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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

BR Shetty, the astute businessman who turned $8 into $1bn

This is the man who arrived in the capital with US$8 in his pocket in 1973, and proceeded to build two of the most successful and enduring business in the UAE.
BR Shetty still has big plans for the healthcare and financial business in the UAE and abroad. Delores Johnson / The National
BR Shetty still has big plans for the healthcare and financial business in the UAE and abroad. Delores Johnson / The National

BR Shetty is self-effacing almost to the point of mischief: “I am really just an ordinary salesman and deliveryman,” he says.

But the shelves of glittering awards in his office, the Order of Abu Dhabi medal pinned to his suit jacket, and the track record suggest otherwise.

This is the man who arrived in the capital with US$8 in his pocket in 1973, and proceeded to build two of the most successful and enduring business in the UAE: the hospitals and pharmacy group NMC Healthcare, and the remittance chain UAE Exchange.

Now, with NMC listed on the London Stock Exchange and UAE Exchange about to clinch a transformational takeover of the global foreign-exchange network Travelex, Mr Shetty is estimated to be worth a cool $1 billion, owns the 100th floor of Burj Khalifa in Dubai, among other baubles, and is regarded as one of the best-connected businessmen in the UAE.

Now in his 70s, he could be excused for wanting to push back from the desk and take some time with his large family, but that does not seem likely: he still has big plans for the healthcare and financial business in the UAE and abroad.

The story of the $8 suggests humble beginnings in his native Karnataka state in southern India, but in fact his family were local landlords and politicians. Mr Shetty himself played a role in civic affairs, and got qualified in pharmacy, before fate took a hand, as he explains.

“My sister was going to marry and I would provide her dowry. I didn’t want to take money from the family so I borrowed it from a bank, and then found I couldn’t repay it. My mother offered to repay it for me, but I’m a man. So I decide to come to the UAE. It was a new country, a land of opportunity,” he says.

In the 1970s, health care and pharmacy were underdeveloped. “I found a good premises and developed a good stocking system, and I became the first outdoor salesman of pharmaceuticals in the place. I was a medical rep, selling to pharmaceuticals and hospitals. I remember being one of the first to sell cartons of Nivea cream, which was quite rare then, and I earned a good reputation,” he recalls.

He saw a bigger opportunity in the healthcare market, then operating under the slogan of Sheikh Zayed “quality for all at affordable cost”, and in 1975 opened the first NMC clinic in Abu Dhabi. In the boom years that followed NMC virtually took on the role of a national health service, clinching big contracts with oil companies, the diplomatic circuit and the core Emirati market.

The financial crisis caught NMC at the wrong stage of the cycle. “Credit was tight. We found we had problems paying salaries and for supplies, and we had bank debt and creditors,” he says.

Fortunately, Mr Shetty had friends in high places, specifically Abdullah Al Mazroui, the Emirati grandee who had been his original sponsor for NMC, and Saeed bin Buti Al Qubaisi, a mover and shaker in the Abu Dhabi establishment who runs the multibillion-dirham financial business Centurion Investments.

Centurion injected equity into NMC, wiping out its bank debt. In 2012, that deal came full circle when NMC listed its shares in London. Their subsequent rise has earned hundreds of millions of pounds for Mr Shetty’s backers. Just recently, he handed Mr Al Qubaisi another substantial profit by buying shares worth about £46 million (Dh289.2m) from him. Mr Shetty owns 25 per cent of NMC, which is valued at £928m.

The NMC coup enhanced his reputation as a “rainmaker” – a profit earner – in business circles, so it was no surprise his backers were also interested in his other major business, UAE Exchange. Mr Shetty had taken this over in the late 1970s, and made it into a leading player in the booming remittance business.

“My mother’s blessing when I left India was to be of good service to the workers. Back then, workers had to queue for eight hours to send money home, and sometimes travel a long way to do it,” he says, explaining why he expanded UAEX to 700 offices in 30 countries, with a heavy focus on South Asia.

But the acquisition of Travelex is a game-changer for Mr Shetty and his financiers. No value has officially been put on the firm’s 1,500-branch network, owned by private equity backers, but speculation of a price tag around $1bn seems accurate.

“Travelex was my own acquisition. I have known them a long time and saw the opportunity. They approached me a year or so back as a potential buyer,” he explains

Even with his formidable financial resources, it is unlikely Mr Shetty has put up all, or even most, of that amount. His friends at Centurion, already equity partners in UAEX, appear to have answered the call again. “It is my own business, but my partners are my bankers. My strength is sweat.

“The bankers see my passion and success, they are open to me and they say ‘how much do you want?’ ” he says.

If Mr Shetty call pull off an NMC-type trick with UAEX/Travelex, listing it on a stock market for billions of dollars, his backers will have even more reason to thank him.

But that is not the end of his ambitions. He is considering building medical colleges in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and reels off a list of western investors willing to back the projects with hundreds of millions of dollars.

He also wants to expand in financial services, possibly with a full banking licence in the UAE in an operation to focus on micro-finance and SME funding; and he is keen to get a full banking licence in India. “I’m sure I will get it soon,” he says.

Perhaps then he will be able to influence Indian financial policy, which brings us back to the famous $8. “Back in 1973, that was all I was allowed to take out of the country by the Indian foreign exchange controls then in place,” he explains, only slightly deflating the myth.

fkane@thenational.ae

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