Melwin Joy
AUTHOR

Melwin Joy

All stories by: Melwin Joy
Dr. A Velumani – Focus, Learn and Grow

Focus on the possibilities of success, not on the potential for failure. These inspiring words by Napolean Hill are embodied by Dr. Arokiaswami Velumani, the Founder and Managing Director of Thyrocare Technologies Ltd., India’s first fully automated and globally accredited diagnostic laboratory network with a strong presence in nearly 2,000 cities worldwide. The brand is presently worth Rs. 3,300 crores and has its headquarters in a 100,000 sq. ft. facility located in Navi Mumbai, India. He is also the owner of Nueclear Healthcare Limited, a Radiology vertical of Thyrocare that introduced PETCT technology to diagnose and monitor cancer.

An astute businessman, an able administrator, a visionary and a motivator – Dr. Velumani juggles many roles with ease. The man with an endearing demeanor and infectious enthusiasm has been responsible for taking Thyrocare to indisputable heights and providing reliable preventive and diagnostic testing at affordable rates to people across the globe.

Humble beginnings with great endings

Velumani launched Thyrocare with his wife, Sumathi Velumani in 1996 with a focus on providing diagnostic tests for thyroid malfunctions. The couple left their cushy government jobs and invested all their provident fund savings to start Thyrocare.  Providing inexpensive tests to masses using cutting-edge technology was Velumani’s aim from the beginning. At a time when diagnostic and preventive care in India was still in an infantile stage, Velumani introduced RIA, the Noble prize-winning technology for thyroid testing. At the time, Thyrocare had only 7 tests on its panel, a staff of four people and an asking rate of mere Rs 100 per test.

Dr. Velumani’s trysts with technology continued. He introduced the first web server-based reporting for laboratory testing and started delivering reports by facsimile. Thyrocare moved to a 2,500 sq. ft. premises and expanded its test menu to include 50 tests. The nation’s first automated analyzer was introduced in his laboratory and so was the unique barcoding system to mark test samples. A nationwide barcode implementation project was initiated which is followed to this day. Thyrocare was the first laboratory to develop and implement in-house software for organizational and reporting purposes- Backbone (an ERP) and Thyrosoft (an LIMS) were used to extend automation and seamless functioning of all departments.

Accolades followed Velumani’s efforts and initiatives. 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 9901-2000 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. Velumani was conferred the Chemtech-Pharmbio Awards and honored by Franchisee India was innovation in the field of Health Aids and Services.

Velumani didn’t let complacency set in. He signed a MoU with Bayer Diagnostics (presently Siemens) and implemented thyroid testing by CLIA technology using the instrument ACS 180. Photometry and Nephlometry technologies were deployed to conduct tests on other malfunctions such as HbA1C, arthritis and diabetes. They ventured into preventive care under the brand name, Aarogyam. They launched Thyocare salt, an iodized version to prevent thyroid malfunctioning. Velumani worked tirelessly to launch Neuclear Healthcare in partnership with CX Partners. This was designated the oncology testing and monitoring division of Thyrocare.

Thyrocare reached a new milestone by installing Asia’s fist and the world’s longest lab automation system. The Automated analyzer and sample sorter came next. Now, they could provide calibrated, consistent tests and reports repeatedly.  Intelligent systems, stringent quality control measures and skilled manpower have led Thyrocare to be regarded as a benchmark for quality by stakeholders in the diagnostic industry. The company claims processing nearly nine million samples and conducting over 30 million medical tests, annually.

Under Velumani’s leadership, Thyrocare took its first step in international markets by entering into partnerships with service providers in the Middle East, Nepal and Bangladesh. Today, the testing giant has spread to more than 2,000 cities spanning the globe.

In 2016, Thyrocare stepped into the public listed sphere of healthcare by launching its first IPO. The response it got from subscribers was stupendous and stock prices surged by 45% within a few minutes following listing.  The total number of bids was 75 times more than those offered.

An achiever in every sense, Velumani is considered a thought leader and brand ambassador for the Indian diagnostics sector. His foresight and entrepreneurship continues to inspire millions.

Rags to riches

Shouldering huge responsibilities comes naturally to Velumani. He had a difficult childhood and had to assume the role of the primary breadwinner for his family at a tender age.  His father was a landless farmer and his mother a homemaker in a tiny village near Coimbatore, South India. Velumani and his four siblings depended on the midday meals distributed free of cost in their government school.  He shares, “I was born at the bottom of the pyramid. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me a pair of trousers or chappals (slippers). But I never felt poor since I saw many poorer people around me.”

Realizing her husband’s incapacity to support their family, Velumani’s mother took over the mantle. She substantiated the family’s meagre income by rearing two buffaloes and selling their milk.  This continued till Velumani finished his schooling.

Soon after, he left for Madras to get a college degree and completed his graduation and post-graduation in Thyroid Biochemistry. Despite his college education, he struggled to find a job as he lacked experience. Finally, he landed a job as a chemist in a Gemini Capsules, a small pharmaceutical company for a monthly salary of Rs. 150. He recalls, “Graduates in Tamil Nadu then were paid even less than watchmen.” Keeping Rs. 50 for himself, Velumani telegrammed the rest of the money to his parents.

After four years, Velumani quit his job and joined Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) as a Research Scientist. He supplemented his income by giving tuitions and sent money home so that his younger siblings could finish their schooling. Today, his brother is the CFO of his company.

At the age of 27, he married his wife who was working in the SBI bank at that time. Thereafter, Velumani started pursuing his PhD in Thyroid Chemistry. After 15 years of service in BARC, Velumani grew restless. He wanted to apply his learnings at a practical level.

