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Distinguished Speaker Series: Dr. Kiran Patel

Distinguished Speaker - Dr. Kiran Patel with daughter and Dean Limayem

When Dr. Kiran Patel was a boy in Zambia, Africa, his father helped their neighbor, a widow, negotiate down her debt.

Patel's father would call her creditors and tell them that they could get 30 cents on the dollar if her family went into bankruptcy, or they could forgive the debt and let the family survive.

The creditors forgave the widow's debts, and her children grew up, went to school, and lived happily ever after. Patel said it was that experience watching his father negotiate their neighbor's debts that formed his skills as a negotiator years later -- skills that have helped him take numerous underperforming health care companies from millions in debt to great profitability.

"Ethically, if you do the business right and you do the right things for the right reasons, the results will come," Patel said during a speech to USF Executive MBA students recently as part of the program's Distinguished Speaker Series. "I started my life with nothing and now, I am somewhere at heights most people will never reach, but it is not because I was driven to just make money."

Patel's daughter, USF Executive MBA student Dr. Sheetal Patel, introduced him to her classmates.

"I have admired him for his personal philosophy and using his drive to improve the world around him," she said. "He has never asked me, his family, or any of his patients to do something he would not do himself."

Dr. Kiran Patel

One of Tampa Bay's foremost entrepreneurs and physicians, Patel told the students the story of his life, from his medical school studies in India to his entrepreneurial success. Patel said his father always expected excellence from his children, and that despite living in a small home without life's luxuries, he never felt poor or disadvantaged.

"The focus always was education," Patel said. "I remember my dad would say, 'If you are second, don't even bother to come home.'"

That drive and confidence served him later in life, when the cardiologist bought his first medical practice. When he was running that first practice in the '80s, Patel said, many doctors didn't want to treat patients with HMOs. Patel said he would take the HMO patients that other doctors turned away, which gave him a better understanding of managed care and the direction health care as a whole was headed in.

Patel began buying health care companies in the '90s, acquiring a struggling Medicaid provider called WellCare, which he sold in 2002 for more than $100 million.

"From earning $3,000 a month in my first practice to $100 million, I can say I have achieved a true American dream," he said.

Patel signed a five-year noncompete agreement after selling Wellcare, but the day after it expired in 2007, he bought another group of Medicare HMOs: Freedom Health and Optimum Health Care. These companies are gaining market share even as other health care companies lose theirs, Patel said.

Patel credits much of his success to acquiring companies that are heavily in debt and negotiating down their liabilities, and then improving their customer service and cutting costs. He does it alone, without lawyers or accountants; once, after a stock market crash, he hired a lawyer to help him, he said, but fired him after seeing the first month's $50,000 bill. Although it is sometimes a weakness, Patel said, his self-reliance has been one of the main things that has helped him succeed.

"At every point in my life, I would try to find an opportunity and try to capitalize on it," he said. "You need a combination of luck, skill, and a willingness to do things."

Despite his record of turning around struggling companies, Patel joked that he still struggles to impress his wife. A fellow physician, Dr. Pallavi Patel sent him to a class to improve his negotiating skills. There, the teacher told him he should be teaching the course instead of taking it.

"To everybody else, I'm a sharp negotiator," Patel said to laughter from the MBA students. "To my wife, I'm not quite on her level."