By 1997, Thumbay Moideen had been travelling to the UAE on business for five years. A third-generation businessman, he was well aware of the Gulf state’s growing acumen for money-making opportunities.
But it was not until a chance meeting with the ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Humaid Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, that the middle-aged father of two decided it was time to move.
“It was an accidental meeting with His Highness,” Moideen recalls. “Back home my family is into hospitals and education — these two industries are very important for a country. So during one of my discussions with His Highness I was highlighting that you need these few things, they’re very important for a country.
“And I said my family is into schools and hospitals, so he said ‘why don’t you do something like this [in Ajman]’.
“I got a shock, really. He said ‘I’ll support you and encourage you’, so I jumped at it. I brought a few consultants; we surveyed the market. Once we realised it was going to do well we jumped at the project.”
The result was the first teaching hospital and private medical university in the UAE, and possibly the Middle East, in 1998. The Gulf Medical University and the related hospital would nurse the country’s need to supply its own doctors, an expertise almost entirely imported at that time, while also treating the sick.
Each doctor employed by the hospital would teach at the university, where pharmacy, dentistry and medicine are the key faculties. An expansion in recent years has seen the university, spread across 25 acres, also run medical conferences.
Thumbay Group, owned entirely by Moideen, now has three GMC Hospitals, one each in Ajman, Dubai and Fujairah, as well as the GMC Medical & Dental Specialty Centre in Sharjah. Further hospitals in Dubai, Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah are under construction and Moideen says a large hospital being built in Bangalore will become a teaching hub in India.
“This new kind of model we’ve created — which has succeeded — we’re repeating. I think this could work everywhere,” Moideen says of the teaching hospital model, which has become common in many Western nations.
In the past 15 years, the company has expanded to also include pharmacies, diagnostic centres, optical shops, the Nutri-Plus health food shop franchise, health clubs and a new research centre covering both community and laboratory research.
With real estate and development subsidiaries, the group buys the land and builds each of its facilities, making them wholly owned by Moideen.
“Frankly, we have the whole range now in healthcare and education in the medical field,” Moideen says from his large office at the university. “There are lots of healthcare providers in the country but you don’t have someone who’s into this range; you’re talking education, you’re talking research, the whole range we’re doing now.
“In terms of different nationalities, we have students from 70 countries and we have faculty and staff from 22 countries and we cater to patients in the hospital from 150 countries.”
It’s a far cry from the situation in 1997, when the UAE population — about a quarter of its present level of more than 9 million — relied mostly on the government for their healthcare needs, or they travelled abroad.
“[In 1997], there were private players but no one had such a huge hospital then,” Moideen says. “We were taking a huge risk of building a big hospital in Ajman. We’d been travelling to Singapore, India, Australia, doing business everywhere, so when we came to the UAE we... realised this is a lovely country to do business; everything is simple, people are approachable, people are professional. Ajman was especially very nice because prices were cheap those days.”
Numerous international players have since followed suit, setting up their own hospitals, medical clinics and medical universities to grab a slice of the burgeoning industry. Investment in the healthcare sector across the UAE has tripled in the past five years and is expected to soar from $3.2bn in 2012 to $11.9bn in 2015, contributing to more than 6 percent of non-oil gross domestic product.
While the growth at Thumbay Group, one of the first to enter the market, already has been huge, there are still larger plans, including internationally.
“We have a strategy plan for the next six to seven years,” Moideen says. “We plan to have three more GMC [Hospital] campuses outside the country, in Africa [and] in one of the Asian countries.
“We plan to have 15 more hospitals in the next six to seven years, both in the UAE and other countries. Our team strength is about 2,200 now, we expect it to reach 3,000 this year with the new hospitals but our plan is to have 8,000 people in the next five to six years.”
Moideen also is looking to jump on the UAE’s goal to become a key medical tourism destination, drawing in millions of patients and reversing its position as a source country for patients unable to find the necessary care at home.
He is planning satellite medical clinics in 20 countries, mostly in Africa. The clinics would refer relevant patients to the UAE’s GMC Hospitals, while providing pre- and post-hospital care in their home country. Initially Thumbay Group will target countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Tanzania, Iraq and Afghanistan, with an eventual plan to branch into parts of Europe and Russia.
“We’re into medical tourism; we have a mission encouraging patients from outside the country. Our plan is to have 1,000 patients a day from outside. It’ll take us about three to four years because we’re building satellite units in 20 countries to cater to this,” Moideen says.
“Medical tourism people normally go to places like India because of the cost and services, and India is a huge destination now for medical tourism. But the UAE is a beautiful alternative because this is a safe country, it’s a cleaner country, we too can provide the same service and we’re also cost effective.
“[Presently, revenue from medical tourism] in terms of percentage is not very huge but we expect it to be huge in the future.”
The group’s reputation also will be helped if it is successful in its application for international status as a teaching hospital. A decision is due this quarter.
All of Moideen’s plans are part of his ultimate dream to see the company’s value enter the billionaire’s club.
“We’re dreaming — targeting — $2bn. It’s ambitious but we’ll do it,” he says.
“We hope to be one of the leading healthcare providers in the country.”
Despite his family history, Moideen had no experience in healthcare or education when he established the Gulf Medical University and GMC Hospital in the smallest of the seven emirates. And, he admits that he still doesn’t, preferring to stick to the numbers and strategy that has helped grow the broader company.
The Thumbay Group is named after Moideen’s home village on the west coast of India, where his father owns the local hospital and school and much of the businesses and land. Before moving to Ajman, he was involved in the family empire, including timber, logging and manufacturing, and taking a particular interest in real estate.
Moving into healthcare was simply taking up a business opportunity, he says.
“It’s quite challenging, but in a way I enjoy these challenges and luckily for me I have good people, our team is really good,” he says. “My job is really to support them and make life easy for them to succeed.
“I enjoy it because it’s directly related to the community. I get a lot of satisfaction that we’re into education, we’re into healthcare. Apart from that we also help people — if there’s an economically weak student we support them through a programme called Care and Share. We hope in the future, in the next three to four years, we will sponsor at least 80 percent of the students so that we attract the cream. In the hospital we have a patient defer department; we don’t send any patient back because of lack of funds so the deserving people get support from us, either free or subsidised. All this gives a lot of satisfaction.
“It’s partly supported by our own funds, but we also approach corporates and government, so we’re getting sponsorship from government, sheikhs and corporates.”
Moideen is also proud that his sons Akbar and Akram are now involved in the company and he hopes they continue to grow the family business. “I hope they’ll take it forward and take it to a different level.”
So what does Sheikh Humaid think of the progress since his grand gesture in 1997?
“He attends all our graduation ceremonies without fail, and he’s proud of the college, he’s always proud of what we’re doing,” Moideen says.For all the latest health tips & news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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