.
When he failed to get a job, the young Shetty went directly to a pharmaceutical distribution warehouse, where several cartons of medicines were dumped on the ground - some were even getting spoiled due to flooding of the warehouse.
“I went to Al Fahimi Pharmacy group of Dr Ismail Fahimi, seeking a job. When they said there is no job, I told them to give me a chance to sell their medicines outdoor.
"Those days, nobody was going out to sell. I am perhaps the first outdoor medical representative in this country,” says Dr Shetty proudly, remembering the crucial moments in his life.
“Dr Fahimi gave me my first bread in the UAE. I used to go out with a medical representative bag filled with samples of medicines, tablets and other products. I had to wait outside many clinics, hospitals or other customers for appointments.
Dr Shetty receives a top award from the government of India
"The first thing that I bought from the commission was a new shirt of Dh10. I had only one shirt –I washed it every night to wear it the next day.”
At the time, the UAE’s pharmacy and healthcare business was not well organised as the young nation was just embarking on its development progress.
“I still remember the Dh10 beige coloured shirt,” said Shetty. “It too hot and humid, especially in summer and I could not even open my eyes due to dust. My shoes and shirt were sometimes dirty. I had to wash my shirt every night because I had no other shirt,” he said.
Working as the outdoor medical representative, he earned around Dh1,500 per month, but started other part-time jobs to earn enough money to settle the personal loan to Syndicate Bank in India.
“When I saved enough money after one-and-a-half years, I went to meet the Syndicate Bank Chair K.K. Pai and cleared my loan which was sanctioned because of the reputation and social status of my father, Shambu Shetty, who was the Municipal Councillor of Uduppi.
“When I cleared my loan and placed a fixed deposit of Rs25,000, I could see tears coming out of Mr Pai’s eyes,” choked with emotion, Dr Shetty told Emirates 24|7.
“Since then, I have maintained good relationship with my bankers who have been my best partners in business,” he added.
From a single clinic the group developed into a major healthcare provider, diversified into hospitality, pharmaceutical manufacturing, trading and financial services.
From a mere medical representative scouting for customers on foot, Dr Shetty started NMC Neo Pharma in 2003, a leading pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing firm that has contract manufacturing arrangements with leading drug multinationals like Merck, Pfizer, Boots UK, Astra Zaneca, etc.
“I started the first clinic in 1975 in a small building. As I could not afford to appoint an expensive doctor, my wife, Dr. Chandrakumari R Shetty, was the only doctor who worked for me in the clinic which had a pathology lab, X Ray machine and a small pharmacy too,” he said, adding that while his wife took care of the patients, she was not paid a regular salary.
On the location of the first clinic now stands the NMC Specialty Hospital with several surrounding buildings owned by the group. The husband wife partnership is now a global conglomerate and four of his children too are involved in the business now.
He himself handled the pharmacy and other businesses and continued his job as outdoor salesman not only selling medicines, but a lot of other products including cosmetics, healthcare and food items from various supermarkets.
Now, nearly 2.5 million patients per year utilise the multiple hospitals, medical shops or other facilities of NMC Group in different Emirates. Every day 6,500 patients visit any of the 15 NMC facilities across the UAE.
“I used to carry a Dh150 Samsonite bag filled with not only medicine samples, but other products too. I have preserved that bag to show my children how I struggled initially to make both ends meet,” Shetty added.
“At a time when everything was available free from government hospitals, I dared to start the first private clinic in Abu Dhabi, charging patients. People laughed at me because, at that time, nobody was charging money for treatment.
"Expat families of government employees who were in the UAE could buy medicines for one year free of cost from government hospitals,” Dr Shetty said, adding that after the first clinic was successful, he started expanding the hospital and medical shop business to Dubai and other emirates.
That process has continued unabated, without being affected by cyclical recession, regional wars or other major crises that confronted the business community in the UAE.
From a part-time business of selling Nivea and other consumer goods, NMC Trading now handles the wholesale distribution of Nivea products, one of the leading international brands.
“When we did not have an ambulance to carry critical patients, I used to carry even very heavy Asian patients on my shoulders. Now we have a fleet of ambulances and the latest emergency facilities,” he added.
The UAE healthcare sector was rudimentary in the formative years and from a single clinic, NMC Healthcare has become a global conglomerate.
“In 1980 when I went to remit money home, it took almost eight hours for issuing one draft.
"Realising the need for faster and safer money remittance service to the thousands of expatriates in the UAE, I approached the UAE Central Bank for license and took over a sick company that was in loss of Dh18 million.
"The company has not only turned around, but UAE Exchange is today one of the most successful money exchange companies that account for a major chunk of annual remittances to India. It has around 750 direct offices across 32 countries, employs 9,000 multinational employees and caters to 20 million customers per year.”
Dr Shetty still works several hours a day and maintains cordial relationship with his employees as well as the community at large, by indulging in charitable and social ventures.
“I have witnessed many crisis periods, including the Kuwait War, economic recessions and many other developments. Even though my employees were sometimes worried about being laid off or retrenched during crisis periods, I have never retrenched them and kept them all safe during all uncertainties.”
His advice to the young entrepreneurs and day dreamers is not to hesitate to go out in the sun and doing hard work and efficiently use the banking facilities in the UAE and be good to people around you and give back to society part of your earnings.
“It is the society that nurtures you. It is your duty to give back to society. Only when you share your success, does it multiply. I have strongly believed in this and it has worked well for me.”