‘Would I have the guts to do it now? I don’t think so. I was much younger and more adventurous at the time,’ says Thumbay Moideen, a smile playing on his face.
We are seated in the plush office of the multibillion Thumbay Group in Ajman, and its founder and president is recollecting the days of his initial foray into the education and healthcare sector in the UAE.
An extremely successful third generation timber businessman from the southern Indian city of Mangalore, Thumbay was on his way to Tanzania on business when he stopped by in Ajman to spend a few days with family members based here.
That December of 1997 would be a major turning point in his life. A chance meeting with a member of the ruling family of Ajman would pave the way for the setting up of what would become one of the biggest conglomerates in the region and make Thumbay one of the 50 richest people in the GCC with an estimated wealth that is close to $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion).
‘Over dinner, the Shaikh asked me if I could think of a good project for the country that would have multiple effects on the economy,’ recalls Thumbay. After a moment’s thought, the Indian businessman suggested that a medical college would be an apt project.
‘I explained that back in my hometown of Mangalore, a medical college and hospital – Kasturba Medical College in Manipal – that had come up on the outskirts of the city had completely changed the area, creating a township that had become more famous than the city itself not only in India but even internationally.’
Dinner over, Thumbay pretty much forgot about the conversation until a couple of days later, he received a call from the Ruler’s Court for a meeting. ‘The Ruler of Ajman [His Highness Shaikh Humaid Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi] asked me more about my background and said that he had heard about my suggestion regarding the college and hospital and wanted to know if I would be interested in setting it up in the emirate. I explained that being in the timber business I did not really have much knowledge about it. But he shook my hand and said “You set it up. I shall support you”.’
A tad apprehensive, but excited about this new prospect, Thumbay, in his early forties at the time, decided to go ahead. ‘Once I decide on something, I do not like to waste time,’ he says. Cutting short his business trip to Tanzania, he returned to India. There he got together a group of expert consultants from some of the top universities to do a thorough market study before creating a feasibility plan for the proposed medical college.
Thumbay, an award-winning businessman who consistently features on Forbes’ list of top business leaders in the Arab world, remembers how his father was sceptical when he told him about the plans for a college. ‘One of the first questions he asked me was if I was crazy,’ recalls the genial Thumbay. ‘You are a timber man and you are talking about setting up a medical college’, my father said. But I told him that I found the project to be an interesting challenge and something I was sure would be a success.’
Thumbay’s gut instinct and optimism wouldn’t be misplaced.
Back in Ajman, he got busy with the project. The first road block, though, was when the Indian businessman found that existing rules did not permit an expat to set up an institute for higher education in the emirate. ‘When I brought this to the notice of the authorities, the very kind and considerate Ruler promptly issued a decree that allowed expats to set up higher education institutions,’ he says.
Thumbay then generated the blueprint for the college and approached the Ruler. ‘I said I need land – some 25 acres – for the college. Almost immediately the Ruler gifted me a plot in the emirate,’ he says. But there was a hitch. When Thumbay approached banks for a loan, he was refused. The banks said they could not provide mortgage on land that had been gifted; he had to own it.
‘I went back to the Ruler’s Court and explained my predicament, but His Highness had a solution. “You can buy it,” he told me. ‘So for a very nominal fee, I bought the land and in the process became one of the biggest landlords in the expat community at the time,’ he says, smiling proudly.
All hurdles cleared, Thumbay did not have to look back. With an initial investment of around $40 million in bank loans and his own capital, the Gulf Medical College – which would later become Gulf Medical University – came up within a year, throwing open its doors for students in November 1999.
Although Thumbay expected a majority of Indian students to be enrolling in the college, he was pleasantly surprised when students from some 30 countries queued up for seats. ‘That was proof that our college is truly international,’ says the business magnate who has been ranked 11th in Forbes list of Middle East’s Top 100 Indian Leaders of 2018.
Three years later, in 2002, a hospital came up where medical students could be trained as well.
The medical college though, was not the first time the soft-spoken businessman was tasting success.
Growing up in Mangalore, Thumbay had proved that he had a knack for building on success when at 23 and just getting a feel of the family business, he embarked on his first adventurous venture. ‘I bought a piece of land, worked hard and developed it before selling it, in the process making a tidy profit,’ he says. The success boosted his confidence and the young Thumbay invested in a real estate project in nearby Bengaluru. With that too a success, the entrepreneur’s career graph began to climb.
‘From a young age, I was a very ambitious chap,’ admits Thumbay, leaning back in the white leather sofa and attempting to list the reasons for his success.
‘I was also a dreamer. I still am. I never hesitate to think big and dream big. I believe that one should not have limits when it comes to dreams. I’m over 60 now, yet I do not allow age to limit my dreams in any way.
‘The first time I began handling my father’s timber business, I dreamed of growing the business at least 10 times.’ He also ensured the plans did not remain mere dreams. Putting his all into it, ‘I realised that dream’, he says.
That is a reason his one piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs is to dream big. ‘I keep telling my sons, too, to dream big. You don’t hurt anyone when you dream, do you? You don’t have to pay anyone to dream, right? So why limit your dreams. Have the wildest dreams – then work hard to realise them,’ says the father of two.
Thumbay credits his grandfather Yenepoya Mohammed Kunhi for inspiring him.
‘In many ways, he was my mentor; he had several qualities that I found inspiring and attractive,’ says the far-sighted magnate. ‘He was God-fearing, extremely ethical in all his dealings, generous and willing to help the needy. He was very hard working and right until the day he passed away, would go to office regularly to oversee the business.’
