Sales rep who came to UAE with nothing now heads a business empire

Entrepreneur BR Shetty came to the UAE from India in 1973 with nothing. Now he heads one of the largest healthcare companies in the country - and a cash-exchange chain with 600 branches.

Entrepreneur BR Shetty came to the UAE from India in 1973 with nothing. Now he heads one of the largest healthcare companies in the country - and a cash-exchange chain with 600 branches.

ABU DHABI // "All the money I have is the money in my wallet," says BR Shetty, pulling a leather wallet from his pocket to reveal it is filled with just a few crumpled Dh50 and Dh20 notes rather than the wad of Dh1,000 notes you might expect of a multimillionaire.

In fact, the money he has on him today is probably no more than he earned in a month when he arrived in Abu Dhabi from India 40 years ago this year, sharing a bedroom with four other men and earning no more than Dh500 a month.

"The UAE had recently become independent and I thought, 'it's a land of opportunity'. I was the first outdoor salesman in the country," he says proudly, sitting down for a rare personal interview.

Dressed in a well-fitting suit, he looks much younger than his 71 years, despite having worked almost without a break for the past four decades.

"My work was not easy," he recalls. "I did not have a car. I only had the shoes I brought - the type water and sand goes straight into."

Starting as a door-to-door medical sales representative, Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty, who almost everyone calls BR Shetty, has gone on to build up the New Medical Centre, one of the country's most successful private healthcare companies, as well as owning the UAE Exchange money-transfer business. His hospitals and clinics treat about 5,000 patients every day.

Depending on which Rich List you believe, the Shetty empire is worth between US$500 million (Dh1.83 billion) and $1.72bn. Either way, the head of the family is certainly one of the UAE's most successful expatriate businessmen.

Despite his successes, the grandfather of four, who still sports his trademark moustache and does not have a grey hair on his head - cannot and will not reveal his family's wealth to anyone but his financiers.

His remark about the amount of cash in his wallet is a reflection of his philosophy that the only money you can talk about is the money you can produce.

"Even we don't know how much he is worth," laughs his 29-year-old son, Binay, a Boston University graduate who has already taken over some aspects of the business. "He might be shy when it comes to that but you know what, he isn't shy to talk about his achievements and the work he has done."

Mr Shetty moved to Abu Dhabi in 1973 to make enough money to pay off a loan in India. He arrived alone, with little more than incredible optimism and sheer determination to make something of himself outside of India, where he had already tried and tested a number of career options including politics, flying and, later, a medical representative.

At 23, he was elected as vice chairman of the Municipal Corporation in Udupi, in his home state of Karnataka, and became heavily involved in social work in his home village. But, by 31, he says he was ready to leave.

"I took all the risks before marriage, I came here alone with no relatives. There was no job as a pharmacist though, as everyone spoke Arabic. But I didn't want to go back [to India] because I came with a lot of hopes," he says.

"I was seeing the souq pharmacists and they were keeping the stock in the homes as there were no proper storage facilities. I saw opportunity."

In those days a great deal of stock was damaged by the humidity and left to dry out before being sold. The pharmacies would also keep large quantities of medicines that they would continue to sell until stocks were exhausted, sometimes regardless of expiry dates.

"I told the [pharmaceutical] company I would sell the medicines properly. There was no concept of going out and selling."

To save money, he shared a room with four other people in a small house off what is now Electra Street. The house was demolished years later and, somewhat ironically, an NMC Hospital was built in its place.

At first, Mr Shetty would walk from souq to souq, selling to pharmacies directly, convincing them that buying fresh stock regularly was better than storing large amounts until it expired. In 1975, two years after arriving, he opened his own pharmacy, the first under the NMC umbrella.

The pharmacy was followed by the first clinic the next year.

"We started in the same building with one flat as my residence and my office, and another flat for the clinic," he says. "It was a two-storey building and eventually became a five-storey building.

"At that time I couldn't afford all the flats. I took them as I could afford them."

