Raffles Medical chief had early start in business

SINGAPORE - He always had a knack for doing business, even when he was just six years old.

Back then, Dr Loo Choon Yong, now 64, was the self-declared assistant chief executive officer to his mother's tuckshop stall in a primary school. To make a few extra dollars, he took bus trips to shops in Rochor Road, buying sweets there to bring back to school to sell.

"I would also make iced water every day. I'd buy the ice, put sugar, some fruit cocktail, and sell them at five cents per cup," said Dr Loo, who was named Businessman of the Year at the Singapore Business Awards last month.

And when his mother had to stay home after giving birth, he ran the the tuckshop stall himself. He is the third of six siblings. His father worked in a bank but also gave tuition on the side.

"At eight years old, I was promoted to the post of acting CEO," he added with a laugh.

Today, Dr Loo is more well-known as the executive chairman of private medical group Raffles Medical, which has its roots in two clinics he started with classmate Dr Alfred Loh in 1976.

The organisation posted a net profit of $57.2 million last year, and runs 76 medical clinics in Singapore and four centres in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

This is despite the fact that medicine was not Dr Loo's first choice of study.

Instead, the Raffles Institution student had been more inclined to read physics or mathematics.

But his late father asked if he could study to be a doctor and help support his siblings."It was a painful decision because I had to give up maths which was my love," said Dr Loo.

Reality hit from the day he reported for medical duty at the old Singapore General Hospital. Then 23, Dr Loo witnessed horrific injuries, such as "people with their brains bashed in".

"That's when I realised, this is no joke. This is not studying to pass exams - people depend on you knowing your stuff," the general practitioner recalled. "From that moment, medicine became very real."

He has not looked back since.

In fact, the sense of responsibility and trust between doctors and patients are values that Dr Loo subscribes to deeply.

"When you are entrusted with the responsibility to help make patients better, you must live up to it," he said. "Even if you can't, at least you hold their hands and comfort them."

It was with such notions in mind that he had the "simple idea" to start a private group practice with Dr Loh. As young doctors, they saw problems with how the public medical sector worked. For example, there was sometimes a lack of time and personalised care for each patient.

"At Raffles, we have simple ideas - look after patients properly, and the business will take care of itself," said Dr Loo.

Sure enough, the practice grew quickly. From an initial two clinics, more popped up. By 1996, they had 30 branches islandwide.

Specialists also joined the network in 1991, and a day surgery centre was set up in Clemenceau Avenue in 1993 - the first standalone day surgery centre in South-east Asia.

And when space for this centre started to run out three years later, Dr Loo worked on converting a commercial building at the intersection of North Bridge Road and Ophir Road into a hospital.

But he revealed that the project was "almost cancelled".

Not only was the Asian financial crisis sweeping through the region in 1997, there was also the nagging problem of structural weaknesses found in the building.

But inspiration struck early one morning during a family vacation in Hawaii. Dr Loo had several ideas, including knocking out a few floors to lighten the load.

"It all clicked. But my children were still sleeping. So I rummaged through my daughter's bag for pencils and went to the bathroom to sketch out the ideas," he said with a laugh.

Raffles Hospital still stands at this original 6,810 sq m site - a 13-storey building that houses 312 licensed beds - which is coincidentally within the neighbourhood that he grew up in.

Besides work, Dr Loo is also passionate about reading, a habit cultivated from his days at Raffles Institution.

His two children have followed in his footsteps in medicine, too. His 32-year-old daughter is a general surgeon, while his son, 22, is a medical student.

The avid tennis player - he plays several times a week - is also showing no signs of slowing down.

"Even after I step down one day, I may go back to seeing patients or doing some teaching," he said. "I'll still be around."

chpoon@sph.com.sg


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