Another quality of his that Thumbay emulates is that of being family-oriented. ‘Like him, my life, too, revolves around my work and my family, and I believe it’s important to have a right balance of both,’ says the Ajman resident.
Not wishing to rest on his laurels with the medical college – the first in the region in the private sector – and keen to scale up medical education facilities across the UAE, Thumbay set up a string of teaching hospitals in Fujairah, Sharjah and Dubai. Family clinics, daycare hospitals and pharmacies quickly followed.
Having made a mark in the healthcare sector, Thumbay went on a diversification spree, in the process making a mark in not less than a dozen different sectors including opticals, hospitality, real estate, publishing, technology, medical research, events, medical tourism and marketing and distribution.
He smiles when I mention that his group appears to have its fingers in quite literally every pie in the market. ‘Our vision is to be a global player,’ says the entrepreneur who has an arm-long list of awards including being honoured by the House of Lords in the UK for his contributions in the field of healthcare and medical education.
His vision for the healthcare business is clearly in focus: ‘By 2022, we plan to have around 1,000 beds in the UAE, 1,500 beds in India and close to 1,000 in the Gulf and Africa including a medical school in Ghana, increasing the total number of our hospitals to 15.’ In this venture, he is supported by his son Akbar Moideen Thumbay, vice-president of the healthcare division. Thumbay’s second son Akram heads Thumbay Technologies and is also director of operations of the construction and renovation division.
Did he at any time foresee Thumbay Group rising to such dizzying heights?
‘No,’ he says without a moment’s thought. ‘I seriously did not think we would be where we are today when we started off in 1998.’
Constant innovation – for instance, when GMU graduates required more advanced training and research facilities, Thumbay group opened a 200-bed teaching hospital in Ajman – and the determination to scale up operations and work to the optimum at all times are what power the group to stay ahead of competition, he says.
‘Every time we take a relook into our business verticals, we think there is potential to scale it up further. And we work towards that. In fact, we think that it is possible to scale everything up at least 10 times more than it is right now.’
His son Akbar seconds that. ‘Discussing ways to scale up business is something we indulge in regularly – often even at the dining table,’ he says.
‘Dad has taught us the importance of building a good team, working hard and never giving up at any cost. Those values are what guides us to excel,’ says the mechanical engineering graduate who also qualified in hospital management from Italy.
Akbar is glad to have his father sitting in the ‘office next door so I can consult him at any point’, adding that the best thing is that ‘my dad gives me the space to do the kind of things that I want to do and allows me to do things independently’.
Proud to take us on a tour of the hospital facilities and cutting-edge medical labs where scientists are busy in research, Thumbay wants to scale things up and push boundaries. ‘I’m planning more labs in our hospitals,’ he says.
Settling in the sofa after the photoshoot, Thumbay is convinced one should follow one’s gut instinct when taking decisions. ‘It’s something that I have always followed,’ he admits.
Does he still do so when planning a new business venture?
‘Yes, I definitely do,’ he says. ‘As far as possible I try to visit the places where we are setting up operations to see and get a ‘feel’ of the place for myself. I like to get a vibe of the place; then I trust my gut feeling.’
He makes it clear that the gut feeling is not purely an emotional response but is rooted in logic. ‘For instance, if it’s a hospital I’m setting up, I would choose a place where there is a reasonably large number of people and which can be easily accessible. So yes, ground realities and conditions do matter a great deal. And they should be considered when taking major decisions.’
Experience, he believes, helps one develop that kind of gut feeling. ‘Experience is crucial when it comes to taking major decisions.’
Was there ever a moment when he felt like quitting?
Thumbay mulls the questions for a while. ‘We have been through some extremely tough challenges, but, no, at no point did I feel like quitting. Never,’ he says. ‘It’s not in my nature to give up. I don’t like to say I’m losing.’
What’s his greatest strength?
The 61-year-old looks out of the office window for a while. ‘Every morning I get up and say ‘This is the day; this is the day I’m going to be doing something amazing’. I’m very positive and optimistic. I’d say those are my greatest strengths,’ he says.
Admitting that he has ‘absolutely no regrets in life’, Thumbay believes that every phase of life has been a learning experience for him. ‘When I was in the timber business, I learnt a lot – how to deal with the workers, with various government entities… They were valuable lessons,’ says the man, who has even learnt how to fly a helicopter. ‘I had to often travel to secluded areas in Tanzania, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia and often there would be no roads. The only way into the forest was by a helicopter. So I decided to learn how to fly a chopper so it would help me save time finding a pilot.’
He then leans forward: ‘Do you know I was once a rally car driver? I have raced individually as well as part of a team in India.’
Now in the driving seat of his company, Thumbay likes to model his business on that of the well-known Indian business house of Tatas. ‘What’s good about Tatas is that they are ethical. That is my role model. And their CSR initiatives are amazing. In every business, it’s important to have a good CSR programme.’
The Thumbay Group too has a slew of initiatives. ‘In the 25-odd Blends & Brews coffee shops across the country, any needy person can walk in and have a coffee for free. We also have a chain of restaurants called Terrace and outside each outlet is a refrigerator where any one can pick up a meal. This is not just during Ramadan but all through the year,’ he says.
An adventure lover, he is convinced that ‘travel is a great teacher. It taught me a lot and opened my mind tremendously’.
Thumbay’s wife, Zohra, an accomplished artist, is ‘my strong support. I, being an adventurous person it’s important to have someone who will ground me,’ he says.
Until recently, Thumbay, who regularly puts in close to 12 hours at work every day, used to work ‘for a few hours on Friday as well, simply because I enjoy working.
‘But I recently stopped working on weekends; my three grandkids keep me busy at home,’ he says with a laugh.