Dr. A. Velumani: Forging A Dedicated Path
A student from an impoverished family, he was once prevented from entering the chemistry lab for being bare feet. In his twenties, he spent three days sleeping on Mumbai’s railway platform awaiting a coveted job interview. In his thirties, this father of two resigned from his lucrative career as a budding scientist in India’s leading Nuclear Research Centre to seek his fortune as an entrepreneur.
In October 1996, Dr. Arokiaswamy Velumani not only wrote his resignation letter, he also rewrote his own destiny. Today as Managing Director of Thyrocare, world’s largest Preventive Healthcare and Thyroid Testing Laboratory, he oversees a sprawling healthcare empire which boasts of many firsts.
If industry watchdogs were amazed in 2011 when Thyrocare was valued at Rs 650 crore, they were stunned in 2016 when its IPO (Initial Public Offering) was oversubscribed 75 times, catapulting its value to Rs 3,415 crore. Velumani still holds 64% of the company’s stock. Ironically, the man who landed in Mumbai with 400 rupees in his pocket, today has a personal net worth of a whopping Rs 2,185 crore.
Thyrocare is the world’s largest thyroid testing company with franchises covering nearly 2,000 cities across India, parts of Asia and the Middle East. It also runs one of India’s largest networks of fully-automated and globally-accredited diagnostic laboratories, processing over nine million samples and conducting over 130 million medical tests every year.
According to company-released data, Thyrocare collects 70,000 samples in a day; conducts 350,000 tests per night; and provides direct employment to a strong workforce of over a 1000 employees directly and 10,000 employees indirectly.
“The mean age of our workforce is 25 and for almost 90% of them, Thyrocare is their first employer. Of the hundreds of interviews that I attended while struggling to bag my first job, I was always rejected for the same reason – my inexperience,” states Velumani, who has gone against existing industry norms and hired mainly first-timers in a bid to provide them with a much-needed opportunity to gain experience.
He reasons, “If everyone hires experienced professionals, who will be the launch pad for our younger generation?” Well, the effort seems to be paid off as Velumani today leads a company which is full of dedicated, energetic, enthusiastic and hardworking set of employees who always give it their best and then some.
Forging a career
A revolutionary stance is not surprising from Velumani, especially to those who know of him, for he has always chosen the path less trodden.
Born to a landless farmer in the remote village of Appanickenpatti Pudur, in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, he grew up watching his mother toil hard selling buffalo milk in order to earn a measly amount to make ends meet. Anything other than corn was hard to come by during family meals, and it was no secret that the children were enrolled in the Town Panchayat Union School, more for the complimentary midday meals than for its courses, which did not extend beyond class five.
In stark contrast to a city-bred student, the challenges faced by a young Velumani right through his meagre upbringing were both unique and significant. Monsoons meant 50 days of skipping school to toil in the fields without letting the absence affect his grades – an early lesson in time management and planning. Buying footwear was a distant luxury in his household and he had been forbidden from attending the school lab, bare feet.
Never one to give up easily, he displayed early signs of entrepreneurship when he traded his neighbour’s farm fresh brinjals. After researching the crop’s market price, he sold them door-to-door, earning enough money to afford a new pair of slippers. The incident imparted a valuable life lesson too, “I realized that opportunities are all around us, even something as insignificant as brinjals could fetch a 140 percent profit.”
As a 20-year old Chemistry graduate from Coimbatore’s Ramakrishna Mission Vidyalaya, young Velumani’s dreams were pretty straightforward. At a time when graduates in Tamil Nadu were paid even less than watchmen, he admits to having studied chemistry with a singular goal in mind, that of landing a plum job at South India Viscose, a firm which paid 40 percent of one’s salary as the annual bonus. But it was not to be! He was rejected for his inexperience and finally ended up working as a shift chemist in Gemini Capsules, a small pharmaceutical company in Coimbatore; the paltry monthly salary of Rs. 150 which served as a boon for his family. He had consumed “Upma”, the only available luxury, three times in a day for 4 years since anything else was too costly with that salary. Even that was cruelly snatched away when the company shut down within three years.
