THE ACCIDENTAL ENTREPRENEUR
"A true entrepreneur should always be the contrarian and should work towards being the first to enter a new market. The first-mover advantage has enormous business value."
Health Management International Limited (HMI) is a public listed company on SGX since 1998.
A growing regional private healthcare group, HMI owns two tertiary care hospitals in Malaysia. The two hospitals are supported by a dedicated team of 200 specialist doctors and 1,600 staff across a comprehensive range of medical and surgical disciplines. Its representative offices in Indonesia and Singapore provide full assistance to foreign patients from neighbouring ASIA countries seeking affordable priced treatments at its hospitals.
HMI’s flagship hospital Mahkota Medical Centre was established in 1994 in Malacca, a top medical tourism destination in Malaysia. It is one of the most comprehensive hospitals focusing on medical sub-specialties with high surgical workloads. For it, HMI received numerous awards, including the “Malaysia Medical Tourism Hospital of the Year” by Frost & Sullivan.
Its second hospital, Regency Specialist Hospital established in 2009, is one of the fastest growing private tertiary hospitals in Malaysia. Strategically located within the fast developing and vibrant Iskandar Malaysia, Regency is easily accessible via land, sea or air from Singapore, Indonesia and the region. It is the only private hospital in Malaysia with an Emergency Specialist Centre, providing round-the-clock specialist attention and medical care to both local and international patients.
HMI also owns HMI Institute of Health Sciences, a SkillsFuture Singapore-accredited Continuing Education and Training Centre focused on training Singaporeans and Permanent Residents for a career in health care. As a social enterprise, HMI Institute commits to training more manpower to fill the void in the increasing acute care as well as step down care sector. It has trained more than 110,000 individuals in healthcare and life-saving skills,
As the eldest daughter born into a business-owning family, Dr Gan See Khem believes that entrepreneurs are not born — they are made.
From a life in academia to running one of the most prestigious private healthcare institutions in Asia, Dr Gan’s entrepreneurial journey was one that took her on an unexpected path.
Specialising in strategic planning and management during her tenure at the National University of Singapore, she was the first woman to join the business administration faculty of the University of Singapore (later to become the National University of Singapore) after earning her Ph.D. in Business Administration in England. She left after 15 years in NUS to embark on other endeavours.
Dr Gan’s grandfather, Gan Theng, founded Hong Bee Textiles Company Ltd in 1935. He was succeeded by Gan Yue Cheng, the second-generation leader who expanded Hong Bee’s portfolio to encompass a sprawling mix of plantation, textile, warehousing, township property and development businesses. Hong Bee needed Dr Gan’s expertise to restructure its portfolio and refocus its strategic direction. This she did from 1993 to 1998, leaving the university job she loved to become one of the company’s third-generation leaders.
At around the same time, a team of doctors — including her husband Dr Chin Koy Nam — were operating a small 60-bed secondary hospital in Balestier. The operation that started in 1991 did well until it was hit by the Asian financial crisis in the latter part of the decade. Having completed her restructuring efforts at Hong Bee, Dr Gan stepped in — once again as an accidental entrepreneur — to do the same for Balestier Medical Centre. The new name Health Management International was chosen to reflect the new strategic direction of going regional.
Today, Dr Gan is its Executive Chairman and Managing Director.
Additionally, she is an active figure in public services and currently serves on the Malaysia-Singapore Business Council. The first woman president of the Singapore Gan Clan, she is also distinguished as one of the first two women to become a council member at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1995. The other was Claire Chiang, co- founder of Banyan Tree Holdings Ltd.
Dr Gan was also previously on the Board of Trustees of the Institute of South East Asian Studies and Singapore Management University.
She was also a Nominated Member of the Singapore Parliament.
It’s fascinating how you moved from academia to healthcare!
My foray into business was accidental and I didn’t enter entrepreneurship until I was in my 40s. I am 72 now. I think I would have gone into business much earlier, if I have entrepreneurial ambition from the start of my career. It is never too late, I guess!!!
