Bhikhu Chhotabhai Kalidas Patel
Doctor of Laws
19 July 2006 - Orator: Professor Patricia Broadfoot
Pharmaceutical companies have been much in the news recently. Set in Kenya, John Le Carre’s story of ‘The Constant Gardener’ paints a picture of political corruption and rapacious greed on the part of a multi-national pharmaceutical company which results in the exploitation of local people and even murder. But although our story today shares two key features with Le Carre’s narrative – it concerns a pharmaceutical company and it is set, initially at least, in Kenya – the narrative is more of a fairy story than a thriller. It is a story that shares the theme of so many fairy stories with a hero – in this case a poor, but honest, boy who, using nothing but his own resources, defeats his evil rivals and goes from rags to riches. Having married the beautiful princess, he lives happily ever after, ruling wisely and doing good to his fellow citizens.
Translated into 21st century language, Mr Vice-Chancellor, this is a story of individual hard work and enterprise, determination and creativity, boldness and insight, qualities that have combined to produce one of the most outstanding entrepreneurs of our generation. With his brother, Vijay, Bhikhu Patel was voted Ernst and Young UK Entrepreneur of the Year in 2001. The judges commented that ‘the brothers were recognised by a panel of their peers as being truly deserving of their award … they have built a world-class business with consistent financial growth from humble beginnings that competes with the largest global players’. There can be no doubt that Bhikhu Patel’s achievements offer a brilliant role-model for our graduates today, poised as they are, for the most part, on the threshold of their own careers.
Bhikhu Patel was born in 1947 in the arid and isolated Kenyan town of Eldoret. His father was a timber merchant – one of many Indian immigrants to have come to Kenya to make his fortune. Mr Patel believed passionately in the importance of family, of education, and of self-help – beliefs that he passed on to his children and which do much to explain their subsequent success. Sadly, Mr Patel died when his three children were still very young, leaving Mrs Patel to support the family. This she did by running a nursery in the family’s tiny house, 10 feet by 12, which was also home to the family of four. Life was a daily struggle to survive. Thus, after taking his O-levels, Bhikhu got a job in a bank in order to save for a fare to England and the greater opportunities he saw there.
He enrolled at Kilburn Polytechnic, working in a fish and chip shop to support himself. He did well enough in his A-levels to gain a place here at Bristol University to read Architecture. Having gained his degree and qualified professionally, he was soon launched on a promising career in architecture. But his innate instinct for business proved irresistible and in 1980, despite having married and with his first child about to be born, he abandoned the safety of a professional career for the riskier horizons of business. Just five years after qualifying, he invested the £15,000 he had been able to save in his first business – two newsagent shops in Woolwich, London.
Innate flair for business coupled with very hard work and long hours soon trebled the turnover and made it possible for Bhikhu and Vijay to found their first company – Chemys Dispensing Group, based on a chain of six pharmacies. The founding of Waymade Healthcare Plc by the two brothers soon followed in 1984 and was to prove aptly named. Waymade Healthcare supplies pharmacists with branded and generic prescription drugs. The brothers strategy of ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ in the wholesale pharmaceutical market was to prove as successful as it was innovative. The company became a huge success. The capacity to spot new opportunities to develop the business and to take well-judged risks in an industry they knew inside out, has led to a business that today employs 600 people at its Essex headquarters and is worth £394 million. It is now one of the top ten UK pharma companies. Waymade Healthcare launched subsidiary, Amdipharm, in 2003 to help broaden the company’s reach internationally and to develop drugs with markets too small to interest the giant pharma firms. Meanwhile, Bhiku’s early training in architecture led him to a related interest in property development and in 1985 he founded the Sovereign Property Group which also continues to be extremely successful.
Numerous business awards both in Europe and Asia have recognised the brothers’ success. Waymade has regularly featured in Europe’s top 500 Dynamic Entrepreneurs for example and in the Deloitte and Touche Technology Fast 50 list every year since 2001. But perhaps the award that has given Bhikhu most satisfaction is the 2006 Coutts Special Award for Family Philanthropy.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, the business achievements I have described would, in themselves, be sufficient to justify our honorary graduand’s presence here today. However they are far from being the whole story. For, as well as being an outstanding entrepreneur, Bhikhu Patel is also a notable philanthropist, using his wealth to provide the tools that will help people in the developing world to lift themselves from the drudgery and hopelessness with which he himself was so familiar as a child, so that they in turn can become economically self-sufficient and contribute to the development of the enterprise which is so vitally needed in such countries.
Initially supporting specific projects through the Lions Club in order to avoid the overheads of larger charities, in 2005 the brothers set up the Shanta Foundation Charitable Trust named after the mother who has been such a driving force in their lives. The projects they support range from schools – including one in Eldoret where they were born, supporting the creation of wells, a blood bank building in Gujarat to support victims of road accidents and other medical provision such as eye camps and polio camps. Most recently they have founded their own Waymade College of Arts and Education in India to support the training of teachers of English. For Bhikhu and his family, this is a very personal commitment, involving travel every year to either India or Africa to oversee projects and establish new ones. Indeed, the whole family is actively involved, with one daughter, for example, helping fund a new school building in Mexico and another having spent time in medical camps in India as a doctor. Given how much of the business success we are celebrating today reflects strong family ties, it is particularly pleasing that we are able to welcome Bhikhu’s wife, Shashikala, daughter Nimisha and other members of the family to this ceremony today.
The philanthropic contribution of our honorary graduand through the Shanta Foundation, also provides an inspiring example for our graduates today in reflecting the values of service and engagement, social responsibility and enterprise that have stood at the heart of this great University since its foundation. So much of what we see even in this fine building was the product of successful enterprise coupled with the passionate belief of the founders of this University in the importance of education and of ‘putting something back’. If this is Bhikhu Patel’s motto, it is also the vision that inspires so many of our present students, who contribute annually 90,000 hours of service to the local community and beyond and raise considerable sums for charity.
Mr Vice-Chancellor. I have suggested that the achievements of our honorary graduand today might be seen as a kind of ‘rags to riches’ fairy story. I hope however that what I have said makes it clear that this description is significantly wide of the mark, for there is no magic in the story we have heard today. Instead it is a narrative that evokes some of the themes of the great Victorian novels – poverty and sacrifice; hard work and opportunism; family and philanthropy.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Bhikhu Chhotabhai Kalidas Patel, Bachelor of Arts and Diplomate in Architecture of this University, Managing Director of Waymade Pharmaceuticals, outstanding entrepreneur and noted philanthropist, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.