What seemed to be a curse back then, “was actually a blessing in disguise,” recalls Velumani, as it dragged him out of his comfort zone and pushed him to test unexplored waters outside Tamil Nadu. “I was born at the bottom of the pyramid. That was something I could not change. But I was determined to see myself at the top and this seemed to be entirely in my own hands,” says the fearless entrepreneur nonchalantly.
In 1982, the city of dreams – Mumbai, came calling. It was sheer resolve which made him leave his loving family behind and set off on a long journey to an unfamiliar city. It was a somewhat harsh welcome for the young Tamilian who slept on the Mumbai VT railway platform for three straight days as he went through the interview process in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). It was on 18, 19 and 20 of August 1982. The available position was that of a Scientific Assistant and Velumani felt he had struck gold when he received the recruitment letter. BARC was a prestigious organization, and Velumani soon found himself surrounded by men and women of great learning and intellect. He too was bitten by the bug to study further.
“BARC allowed employees to earn and learn – a win-win situation for me. In 1982, I did not know where the thyroid gland was then. By 1992, I had a PhD in Thyroid Biochemistry and in 2002 I was running world’s largest Thyroid Testing Laboratory,” he recalls proudly. Armed with a master’s degree and a doctorate in thyroid biochemistry, he was now well equipped to effectively take a risk in life and do something for others.
The first leg
Rising to the rank of Scientist was a dream come true for the young doctor who was posted at the Radiation Medicine Centre (RMC) in BARC. As per social norms, Velumani was considered “settled” in life leading him to the next stage – marriage. That is when Mumbai girl Sumathi walked into his life. A banker by profession, her mature silence all through their first meeting almost won over his reluctance to get hitched.
“When we met, I spoke endlessly about all my liabilities hoping to dissuade her from the proposed marriage. But all she did was listen to me intently with no rebuttals whatsoever. I was amazed at her amazing grace and poise. When she agreed to the match, I thought – a woman who can remain so calm is quite uncommon. I didn’t think twice and decided to take the plunge,” he laughs in retrospect. Life seemed to be gliding by smoothly as their two children made the family complete. In his own words, “Sumathi skilfully weaved us together into one beautiful fabric. She moulded us, with a heart so pure and kind, that she truly defined my family and me”.
However, for a man prone to “Romancing with Risks”, a smooth ride wasn’t savvy at all! A restless Velumani knew he had a bigger calling; a grander plan was tugging at his heart. After almost 14 years at BARC, Velumani put in his papers. It was entirely a personal decision, not discussed with Sumathi. Expecting a shocked reaction from his spouse, Velumani hastily updated her with his lofty vision for the future.
Instead of criticising his impulsive move, Sumathi in a solid show of support towards her husband threw caution to the wind and offered to resign too and partner with him. Velumani agreed and the rest, as they say, is history! Bidding her cushy SBI job goodbye they both embarked on realizing the dream together. Aged 37, unemployed, and with a family of four to feed in a fast-paced, metropolitan city, some would say life had come a full circle for the penniless lad from Appanickenpatti Padur.
However, both life and Velumani had more glorious plans to unfold for each other. With this courageous move, Velumani seemed to have breathed life into John D. Rockefeller’s famous quote, “Don’t be afraid to give up the good, to go for the great.” One of his own inspirational thoughts promotes the same idea beautifully, “Not taking decisions is more damaging than making the wrong decisions. Since wrong decisions at least make you wiser for the next decision.”
Velumani has always prided himself on being strong-willed and steadfast in his decisions. Taking a leaf out of his onscreen idol Rajnikant’s dialogues, he quotes, “What I say once is akin to me having repeated it a thousand times over.” This shouldn’t be misconstrued as impulsiveness but simply as a high standard of self-belief and self-accountability.
Framing a dream
Velumani started his fledgeling business, Thyrocare in a humble 200 sq. ft. rented garage in South Mumbai using two lakh rupees from his provident fund savings. In the initial period, financial struggles and challenges became the order of the day as the young couple strived to find a firm footing. In such trying times, Sumathi motivated Velumani to march on towards his goals while she held together the fragile framework of home and work with exemplary patience and warmth. Adept at handling administrative matters and inter-departmental interactions, it was her infectious charm and her motivational words which made her the unmistakable backbone of Thyrocare.
