To most people, it remains unclear whether the suave and sophisticated Malvinder and Shivinder Singh are visionaries or mercenaries. If, on the one hand, you look at what they did with Ranbaxy, you’d say, mercenaries. The brothers inherited the company — once considered the original rock star of Indian pharma — from their father, the late Dr. Parvinder Singh. Parvinder was the kind of man who believed in long-term strategies and revelled in cracking open new markets. He showed his counterparts in the business how income can be earned in brutal markets like the US. To that extent, Ranbaxy was the Pole Star.
But when the brothers thought it right, they sold the Pole Star and their father’s dream to Japan’s Dai-ichi Sankyo for a cool Rs. 10,000 crore. Flush with funds, they’ve made fresh bets and a string of acquisitions. They made a $2-billion hostile bid for Singapore-based hospital chain Parkway Holdings through their Fortis Healthcare. This bid put them on a head -on collision path with arch rivals Apollo Healthcare who was backing rival bidder Khazanah, an entity owned by the Malaysian government. If the acquisition had gone through, Fortis would have emerged as Asia’s largest healthcare network.
But that was not to be and that round went Apollo’s way. The brothers, however, opted out of the race because they thought “the price too high”. In any case, along the way, they sold their 25 percent stake Parkway to Kazanah at a premium, pocketed $85 million, and walked away.
If, on the other hand, you factor their ambitious investments in Fortis and Religare, you’d be tempted to think of the brothers as visionaries. With the former, they want to be the McDonald’s of healthcare, and with the latter a financial services firm with global ambitions. More importantly, they have a few billion dollars stashed away to fund these businesses and they don’t mind spending it.
To figure what the brothers really are, you ought to look at their gene pool. Like we said earlier, their father was the long -term player. And then there’s his youngest brother, the maverick Analjit Singh who spotted opportunities before others did, built businesses out of them, and sold them with equal aplomb if the time was right. Remember Hutch Telecom?
Malvinder and Shivinder seem to have inherited in equal measure from the both of them — their father’s long-term outlook and their uncle’s pragmatic world view. When looked at from that perspective, things fall into place.
At Ranbaxy, growth was tapering off in the domestic market. In the US, it had enough troubles on its hands. In fact, soon after the brothers exited the company, the US Federal Drug Agency hit Ranbaxy with regulatory bans and Dai-ichi had to write down more than $2 billion in one time losses. It’s another matter altogether that they attracted a lot of flak for the sale from the stock markets where analysts were quick to dub them a pair out to make a killing and a quick buck.
Since then, the brothers have shrugged off criticism and have focussed on their new bets. Fortis Healthcare grew three times on the back of a string of acquisitions. With a market capitalisation of Rs. 6,600 crore, it is now more valuable than their bigger and more profitable competitor, Chennai-based Apollo Healthcare. Religare Enterprises, their finance company is valued at Rs. 6,000 crore, making it the fourth largest in the industry. The brothers recently resigned from Religare’s board, prompting suggestions the company may be vying for a banking license.
A Different Mindset
A family friend who did not wish to be named says that they have fallen back on unusual sources to find leaders to head their business. Both the brothers are ardent followers of the Radha Saomi Satsang sect.
Over time, they have often looked at fellow members from the sect to help run the companies. As early as 2001 the brothers approached another Satsang member and a family friend Sunil “Sunny” Godhwani, to lead the group’s foray in to the finance sector. Godhwani is chairman and managing director, Religare Enterprises.
Recruitment of the current CEO of Fortis, Bhavdeep Singh, is also said to have happened through a mutual friend at the Satsang. Says a close family friend, “The brothers may think global when it comes to scaling up their business, but they act very locally in many areas including hiring talent for their company.”
Bhavdeep vaguely recollects being surprised by a call he received one day from Shivinder Singh, asking if he was willing to head their hospital business. At that time, Bhavdeep, with over a decade’s experience running retail store operations in the US, was a senior executive at Reliance’s retail arm.
Bhavdeep says, “I initially found it rather unconventional that I be called to run a hospital business. But after meeting Shivinder a couple of times, I was convinced.” Shivinder wanted Bhavdeep’s skills to create a McDonald’s model for healthcare in India.
Shivinder’s bet of bringing in Bhavdeep seems to have worked. In the aftermath of wresting control of Escorts Hospital from renowned cardiologist Dr. Naresh Trehan, Shivinder upset doctors at the hospital, many of whom chose to quit the place. Bhavdeep with his experience in setting up systems began streamlining processes and reducing costs.