You can take Arokiaswamy Velumani out of Coimbatore but you cannot take Coimbatore out of Arokiaswamy Velumani. Even 34 years after he left the textile town in the south, the 57-year-old CEO of Thyrocare Technologies Ltd retains a thick Tamil accent. As you exchange business cards with him, he asks, “So, does Raju speak Tamil?” and when you reply in the negative, the Rajnikanth fan sheepishly says, “Oh, Raju is a very common name in Tamil Nadu, like Kumar in the north of India.”
Coimbatore’s most famous son is known for such astute observations. Hear him on why he gave up a comfortable 14-year-old government job to jump into the turbulent waters of entrepreneurship: “Everyone looks for one of two things in a vocation – security or prosperity. A government job provides you security while a private one can lead to prosperity. By branching out on my own, I was assured of secured prosperity.”
The government firm was the reputed Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai which Velumani had joined in 1982 as a lab assistant. This was after the first company he worked at, Gemini Capsules in Coimbatore, drawing a monthly salary of Rs 150, abruptly shut down. At BARC, he decided to study even while working. He completed his Masters in 1985 and a decade later, enrolled for a Ph.D programme.
“When I joined BARC I did not know what a thyroid gland was,” says Velumani candidly. “Thirteen years later, I was a Ph.D in thyroid chemistry.” But feeling restless, he quit his job in 1996. Thyrocare was born in a 200 sq ft room in the Byculla locality of Mumbai. The seed money of Rs 1 lakh came from Velumani’s provident fund.
Sumathi, his wife, quit her job with the State Bank of India to become Thyrocare’s first employee. Contrary to popular perception, Thyrocare did not adopt the franchisee model from the word go. It arrived at this arrangement through trial and error. As is his wont, Velumani falls back on a bit of philosophy to explain how. “Business is as unique as married life. You are learning something new every day.”
In 2011, the company was valued at Rs 650 crore. A recent IPO (Initial Public Offering), oversubscribed 73 times, has catapulted this figure to Rs 3,415 crore. The founder still holds 64 per cent of the company’s stock and as we go to press, his personal net worth stands at a whopping Rs 2,185 crore.
When it began, Thyrocare focussed on detecting thyroid disorders. Over the years, it branched out into other areas of diagnostics including diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), infertility and cardiovascular. “I introduced the buffet system in the diagnostics field,” says Velumani. Today, only 28 per cent of the samples handled by the company are for thyroid tests. The samples come to the main Centralized Processing Laboratory (CPL) in Turbhe, Navi Mumbai and five Regional Processing Laboratories (RPL) in major Indian metros from 1,250 pan-India franchisee collection centres. Abroad, the company also has a presence in Bahrain, Nepal and Bangladesh.
For the financial year ending March 2016, the company’s standalone revenue stood at Rs 235 crore while its net profit was Rs 58 crore. This stupendous success overshadows a rags-to-riches story the likes of which has rarely been seen in the Indian corporate scene. Velumani’s father was a landless farmer in the sleepy village of Appanickenpatti Padur in Tamil Nadu. The son’s school and college education was subsidised by governmental schemes earmarked for children of farmers. “I was born at the bottom of the pyramid,” is how Velumani puts it. So how did a man, who in his youth, did not have money to even by a new pair of trousers, script one of India’s most fascinating entrepreneurship stories?
“People were selling burgers locally even before McDonalds came to India. There were thousands of small cake shops before Monginis became a household name,” says Velumani. “Similarly there were many thyroid testing centres here. But I brought a focus to the business.” His success mantra was simple: economies of scale. “Early on I realized that I would not be able to grow big if I tested just two samples a day, which is what the other guys were doing,” says Velumani. “I needed to process at least 25 samples daily.”
Velumani’s son Anand and daughter Amruta, both biochemists, are now helping him in the business
Thyrocare’s growth catapulted on the back of a robust logistics system catering to a nationwide chain of collection centres and a sturdy IT infrastructure. The company employs 800 people at its Turbhe facility and has installed 600 PCs. What about the remaining 200? “They work in the night shift, and can use the ones lying idle,” says the CEO.
The towering glass and steel Turbhe facility is spread over 2 lakh sq ft. It processes more than 40,000 specimens every day. A combination of air-cargo logistics and IT enabled, bar-coded, bi-directional systems ensures a turnaround time of four to eight hours for processing of samples that arrive at any time of the day or night. The mother lab is located on the fourth floor of the company’s Turbhe headquarters, and next to it, are Velumani’s sleeping quarters. But why a bedroom in a lab? “My life revolves around my work and my lab. I don’t have any connection with society. Since my cabin and bedroom are close to one another, I can work when I want and I can sleep when I want.”
Life has not changed much for Velumani after going public. “We were always a transparent company and continue to be so,” he declares. “It’s just that now my social obligations have increased. I have to keep time aside for investors.” Success continues to sit lightly on him. Day after day, he turns up at office in his trademark black trousers and white shirt. He still does not own a car.
He eschews flashy hobbies of the rich and famous, preferring instead to listen to Carnatic music and once in a while, take off to where “I can admire rivers , clouds, stars and meadows.” A few days every month, Velumani also speaks to students at educational institutions all over the country. “I am a great story teller,” he says. “I love talking before thousands. If my talks can ignite the spirit of entrepreneurship even in a few young minds, I wouldn’t ask for anything else.” Many of his talks are now popular YouTube videos.
Going forward, over the next two years, Thyrocare wants to establish 20 new laboratories across the country. It is alsoin the process of setting up a subsidiary to focus on cancer screening through molecular imaging. The founder is confident that he and his company will continue with their winning streak. “I am blessed with a large risk appetite,” he says and then adds dramatically, “This will help me continue to remain the national raja in my field.”