Regional scope – Saudi Arabia

A grand plan

You might wonder whether Engineer Sobhi A Batterjee, the President and CEO of the Saudi German Hospital Group, can see into the future. To say his expansion plans are big is an understatement. They are vast - 30 new hospitals by 2015, one in every Arab country. The Editor, Callan Emery, spoke to the man in the first hospital he developed in Jeddah.

The quietly spoken, softly smiling Mr Batterjee invites me into his busy office and sits me down with a cup of Arabic tea.

Callan Emery: How and where did the Saudi German Hospital Group begin?

Sobhi A Batterjee: In 1945
my grandfather, Ibrahim Batterjee, brought medicine to the country. He established a business which grew to become the largest distributor of pharmaceutical products in the region.

CE: For how long did your grandfather run this business?

SB: Until about 1975. At this stage the family had grown and my brothers and I were sent to the United States for education and the family business began to diversify.

I returned as a [Electrical Engineer] contractor and I developed this line of business. My brother, Khalid, returned several years later after qualifying as a doctor.

My mother was fond of doctors. Actually we [all the sons] were all named after doctors. Now that my brother was a doctor my mother thought he should have his own hospital. For the sake of my mother I decided to start a hospital.

CE: In Jeddah?

SB: In Jeddah. There were many factors: my mother wanted it, my brother did too. He had just graduated. He had contact with a professor of medicine in Germany. At the time there were a lot of Saudi patients travelling to Germany.

So there many factors for building this hospital besides my mother and brother’s wish. In 1983 things were slowing down in Saudi Arabia. Oil was $8 a barrel after being at around $45 in the 1970s. Contracting work was drying up. Also the government was offering free loans to hospital developers.

So I looked at my situation and asked ‘what is an electrical, mechanical engineer good for now? There’s no business’. I thought; let me continue the family heritage of healthcare.

The German professors who were in contact with my brother said they were receiving a lot of Saudi patients, but there were difficulties such as translation. They said ‘why don’t you build a hospital in Saudi and call it the Saudi German Hospital and we will come and do treatments there!’

We made agreements with several German universities to supervise the work and to regularly have visiting professors who could also offer assistance and training to our Arab doctors.
We are doing this in all our hospitals now. You know, we are not only a hospital company, we are a hospital developer. We do everything in-house - finance, design, construction, recruitment, operations. We do all of it. Now we are educating as well.

CE: How did it grow from that first hospital?

SB: It was a large investment and took a lot of hard work. We had to develop our own systems and so on. Dr Batterjee [Sobhi’s brother] and I were the only pair covering the hospital. I ran the administration and my brother was the doctor. We worked 20 hours a day in the beginning, running this hospital.

We were very successful and we beat the competition.

I knew very little about management and just did it by intuition. And then I joined the Young Presidents Organisation - an international group of the cream of the cream of young leaders. One symposium I attended changed my life. It was called ‘hyper competition’. After-wards I could see things much more vividly and make decisions much more quickly.
I realised it’s not big eats small anymore. It is fast eats slow!

So in 1995 I told my brother we’ll have five hospitals by 2005. He said: “Are you crazy? You cannot do it.” I said, we can.
So in 2005 we’ll have our fifth hospital in Yemen.

Two years ago I said 30 hospitals by 2015. Now we are advertising it, publicising it. We are going in that direction. We are geared up for it. But, if we don’t make it, if we only make 20, that’s fine.

CE: You have the know-how.

SB: Yes, we have the knowledge. We also have the capital. Just last week [first week of May] we got permission from the Ministry of Health to build the largest public healthcare facility in the region worth Saudi Rials 590 million.

I believe now we are breaking through. The Arab Development Fund is coming to us. With the Yemen project people will realise we are not just a Saudi company. We have other projects lined up - one in Cairo, one in Dubai.

CE: What are these projects in Cairo and Dubai?

SB: Hospitals. We have just launched a company in Cairo. And just last week we received permission from the Dubai municipality to go ahead with our hospital there.

CE: Where will this hospital be built?

SB: On Sheikh Zayed Road opposite Internet City.

CE: How big will it be?

SB: Big. Three hundred beds.

CE: A general hospital?

SB: General, with sub-specialties.

If you look at our business card, it’s there, our vision. It says: ‘Our corporate vision is to design, finance, construct and operate 30 world-class hospitals and create 50,000 jobs by the year 2015.’

‘Our mission is to be the leader in the Middle East and Africa and to deliver reliable, quality, medical care to you.’
That’s where we are going.

CE: Where are you planning to expand outside Saudi Arabia?

SB: We have a plan ... here. [Sobhi Batterjee unfurls a map on his desk and points to proposed projects.] Five hospitals in Egypt, three in Nigeria, one in Damascus, one in Istanbul, one in Iran, three in Pakistan... another in Morocco, one in each Arab country. If you go to our website you will see it there - www.sghgroup.com

Our next project is the construction of medical colleges.

CE: Where will they be built?

SB: We have one in Jeddah and one under construction in Riyadh. In fact, wherever we have a hospital we plan to attach a medical college.

Mr Batterjee sits back in his plush leather seat and smiles It’s as if his grand plan is already complete.

But Sobhi Batterjee is not just a businessman; he is also a family man. His family comes first, and this is evident in many areas. It shows in his home and the way he conducts business, but perhaps most in his efforts to keep his expanding family unified in the face of increasing wealth. To do this he has called in an expert in this field, a specialist from India who has drawn up a family constitution to prevent any possible future family feuds and protect the family’s hard-earned prosperity.

A wise man!


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