Thyroid testing was an emerging field with great potential. One in ten Indians was suffering from hypothyroidism but the detection rates were abysmally low. Recognizing the opportunity, Velumani left BARC and started Thyrocare. Today, he owns a 64% stake in the company which makes him worth at least $323 million.

Publisher and storyteller

The soft-spoken Velumani calls himself a good storyteller. Although Velumani is not too fond of reading books, he reads newspapers religiously and regales people with anecdotes from his life. More than telling stories from his book of life, he is also a motivational and infectious speaker.

His need to spread awareness among his fraternity about pertinent global trends has led him to launch Clinical Laboratory Technology, the first Indian magazine in diagnostic industry. The publication aims to apprise technicians, physicians and pathologists of the emerging trends in laboratory operations.

Later, he published Healthscreen Magazine, a pre-patient care monthly magazine. In 2016, Aarogyam Today, a second monthly publication was launched for addressing daily health concerns.

Inspiring entrepreneur

Velumani sees opportunities where others see obstacles. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to introduce a unique business model in the diagnostic industry. It was the franchisee network system where a Centralized Processing laboratory (CPL) was set up by Thyrocare in Mumbai and a widespread network of franchisees and four Regional Processing Laboratories( (RPL) were set up in all major metropolitan cities of the country. Presently, the number of franchisees affiliated to Thyrocare has crossed 1,000. Thyrocare is able to provide its quality services to far-flung hospitals and laboratories and truly serve the masses. This was facilitated by integrated air logistics system for sample collection and reporting through web-based servers. Franchisee India recognized Velumani’s contribution by awarding him for innovation in the field of Health Aids and Services.

Velumani says that collecting and transporting samples to the central lab in Mumbai before they got contaminated was the toughest requirement of the franchisee model. To break even, they needed to process at least 25 samples daily when they started out. “But, we were in it for the long run. We charged one-fourth of what the market was charging for the testing and built our business.” In those days, a single laboratory would typically process only 2-3 samples in a day. By the franchisee model, Velumani was able to process more samples, reduce operating costs and maximize profits.

Talking to young entrepreneurs and exploring opportunities for diversification remains Velumani’s favored activity. ‘Focus, learn, grow and enjoy’ are the only words of wisdom he shares with aspiring businessmen.

Flying but rooted

‘Simple living and high thinking’ seems to be coined for Velumani. Frugality runs in his DNA. He is worth more than Rs. 3300 crores but stays with his family in the main laboratory. When asked the reason, he says, “There is 100,000 square feet of space here; 5,000 square feet is quite sufficient for my needs.” He still drives a modest Maruti 800 and sends a part of his income to his father who lives in his native village.

Frugality is also the cornerstone of Thyrocare. Through its distributor network, the lab is able to provide thyroid testing at a fraction of the cost of competitors’. Velumani calls Thyrocare ‘Walmart plus McDonald’- Walmart for its volume discounts and McDonalds for its focused menu.

Velumani feels today’s businessmen start planning how to spend their money even before they earn it. But, he has never taken a loan for personal or professional reasons. In his views, it’s all a matter of sound financial planning. “Our success is mostly due to two reasons,” explained Velumani. “One, in the last 20 years, we have never taken on debt. Second, over the last ten years, we have always kept Rs60 crore ($9 million) aside in cash.”

Despite reaching remarkable heights, Velumani remembers his beginnings. He recalls the time when he was unable to find a job even after possessing Master’s degree in Biochemistry because he lacked prior experience. The experience irked him so much that he hired only freshers once he established his own company. Apart from the top echelon, all employees in Thyrocare’s 800 strong workforces are straight out of college, with a strong will to learn, work and grow together. They are carefully vetted and thoroughly trained on the job to provide exemplary testing services and customer satisfaction to customers.

Unfazed by challenges

Blessed with foresight, Dr. Velumani is well aware of the risks associated with his franchisee business model as well as the challenges that lie ahead. He is also prepared for all adversities. In fact, he looks forward to challenges.

Thyrocare’s multi-lab model is dependent on the smooth collaboration between its centralized CPL and four RPLs. Any disruption or delay in transporting or processing samples can lead to major material setbacks to the company. Although the chances of this happening are rare, Dr. Velumani has efficient crisis management systems in place.

Other concerns are stiff competition from domestic diagnostic laboratories and rapid advancements in technologies. While much can’t be done about the former, the latter can pose serious problems for laboratories. There may come a time when affordable diagnostic products are introduced that can perform tests outside of a laboratory – at home or in physician’s clinic. In that case, revenue of diagnostic laboratories will be affected adversely.

To all these eventualities, Velumani reacts with his characteristic optimism. He is ready to face all challenges. “My entire life has been an upward slope,” Velumani said. “I am 57 now, and I haven’t lost any of the motivation I once had.”

And the journey goes on…

Just days before the launch of his company’s first IPO, Dr. Arokiaswami Velumani lost his wife to pancreatic cancer. She was just 55 and had been his staunchest supporter and worst critic through his long journey spanning many decades. It’s pretty ironic that this should happen to a man who dedicated almost his entire career to providing quality diagnostic and preventive healthcare to millions at affordable rates. The trauma has strengthened his resolve to continue on his philanthropic mission. He plans to set up at least 20 more laboratories in the country and extend timely medical intervention to the needy and underprivileged.

Melwin Joy
AUTHOR

Melwin Joy

All stories by: Melwin Joy