Much of the credit for Thyrocare’s success can be attributed to Velumani’s strong sense of frugality. It is a virtue that has always stood him in good stead especially when he decided to resign and follow his heart.
He explains, “Together Sumathi and I earned around Rs 10,000 monthly. After spending just Rs 4,000, we were able to save Rs 6,000 each month. This left us with a savings amount of Rs 2.90 lakhs. This meant our family could live for 50 months comfortably. That is the power of frugality. For us, frugality does not mean being miserly as many would like to believe. It is spending to live in ease, instead of trying to please the neighbours.”
To this day Velumani walks the talk and is perhaps one of the few business magnates who neither own a flashy house nor a swanky car. His family still resides in Laboratory within the company’s corporate office. His children too have grown up believing in the same ideologies as their father – the man many choose to refer to as a true visionary of modern India.
While Thyrocare began with a focus on 15g Gland, Thyroid, it steadily expanded into varied areas of diagnostics including diabetes, hypertension, infertility, bone-cancer growth and cardiovascular ailments. Today with only 28% of the samples being for thyroid tests, Velumani is attributed with introducing the ‘buffet system’ in diagnostics.
Thyrocare has 1,250 franchised centres across the country, where blood and serum samples are collected directly from patients and also from hospitals in the vicinity. These are then airlifted to the main Centralized Processing Laboratory (CPL) in Turbhe, Navi Mumbai and five Regional Processing Laboratories (RPL) in major Indian metros. Internationally, the company also has a presence in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Bangladesh.
With Thyrocare, Velumani has learnt and evolved well researched Aarogyam packages for understanding and monitoring Wellness. While all his peers were focused on diseases and were in sickness, he moved to disorders which are wellness. With the Aarogyam brand, Thyrocare ventured into preventive care which has reached millions making it a trusted household name in the healthcare sector.
True to his rural origins, Velumani has always remained a son of the soil at heart. Having experienced first-hand the health struggles faced at the grassroots level, he vowed to make Thyrocare a brand for the masses. The goal has always been to reach out to the poor by providing them with the same standards of service that the wealthy have access to.
Thyrocare boasts of a wide network that covers far-flung remote areas too. Using air cargo system and numerous collection centres, Thyrocare collects samples and transports them securely to the main testing laboratories. The average market rate for such a profile is Rs 500, though all his peers charge 1,500 while swankier hospitals may charge up to Rs 5,000 or more. While no one understood what impact volume can have in laboratory business, he achieved a rate of 300,000 tests a night. Thyrocare provides top-class service for a quarter of that amount. With this, Velumani has struck the perfect balance between philanthropy and an astute business sense.
By offering easily accessible preventive care at highly affordable rates, the company faces no real competition in the diagnostic industry. Along with pricing, profit sharing is also a key success influencer. While other franchise models are based on a profit distribution model favouring the parent brand, Velumani’s format operates differently. He has handed over a meatier 50% share of the profit to franchisees when his peers were negotiating for a 20% only. His generosity is born out of a keen sense of business acumen.
“Success,” he says, “grows when it is shared. I make others win; in turn, they make me a winner.” He equates Thyrocare to ‘Walmart + McDonalds’. He explains, “Walmart for their volumes and McDonalds for their focused menu.” By creating the perfect paradise for all parties involved, he has truly mastered the complexities of running his vast empire and has been rightfully christened as “The King of Logistics” by industry peers.
Thrill in success
Velumani is a thrill monger. He says leaving home in 1982 was a thrill, marrying a Mumbai born girl was a thrill, leaving Government job was for a thrill. Diluting the equity when no money was needed is for a thrill and finally accepting and going for an IPO was also for only thrill.
In April 2016, the nation watched agog as Thyrocare grabbed the headlines as its initial public offering (IPO) was oversubscribed 75 times. For the financial year ending March 2018, the company’s standalone revenue is at a whopping Rs 350 crore with a 40% plus operating profit margins. He says “In the entire world, India is cheapest in Healthcare. In entire India, I am the cheapest. But my balance sheet has the highest profit margin in the entire world, among organized players”. The astounding success is a befitting tribute to one of the most intriguing, real life, a rags-to-riches story that is sure to find an extraordinary mention in annals of Indian corporate history.
