If it weren’t for a providential meeting with a man in the UAE in 1987, Dr Azad Moopen, chairman of Aster DM Healthcare, would have been nothing but an anonymous doctor from the small town of Kalpakancheri in Kerala, who taught at a nearby medical university. His name would have faded into the annals of time, one among the thousands of doctors who struggle to make the health care system in the country rumble forward. Today, he believes that the man, who persuaded him to stay back and open a clinic at Al Raffa in Dubai, was a means of divine intervention in his life. In fact, he attributes to God’s grace the expansion of his health care empire from that single clinic to over 92 clinics, 18 hospitals and 206 pharmacies in the Middle East and India. Today, Aster employs over 2,000 doctors and 6,000 nurses. As of May 20, 2017, Forbes listed his net worth as $1 billion.
“Once you make it big, people don’t see the failures behind your success; they simply think you have the Midas touch,” says Moopen. “I believe I have a high grit index. No matter how many times I’ve fallen, I’ve always picked myself up. Of course, there is an element of luck. Different people call it different things. I prefer to call it God’s grace. That and hard work have led me to where I am today. For many years, I used to work from 8 in the morning to midnight.”
I meet him at Aster Medcity, a state-of-the-art 670-bed multispeciality hospital in Kochi. He’s one of those men who wears a habitual smile even when they’re not saying or hearing anything particularly amusing. It puts you instantly at ease and you’re left with the impression that even if your questions wade into dangerous territory, that smile won’t waver. It makes me brave enough to dart a few sharp arrows, like how money-minded he might be to turn health care into a business. He dodges them smoothly while proving me right; the smile stays put.
“If the government was able to provide efficient and satisfactory health care to the people, then yes, there would be no need for health care as a business,” he says. “In India, less than 3 per cent of the GDP is spent on health. Only 30 per cent of people’s health care needs is met by government institutions.”
In such a scenario, he says, private players have an important role in ensuring health care is made available to everyone. Aster has three rungs of hospitals and clinics: Medcare for high income groups, Aster for mid-income families and Access for blue-collar workers. The reality, says Moopen, is that health care is becoming very expensive, owing to the rise in equipment cost and salaries to be paid to doctors. And yes, he does look at health care as a business. “After all, we have a responsibility to our investors and the banks from which we’ve taken loans.”
Moopen has earmarked 20 per cent of his wealth for the poor and the needy. He says he hopes to increase it to 80 per cent after his retirement. “God has been very kind to me. He has given me health, wealth, education and a loving family. I believe it’s my responsibility to give back to society. I believe being in the business of health care, it’s very easy for me to do that. We touch the lives of people every day.” He lists the various initiatives of the Aster group from setting up dialysis units in various parts of Kerala and mobile clinics at the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan to contributing over 1,50,000 food packets to be shipped to Somalia.
When I channel the interview into more personal terrain, he turns contemplative. “I’ve realised that wealth is not the only thing that’s important in life,” he says. “It is important to balance the different roles in your life, whether it is your role as a husband, father, businessman or a social being. If you’re a doctor and focus only on practising medicine, you might be known as a good doctor, but on your death bed, you’ll regret not giving importance to other things. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt late in life. I focused so much on my career, I’ve lost the childhood of my children. Now I’m trying to make up for it by enjoying my grandchildren.”
His wife Naseera and he have three daughters. The eldest, Alisha, is executive director and CEO of the hospitals and clinics in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). The second, Ziham, is working in the education sector in the UAE. His youngest daughter, Zeba, is a doctor and is Aster’s director of special projects. He has four grandchildren—Noah, Layah, Iman and Azhar.
“He played an instrumental role in my childhood even when he wasn’t always there,” says Alisha. “We would rarely see him in the evenings as he would be working until late. When we needed help with schoolwork, we would leave a note for him at night to get his ideas and thoughts on projects and assignments. Without fail, he would have answered our queries well before we woke up to go to school. He found time for us even when he was working 18 hours a day. He struck a great work-life balance without ever compromising on either.”
It’s not just his family but his business associates, too, seem to think highly of him. “What struck me when I first saw him was how down-to-earth he was,” says Harsh Mariwala, chairman of the Marico group. “He’s one of the rare few who is a great doctor as well as a great businessman. But he has no airs about him. It’s very easy to get along with him.”
Moopen narrates an incident when he was playing with his seven-year-old granddaughter. When his phone beeped, he turned his attention to his messages and started mechanically answering her questions. Then she asked a question that made him look up: Whom did he love most in the world?
“As none of my other grandchildren was there, I could confidently answer that I loved her the best,” he says with a chuckle.
“I don’t think so,” his granddaughter replied. “I think it’s your phone that you love best in the world.” Moopen was shocked. “After that, I decided to give my wholehearted attention to whomever I’m conversing with. Even if the phone rings, I will not pick it up.”
He stayed true to his word and never once did his attention waver while speaking to me. Afterwards, when he led me outside, I noticed he extended the same warmth to his employees, shaking the hand of one, enquiring after the family of another. “Even when he gets angry with one of us, he does it in a very mild-mannered way,” one of them tells me in the elevator. “Never once have I seen him lose his cool.”