It’s a humid afternoon in Hyderabad and I am meeting Sangita Reddy, joint managing director at Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd, at the Garden Cafe for lunch. The restaurant, a 5-minute walk from her office, is part of the Apollo Hospital campus.
Sangita, 55, is the youngest of four sisters who have helped their father, Prathap C. Reddy, expand the 150-bed hospital he founded in Chennai in 1983 to a 64-hospital chain with 10,000-plus beds spread across India, Bangladesh and Oman.
So what is it like to be the youngest sister, I ask?
“I definitely got pampered a lot," she says. Sangita’s early years were spent in Springfield in Illinois, US, where her father worked as a cardiologist. The family returned to Chennai when Sangita was nine years old.
She is dressed elegantly in a dark-blue salwar kameez, an outfit chosen by sister Suneeta, who often shops for clothes for the four sisters, with a single string of pearls.
“We rarely fought. Even today, while we do disagree sometimes, we all defer to Preetha, who takes her responsibility as the eldest very seriously," she says.
Sangita may be the youngest, but she and elder sister Shobana Kamineni were the first two to join Apollo Hospitals in 1983. Sangita has since taken up several roles in the organization, including working as the executive assistant to her father, starting and later selling Apollo Health Street Ltd, a medical BPO company, and working in human resources. These days she is focusing on operations and IT in healthcare. She also works on integrating nutrition, yoga and alternative medicinal systems with the existing healthcare system.
The Reddy sisters manage the company jointly. While Preetha heads the group as vice-chairperson, Suneeta is managing director in charge of finance and strategy, and Shobana, the third sister, executive vice-chairperson, heading the Apollo pharmacy chain and the Health Insurance unit.
Preetha, Suneeta and Dr Reddy sit in the group’s headquarters in Chennai, while Shobana and Sangita are based in Hyderabad. Sangita is just back from Chennai, after attending the group’s annual general meeting. She says it went well.
The consolidated net profit for 2016-17 stood at Rs88.7 crore on net sales of Rs7,255 crore. Profit may have been lower than last year’s figure of Rs316 crore on net sales of Rs6,085 crore, but the overall growth prospects for healthcare in India are excellent, she says.
Sangita joined Apollo Hospitals straight from college, in 1983. She took a break, soon after, for her postgraduate degree in hospital administration at Rutgers University, US, but her father called her back mid-way through the course. “His logic was that you don’t need to show the degree to get a job. You need to know enough to perform well," says Sangita.
So Sangita moved to Chennai to help her father with the hospital business. Sangita took her second break in 1989, when she got married and moved to New Jersey, where husband Konda Vishweshwar Reddy was running a software start-up. She spent part of that year working as an understudy to the hospital administrator at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York, an experience that taught her a lot. Soon after, Vishweshwar sold his start-up to GE and the couple returned to Hyderabad. Sangita, then 27 and pregnant with their eldest son Anandith, started working on restructuring loans and marketing for the next few years, till the hospital turned the corner.
“It was tough. The hospital was new, it was far out of the city then," she says, recalling her early days in Hyderabad, in 1990. “We were losing money heavily. Almost all our net worth had been wiped out."
A chance encounter with former ICICI chairman N. Vaghul in Hyderabad a few years ago reminded her of those old days. “He told me, ‘I will always remember you; you were very young, very sure of yourself. And you had said, ‘Give us a break, we will perform.’ I made a judgement call then and the happiest time was when you repaid our loans," Sangita recalls.
She recommends I try the café’s brown rice biryani, made with olive oil. She orders a carrot and pumpkin soup and a watermelon juice for herself. The menu is full of healthy options such as whey protein shake and beetroot juice.
“You know, in Singapore even the street vendors are not allowed to use refined flour, they have to make noodles with wholegrain flour. Why can’t we in India pay the same attention to nutrition?" she asks. “Why can’t we make wholewheat samosas that are air-fried?"
Sangita wanted to become a doctor like her father. She even got admission to the Madras Medical College. “But dad said no. I protested. I didn’t talk to him for a week. But I didn’t defy him," she recalls.
This had happened once before. Preetha had also got admission to a medical college, but Dr Reddy felt that being a doctor would not give his daughter time for her own life—and Preetha had to settle for a bachelor’s degree in science instead. In 1983, Sangita too did her bachelor’s in nutrition and dietetics from the Women’s Christian College, Chennai.
She also did executive education courses at Harvard and the National University of Singapore. Today, she keeps in touch with the medical profession by reading journals such as The Lancet and through the internet, where she has alerts set for current areas of interest like “recent trends in cardiac reversal". “Now...I have no regrets about not having studied medicine. There is a lot to look forward to," she says.
“Twenty years ago, I was more behind the scenes—a thinker and a strategist. I did speak out even then, and have made presentations to more than five health ministers on subjects like public-private partnership and medical tourism," she says. But today speaking aloud has become easier.
It began in 2014, with an election.
In 2014, Vishweshwar decided to contest the Lok Sabha election as a member of the newly formed Telangana Rashtra Samithi party. Sangita found herself in Chevella, the constituency near Hyderabad, with her three sons and the rest of the family, working on the campaign and even giving speeches. “My Telugu is not so good, so I was hesitant to give speeches at first. Then I understood that it’s not how you speak, but what you say that’s important, and so I started enjoying it." It helped that she became enormously popular with the crowds. “My uncles said you are creating a problem for us, they keep asking for you," she recalls.
Vishweshwar won the election but she is quite certain she will never join politics herself; the uncertainty is too much to handle, she says. “I feel you can impact people equally, if not more, without being in politics. Here, every day I go home I know I’ve done something of meaningful impact."
For Sangita, creating impact has meant working on the prevention of diseases, on integrating yoga and nutrition into lifestyles. She also works on using IT to standardize health data records and is currently working on apps to create a personalized patient experience. And now that her three sons are older—Anindith is 27, Vishwajith, 20, and Viraj, 18—she finds she can take up a lot more.
Over the last few months, she has travelled to Delhi to speak to the Prime Minister at the Champions of Change event on the need for universal healthcare coverage (200 entrepreneurs presented their ideas at the event), to Australia to finalize a collaboration agreement for academic exchanges with Macquarie University, and to various branches of the hospital all over the country.
By now, we’ve finished eating and are ready for green tea. We turn to the challenges of healthcare in India. How did Apollo handle the pressure of treating a VIP patient like the late Jayalalithaa, I ask? “The patient comes first always," she responds, without getting into details.
It is a big challenge, though, that people don’t like the private sector, she says. “They think they are being cheated. While this is sometimes true, there are many institutions that are doing amazing work at one-tenth of the global prices. Today 80% of surgery is being done by private hospitals," says Sangita, who concedes there is a need to cleanse the sector of unethical practices like kickbacks to doctors for prescribing unnecessary tests and procedures.
“There are multiple ways to do this—break some rackets, track people who are giving kickbacks and remove all commercial considerations in medicine. It can be done through legislation, public awareness and technology," she says.
Green tea over, we head back towards the Apollo Hospitals building, exchanging greetings with doctors, nurses, and even some of the patients we meet en route. How does she remember so many names? I ask her. “Well, when I was younger, I managed human resources. I used to stand in the time office at the entrance every day and make sure I remembered the names of everybody who worked here. Today I just do. I don’t have a good memory, but I guess you remember what’s important to you," she says.