What are some lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
A true entrepreneur should always be the contrarian and should work towards being the first to enter a new market. The first-mover advantage has enormous business value. Always choose to lead than adopt a follow-the-leader strategy. And when the market becomes saturated, it is time to transform your business strategy, or use your existing resources to start a new first in a new market.
What have been the various milestones in the more than 2 decades in business?
At Mahkota Medical Centre, with slightly over 100,000 patients in 1999, we were able to quadruple to more than 400,000 patients annually by 2017. We were the first Malaysian hospital to reach out to patients from neighbouring countries. By 2017, Mahkota Medical Centre have received more than 100,000 patients annually, mainly from Indonesia as well as patients from Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Johor-based Regency Specialist Hospital has operated at 90% of its capacity since its 9th year of operations. Now we are constructing a second block which will double the size of the current premises. We are targeting Regency Specialist Hospital to be a 500-bed hospital, making this the largest referral hospital in the State of Johor. It’s been an amazing journey.
I have always been convinced that private health care facilities and services in Johor has been under-provided and not enough to fulfill the needs of the local population. When we started Regency, it was the first new hospital to be built in Johor after 30 years. The proximity to Singapore and the relatively lower cost of doing business makes this a suitable market for HMI to enter. We were given approval by the Singapore Ministry of Health to allow the usage of Medisave funds for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents.
We have also just announced the launch of StarMed Specialist Centre at Farrer Square, Singapore, the first of its kind in offering the wide spectrum of medical services within an outpatient setting. It will be the first ambulatory centre of its kind, equipped with operating theatres and a full range of services, at accessible rates.
Tell us about an achievement you are most proud of.
My most rewarding experience is the transformation of Mahkota Medical Centre from one in financial distress whose future was questioned, to being one of the key flagship hospitals in Malaysia.
HMI entered the Malaysian health care market through the acquisition of Mahkota Medical Centre in the midst of the Asia financial crisis. The rapid devaluation of the Ringgit and the ensuing political crisis created uncertainty and turmoil. I was confident enough to be a contrarian and took the plunge when no other investors were willing to invest in Malaysia.
Through a strategic revamp of the structure, systems and corporate culture of the hospital with doctors and staff, Mahkota Medical Centre was able to do a quick turnaround. Within a short span of time, she managed to be the hospital of choice for both local and foreign patients.
I credit the popularity of Mahkota as a preferred medical care destination for Indonesian patients to the fact that we were the first Hospital to reach out to the them. This is a time that no other Malaysian Hospitals were looking at that market. The other factor is that Indonesians adapt very easily to Malaysia Hospitals as the culture, language and food similarly poses no obstacles to them.
This is what I meant by first mover advantage which made Mahkota Medical Centre top of mind recall amongst patients from Sumatra and many part of Indonesia.
How does HMI set itself apart from the competition?
We are very focused in what we do. Unlike some of the larger groups with smaller hospitals in every town and city, we don’t spread ourselves too thinly and we develop our hospitals to be comprehensive one-stop shops with services and facilities that patients need in one place. Also, our regional strategy is straightforward: To offer quality care at affordable prices. Instead of charging 100 per cent of the approved fees under Malaysia hospital regulations and guidelines, our doctors charge between 60 to 80 per cent.
You were awarded the SG50 Outstanding Chinese Business Pioneers Award in 2015. What is your winning formula?
Old-fashioned values ingrained into us from a very young age. The value of integrity, of being responsible and truthful — all these will take you very far. I started HMI without much capital except the trust bestowed on me by my family, friends, business partners, shareholders and bankers. As a budding entrepreneur, you are nothing without the trust that others have in you.
How are you grooming the next generation to lead HMI?
During our most difficult days, my daughter Chin Wei Jia, who joined the company in 2002, had a “ringside seat” for all the difficult deliberations I had to make. And perhaps unknowingly, I have made an entrepreneur out of her too. Today, she is the chief executive officer of HMI.