Intelligent systems, stringent quality control measures and skilled manpower have led Thyrocare to be considered as a benchmark for quality by stakeholders in the diagnostic industry. Velumani’s futuristic trysts with technology have won the company many accolades.
In 2001, Thyrocare was accredited by ISO for commitment to quality and certified by CRISIL as a Standalone Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory with Grade A. It was one of the nation’s first diagnostic laboratories to obtain ISO’s 9001-2000 accreditation as early as 2001. Thyrocare was also accredited by The College of American Pathologists (CAP) and The National Accreditation Board for Testing (NABL) for meeting global standards of quality and competence in testing.
A tragic pause
All magnificent, heroic tales are meant to have a tragic twist, and it’s true of this one too! On October 2, 2015, Sumathi was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer giving her less than five months to live. Velumani braced himself to face the toughest battle of his life. What ensued was a heart-breaking, somewhat ugly war with the frustrating hypocrisies prevalent in the medical sector.
“From complacence, arrogance, lies, fallacies and greed to politics, claims, frauds and failures, our saga had it all in ample measure,” he says, grimly recalling his wife’s final days. On the fateful day – February 13, 2016, Sumathi stopped by his office on the way to her ‘whipple surgery’ (a common procedure to remove tumors in the pancreas). She paused for a few seconds allowing Velumani to glance up from his file. Never one to disturb him during work hours, the selfless and ever smiling Sumathi simply smiled and uttered “bye” as she hurried along for her scheduled surgery. Velumani responded, “Take care”- without realizing that this was her final goodbye to him, to their children and to their beloved Thyrocare – the precious child that they had nurtured together.
Sumathi’s passing away snatched away the sprawling umbrella of warmth, stamina and positivity that had safeguarded Thyrocare since birth. However, Velumani realises that the finest homage to his much-missed wife would be to carry her legacy forward by continuously building on the company’s existing strengths.
The couple’s children – son Anand and daughter Amruta, both possess a Masters in Biotechnology and have infused their youthful and energetic spirit in the family business. Velumani’s siblings and Sumathi’s siblings supported him unconditionally and helped them to move on with least hardships. He has been a loving mentor and guide to them for decades. Today, one of his brothers Mr. A Sundararaju who was a co-promoter continues as Chief Financial Officer at Thyrocare.
In recent times, Velumani has enjoyed addressing seminars and conferences attended by budding entrepreneurs and technocrats. Whilst sharing his real-life experiences with them he encourages them to spot opportunities and to remain focused in pursuing them despite the setbacks and obstacles.
Velumani concedes, “It’s easy to lose focus in the face of temptation. But one must always tread the path that is right instead of opting for the path that is easy. Success comes to those who persist despite all odds. The life of an innovator is not easy; it is riddled with uncertainties and setbacks. But, instead of looking for workarounds or excuses, one must find a sustainable solution and keep labouring on.”
Succeeding in the over-saturated diagnostic industry wasn’t a cakewalk for Thyrocare. It was possible only through innovative breakthroughs and persistent efforts. “Always be a learner,” propounds Velumani, “The day you stop learning, you become a fossil. Learn through adversities and observation. Learn from others’ mistakes… just keep learning and growing.” In all his talks, he does not fail to recall the contributions of his mother or his wife or both. He believes that “If a man succeeds, a man succeeds. If a woman succeeds, entire family succeeds.”
A pearl of wisdom
For the many aspiring entrepreneurs Velumani, who has faced and braced several storms and lived to tell the tale, has something to tell. “The mantra is simple. Focus. Learn. Grow and Enjoy. And remember never to change that order!”
At 59, Velumani seems to have done it all. He’s running an exceedingly successful business; he has startled the Indian bourses, graced some of the most celebrated magazine covers and given inspirational talks to youngsters and professionals alike. While his personal worth makes industry stalwarts sit up in surprise, his company is being closely studied for being a successful business model. Yet Dr. A. Velumani seems to be a man in a hurry. He seldom idles around and still believes in making every minute count.
The man is an institution and the most befitting toast to his towering yet humble personality lies in Robert Frost’s legendary lines,
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”