In 1980, he bought the UAE Exchange, taking on its Dh18 million debt and a fairly dire reputation. It now has more than 600 branches in 36 countries across five continents. It is this sort of risk-taking that he became well known for.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Mr Shetty, who was given an Order of Abu Dhabi Award in 2005, was not only contending with a growing business, he also had a growing family to provide for.

When he talks about his wife, Dr Chandrakumari Shetty, he does so with great respect and admiration, but also with a cheeky glint in his eye. It's clear she has played a huge part in her husband's success, not least because she raised their four children, three girls and a boy, and even now, continues to work eight-hour days as a family doctor. The two had a traditional arranged marriage and were introduced by their parents.

"I got a call from my mother who said, 'there's a quiet, humble girl, she's a doctor', and I thought that would help my business also, there was selfishness," he admits, grinning. "When we met, we clicked."

Dr Shetty, who says she is from a "humble beginning", has always worked in the family business as a doctor and also holds the title of Group Medical Director.

Even today she wears her white doctor's coat over her decorative sari, with a stethoscope draped around her neck.

"I never worked for the financial aspect, even at the beginning," she says. "My demands are simple, I'm not a shopaholic! I enjoy my work so as long as I am capable of working, I will work. And every day he finds something to keep me occupied," she says playfully to her husband.

The Shetty family rarely give personal interviews, choosing to keep most of their private lives out of the public eye. But once Mr Shetty starts talking, it's clear there are a few stories he relishes telling.

One in particular has all the ingredients of a good yarn - war, espionage and hamburgers. In 1990, shortly after arriving for a holiday in Tokyo, Japan, he received a phone call.

"I got a call from the American Embassy saying their army was coming, and could we cater for 2,500 troops? Then I saw the Gulf War had started." A restaurant already set up by the family, FoodLand, which still exists today, was not doing too well at the time but the war provided something of a lifeline. It was asked to provide chicken breasts for lunch and beefburgers for dinner.

With the US military willing to pay $60 a day per person, the two-and-a-half-month contract was worth more than $10 million and the American government was happy that their men were eating food that was safe and unadulterated.

Mr Shetty is a firm believer that hard work pays off, but also that without taking a few risks you will never get anywhere in life.

Sitting in his office in one of the many NMC buildings on Electra Street, he is surrounded by framed photographs of himself meeting various dignitaries including the late Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, and the former Indian president, APJ Abdul Kalam.

There are also photos of his children, of whom he is immensely proud. His eldest daughter, Neema, is a mother of two boys and a dental surgeon living in Australia.

His second daughter, Reema, has one boy and another child on the way. The youngest daughter, Seema, is a director at UAE Exchange and also owns BiteRite, a healthy food-delivery service. She has one daughter.

Binay, his only son, is sort of his father's right-hand man, preparing to take over the reins when his father eventually eases off.

Despite the family's wealth, they still live in apartments in the centre of the city, rather than a palatial villa on the outskirts. It is more convenient, Mr Shetty says, to all be together, and many of the villas are "all show" anyway.

But being past 70 years old, some might wonder why he insists on continuing to work. Why isn't he living a life of luxury and enjoying his retirement?

"As long as my health permits, I want to continue," he says with sincerity, adding that he wants to live in Abu Dhabi for the rest of his life. To an outsider, it is almost as if he cannot stop working.

He has spent so many years making sure the businesses thrive and creating a lasting legacy to his children, that he probably would not know what to do if life took a slower pace.

He is, however, giving his children more and more responsibilities, particularly his son.

"I have already handed over many things to Binay. He is more conservative than me and very careful," he smiles. "For me, when I came here I had nothing to lose."

Binay agrees he has a different way of doing things, often erring on the side of caution when at one time, his father may have dived in head first.

"It's not about new enterprises," Binay says.

"We have a different challenge, which is to develop the business. For my father it was about seeing opportunities, he was very good at that."