One of Tampa Bay’s most influential and wealthiest leaders was honored with his family in front of hundreds Sept. 8.
Serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Kiran Patel spoke alongside his son and daughter – CEO and Founder of HealthAxis Shilen Patel, and COO of the Patel Family Office Sheetal Patel – during the TIE Tampa Bay TIECON event. The fireside chat, hosted by Joe Hamilton, St. Pete Catalyst publisher and Head of Network at Cityverse, celebrated Kiran’s successes and the legacy he hopes to leave for future generations.
Kiran, who was born in Zambia, Africa to Asian-Indian parents, has built an empire by acquiring companies, improving them and taking them to exit. His local legacy began when he moved to Tampa in 1982, initially starting a cardiology practice. His practice grew and he added offices throughout the area.
As Patel transitioned from medicine to business, his first major success came through WellCare Health Plans Inc., a struggling HMO (Health Maintenance Organization) he took over and transformed into one of the largest health care companies in the country. After working with more than 95 hospitals and hundreds of physicians in settling past-due medical claims, Patel sold the company for $200 million.
In 2007, Patel started a new insurance holding company called America’s 1st Choice Holdings of Florida and acquired two Tampa-based Medicare Advantage Health Plans, Freedom Health and Optimum Health. He grew those companies to over $1 billion in revenue and eventually sold them.
The Patel name can be found on buildings and on plaques throughout Tampa Bay. Through his philanthropy, which largely focuses on education and health care, the family has donated millions of dollars locally. The Patels have given significant gifts to the University of South Florida and committed $200 million to create a Clearwater campus for Nova Southeastern University, including the Dr. Kiran C. Patel College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Dr. Pallavi Patel College of Health Care Sciences. The Patels have also built schools and hospitals in India and Zambia.
Today, his enterprise encompasses luxury real estate development, medical software, health care solutions and more.
“My approach has always been that for good or bad, I believe I’m smart, I know what I am doing, and you follow my instructions. You can argue with me and if I feel that it [what is said] is right, I will change it, but the majority of the time, I’ve made a decision, I’m taking a path which I’m leading, and I will continue that,” Kiran said about his headstrong strategy.
In sharing a story of being approached by a founder who said they wanted to grow their business through a hyper-focus on revenue, he said, “I’m always focused on quality, taking care of clients, in my case, patients. I always say, don’t chase money, let money chase you. I feel money is the byproduct. I’m doing something I’m passionate about and like. I’ve always said do the right things for the right reasons and the right results will follow.”
“One of the things I admire about him is his refusal to accept ‘no,'” Sheetal Patel said about her father, describing his mindset of “you are either going to help me get there or, I’m going to find somebody else who will partner with me to get there.”
Growing up in an environment surrounded by medicine and the entrepreneurial spirit, Sheetal said, she was naturally drawn to the sciences more than any other subject.
“Becoming a doctor, for me, was the choice I had in the natural environment I grew up in. I successfully did that and practiced for a couple of years. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I was at a turning point in my career, and a little frustrated,” she said. “All I know how to do is be a doctor. I was facing some choices and I felt a little track set. I only felt comfortable in certain roles.”
She pivoted and pursued a Master’s of business administration (MBA) to carve out a new path that included more involvement in the family business.
“As we were growing, I started to take ownership of certain projects, mainly on the real estate side. At the time, our portfolio was small enough that I could still practice and still be involved in managing the real estate. As we became more intentional about growing certain areas of the family offices and business, it came to a point where I had to make a decision to go all in one way or the other,” she said. “I put all my chips on us and said this is something I’m going to be building for us and the next generation.”
Shilen Patel, on the other hand, skipped the medicine step and went straight into business.
“You saw the journey of WellCare going from a handful of people who were sitting in a tiny office, go into a (huge) building that I remember my father driving by saying we are going to be occupying,” Shilen recalled. “People who started working for my father for $7 or $8 an hour became millionaires because they stuck through the whole ride. Seeing how that changed the trajectory of their lives, that was so compelling to me.”
He also mentioned how he would see the impact his father created in India as well during the ’90s. “There’s always pressure to make something of yourself,” Shilen said.
But the father insisted he only become a doctor if it truly resonated with him and not for other factors like notoriety or money.
Shilen said he was never attracted to the medical field in that capacity, but still wanted to work for a meaningful purpose. He knew he could achieve that goal through business after witnessing the success of his father.
“This comes from our culture and family values – you can’t be afraid of messy things,” Shilen said, which prompted a roomful of applause. “You look at the businesses [Kiran was involved in] and it wasn’t a story of ‘let’s go put $50 million behind it and buy pristine assets.’ Each time, it was taking something people were running away from and having a plan to turn it into something.”
The senior Patel advised others wanting to follow in his footsteps to be completely devoted to their project, to surround themselves with enthusiastic people, and to not solely focus on the money.
Kiran finished by reflecting on the value money, becoming visibly emotional as he juxtaposed life in Tampa Bay to the poverty he’s seen throughout the world. He said “Money can buy you comfort, but that comfort does not give you the pleasure of the outcome you see for saving that money for different reasons [to help people].”