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August 2011  
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Home - Life - Article

Fighter for Underdogs

His urgency to work with the masses for their upliftment led him on the path to care for the terminally ill. An established oncosurgeon and successful entrepreneur, Dr BS Ajaikumar (60), CEO, HCG hospitals shares his success mantra and reveals his lighter side, in conversation with M Neelam Kachhap

Seated in his fifth floor office I wondered if the sexagenarian seated across me had an interesting story to tell. And sure enough Dr BS Ajaikumar has no inhibition in sharing his tale of humble beginnings to creating an international brand that has changed the face of private cancer care in India. Amidst the wild wind and rain hitting though the glass planes of his office, Dr Ajaikumar settles down to talk about his life.

Like all stories of success, his story too has inspiring mistakes, continuous challenges and difficult times when it seems there is no road ahead. Yet Dr Ajaikumar says and believes that success comes to those who are determined, hard working and who stand up for the principles they believe in.

Born in August 1951, to the then Dean of Law School, Bangalore, young Ajai grew up among political debates, talks of socialism and a need to do the right thing for the society. He had an inclination to the then communist party values and wanted to fight for the underdogs of the society to bring equality among all. Filled with all these ideas he had never in his wildest dreams thought of a career in medicine.

As a second born, his elder brother was his role model and best friend. His life took an interesting turn when young Ajai on the brink of matriculation was challenged by his brother to perform well in the final exam. Promising himself that he would score good marks, 15-year-old Ajai set to a life of discipline and sure enough did very well in his exams. From there on he followed his brother, first to the MBBS college and then to the US for further studies. He choose oncology during his higher study as he saw it as great challenge. Having witnessed the pain that the oncology patients undergo, he took it up as a challenge to add life to years of these patients.

In 1975, he joined the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, US and went on to complete his fellowship in Radiation Oncology and Medical Oncology from the MD Anderson's Tumour Hospital and Institute, Houston, US. Later, he established a cancer center near Chicago and practiced there till he came back to India.

At the time when Dr Ajai wanted to come to India and establish a private cancer care centre, there were not many takers for his idea. However, he got support from his peers. In 1989, he along with a group of five oncologists started the Bangalore Institute of Oncology (BIO), the only private cancer hospital at that point of time in Bangalore. BIO was the precedator of another hospital called Curie Centre of Oncology, which the group acquired in April, 2000. The next year, encouraged by their success and with the goal of offering comprehensive cancer care the group set up a holding company— HealthCare Global Enterprises (HCG) in 2001.

HCG has its own success story to tell with a network of 20 centres across the globe, the rapidly growing hospital chain is attracting both patients and investors alike. Recently the company has received it’s fourth private equity investment of Rs ` 31.2 crore from Milestone Religare Investment Advisors.

He has lived life on his own terms, having instituted the largest private tertiary cancer care chain of hospitals in India. His journey of over 20 years talk of strong will and determination. Even though his contemporaries tasted financial success operating on a multi-super-speciality tertiary care model, Dr Ajai stuck to his guns providing tertiary care in only one specialty – oncology.

Being a cancer specialist he knew the hardships patients had to face looking for tertiary care cancer hospitals traveling miles away from home and sometimes breathing their last in faraway cities away from family. Dr Ajaikumar wanted to reach out to such patients and bring cancer care closer to their home. This was one of the primary reasons to set-up HCG hospitals in places like Ranchi and Simoga. Today, there are a total of 20 hospital spanning the length and breadth of India, yet he feels that there are areas which can still benefit from his hospitals.

His work defines him and it also consumes him, so its difficult to imagine Dr Ajaikumar doing anything else but consulting and surgery. However, this enthusiast has in his prime played tennis and was the city champion in Chicago suburbs. He also enjoyed the rigours of mountaineering and trekking. Having enjoyed the beauty of Rocky mountain range in America and Kanchanjunga base camp among others. Exercise like running and swimming also interest him and he has also run some of the marathons in Chicago.

He is also a family man and a loving father. You can tell by the way he tells you about his children. He brims with pride when he talks of his son who is studying English literature major, braving muscular dystrophy. Or his elder daughter who is in US for higher study. With sparkle in his eyes he talks about his twin daughters who are to perform a dance recital next month and he invites me for it.

He swears by the inspiring stories his mother used to tell him. Mostly tales from granth of Ramayana and Mahabharata. It left a lasting impression on his young mind and shaped much of the character that he is today.

Interestingly, he does not believe in God, but has a strong sense of right or wrong. A self-confessed agnostic Dr Ajai believes that there is no substitute for hardwork and perseverance.

Although he heads one of the most successful hospital chains in India, he comes across as a truly humble gentleman. Sitting in his office across an oval desk he explains that all his employees are equals therefore he likes to sit at an “oval” desk.

Believe it or not he is an avid reader. Though he reads only philosophy apart from academic journals, Dr Ajaikumar is in sync with the latest. He likes to read the writings of Plato and Marcus.

Although he has worked closely with the government advising on various health related issues Dr Ajaikumar still believes government can do much if it concentrated on health financing than delivery.

In future, he would like to help doctors become entrepreneurs by establishing a fund. Dr AjaiKumar’s quest for causes or reforms is insatiable and as I leave his office he returns to his first love - work.

Mixed Bag

Favorite food: I am a vegetarian and like south Indian food. I like Ragi dishes and Obbattu. I'm a big fan of all kind of nuts.
Best Childhood Memory: Well...stories from my mother and father, mostly from Ramayana or Mahabharata. These were evening story sessions teaching about right and wrong.
Your First Day at School: I remember my first day at school when I was in first standard. I was in a school near kumarapark in Bangalore. I vividly remember, both my elder brother and myself did not like school, so we ditched school and went to the nearby park. Spent time playing ate our lunch and went home. We continued this for days before my father figured it out.
Your First Ambition: To do something for the society. When I was growing up, there used to be a lot of intellectual debate at home in the evenings. My father's friends along with my uncles would come home in the evening and have a lot of political debate. I was also left leaning and I wanted to do something for the people, like a social reformer.
First Patient: Filis, I saw her in 1979 and she lived for eight years, hiking, biking and living life to the fullest.
First Vehicle: It was a moped in 1969 which I used to ride to medical college.
First Time you Fired Anybody: I dont fire people but if they are incompetent I ask them to go.
Happiest Moment: Happiest moments are the time spent with my family
Best Gift in Life: To be able to reflect on your action
Three Things Cannot Live Without: Contentment, acceptance, doing the right thing
Parental Advice: My father taught me honesty and integrity through his actions. Both my parents have molded my character and what I am today as a person is much because of following the path they showed me.

mneelam.kachhap@expressindia.com

 

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