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Great Expectations

Fifteen years ago, Renu Khator, a political science professor who'd come to Tampa from Purdue University to take a position at the Univeristy of South Florida, sat at a fund-raising dinner as a Tampa cardiologist named Kiran C. Patel unveiled plans to build, of all things, an Indian cultural center that would hold 1,000 people -- more Indians than Khator figured lived in the city.


"My father said, 'If you come in second, do not put your foot in this house,'" says entrepreneur Kiran Patel, who sold his WellCare HMO in 2002 for $200 million.

Khator remembers rolling her eyes. "I remember thinking that his plans were way too much. We had very few Indians in Tampa at that time, and not even an Indian restaurant," she says. "What was this man thinking?"

Patel was thinking big. It's the only way he thinks -- from outsized success in the business world to charitable giving that places him among Florida's most generous philanthropists. Raised Hindu, Patel believes it's his karmic obligation to spend his fortune in the places that helped him make it: Africa, India and Tampa, where last year he made the largest donation in the history of Florida's public universities, funding a global solutions center at USF that targets crises from AIDS to water shortage.

"God put each of us on this world for some reason," says Patel. "Each person will figure that reason out for himself. But everyone must try to make the world a better place."

The words seem to befit a man whom friends and colleagues unfailingly describe as "humble," "very humble" or "the humblest man I've ever known." What, then, to make of the Lamborghini, the Ferrari and plans for the biggest house in Tampa -- 40,000 square feet of marble, glass and stainless steel complete with a 450-foot-long swimming pool -- with an estimated cost of up to $20 million.

And how to square them with Patel's ego, which he admits is as grandiose as the rest? "From day one I created my own world and lived in my own world," Patel says. "I've always been different -- bigger than life in everything I do." The son also rises

Kiran Patel's late father, Chhotubhai Patel, came from a small, rural village called Mota Fofalia in Gujarat on the coast of west India. In the late 1940s, he and his wife, Savitaben, moved with their young daughter to a city called Kabwe in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. Their three sons were born in Kabwe. They named the eldest Kiran -- "rays of the sun."

In Kabwe, Chhotubhai Patel became a successful businessman and leader in the Indian community. He pushed the government to build a grade school for children of Indian descent. He raised his children to honor their Indian heritage and the Patel name. "My father's expectations were high," Patel says. "My father said, 'If you come in second, do not put your foot in this house.' "

Growing up in apartheid Africa, Kiran Patel fit into neither the white nor black worlds. At 12, barred from the local high schools for whites, he left home for a city 120 miles away to attend the country's only high school for Indians. In the face of discrimination, he says, "you always had to be better than your counterparts to succeed."

Patel studied in Zambia under the British educational system, earning degrees from Cambridge and the University of London before heading to his father's native Gujarat for medical school. There, he fell in love with a fellow med student named Pallavi Shah. She came from a family like his, with parents who were active in the community.

"He talked a lot about his father and how he grew up and he had this great vision and inspiration for what he wanted to do," says Pallavi, who married Patel in 1973. Following Hindu tradition, the young couple moved in with Kiran's family, setting up medical practices in Zambia. But that country would prove too limited for the couple. "We always wanted to grow and grow," she says. They moved to New York for graduate work at Columbia University, where he earned a specialization in cardiology, she in pediatrics. They got their Green Cards in 1976 -- on Thanksgiving Day.

» ""One of the philosophies I have is that if anybody can do it, I can do it better and cheaper."
-- Dr. Kiran C. Patel

Arriving in Florida

In 1982, the couple moved to Tampa with their three young children, drawn by Kiran Patel's brother Pradip, who owned a motel on Busch Boulevard. They were not readily accepted into Tampa's old-boy circles, and a fellow Indian cardiologist warned Patel he couldn't build a successful practice in the area. Patel soon proved him wrong. He was enormously popular among patients, according to one administrator with whom he worked, and had unusual business savvy.

Patel focused on small hospitals that had few specialists. He also began buying up other doctors' practices and encouraging other Indian doctors to move to Tampa and join him. By the early 1990s, Patel had 20 doctors on his payroll. But at the former Good Samaritan Hospital, where the practice was largely based, Patel's group encountered racial backlash. Some employees took to calling the hospital "Mahatma Gandhi Memorial." Patel felt Good Samaritan's administrator used the Indian doctors as scapegoats for the hospital's financial woes. Patel left and took his doctors and patients with him. The hospital's business sank, and the administrator was gone within a year. At a new administrator's urging, Patel returned.

While the proliferation of HMOs dismayed many of his fellow physicians, Patel was intrigued. He eventually built a practice ownership and management company with 14 practices, including family medicine, internal medicine, cardiology and his wife's thriving pediatrics offices. He and his brother Pradip organized the offices into a network offering a wide range of specialties and services and pursued managed care contracts, eventually building a network of more than 8,000 patients.

In 1992, Patel bought a small HMO called WellCare. The business was unprofitable for several years, but that changed when the state began requiring Medicaid patients to enroll in HMOs. By 2002, WellCare had more than 400,000 HMO members and $1 billion in revenue. A private group led by financier George Soros took notice and bought the company that year. The Patels -- friends call them Dr. K and Dr. P -- along with family members, including Pradip, were paid $200 million.

Brakes?

Patel calls himself "retired," but he remains as busy as when he practiced cardiology. "The only difference is, when I am sitting in the theater enjoying a movie, I know I'm not going to have to run out to put in a pacemaker," he says.

Patel serves on USF's board of trustees, and his wife, too, is a well-respected community adviser described as thoughtful and analytical. She continues to juggle her eight-office pediatrics practice. Both Patels say that he is the accelerator, she the brakes. On a recent weekday morning, she left the house with this admonition: "No more deals. I don't care if there's a pot of gold in the road -- don't pick it up."

Patel shows few signs of heeding his wife. For one, there is the compound he plans on 17 acres, including a corner of Busch Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway and 850 feet of waterfront at White Trout Lake. The Patels' architect, James McQuerter, calls the home "more than palatial," with a helicopter landing pad for visiting world leaders. Pallavi Patel would have preferred a more modest home, but her husband says, "If I want to build something, it will be a monument, a legacy that gives an impression of who I am."

Patel is not braking on the business front, either. He is developing more than $1 billion worth of condos and resorts in the Panhandle and in the Bay area, including a five-star resort and spa on Clearwater Beach. He also owns four healthcare informatics companies working to develop software with a goal to overtake behemoth WebMD in the e-medicine business. "My dream is to be the No. 1 player in that market," Patel says. "One of the philosophies I have is that if anybody can do it, I can do it better and cheaper."

Global giving

Patel's philanthropy has blossomed at both the local and global levels. The India Cultural Center that seemed so excessive to Renu Khator, the political science professor new to USF 15 years ago, is now far too small for the Indian community's annual nine-day festival. The community, which has grown to 20,000, works to maintain cultural traditions for children and has helped make India the top foreign feeder of students to USF. Khator, now provost at the university, says she believes the Patels "have shaped and defined the future for Indian children here in Tampa Bay."

Patel is applying his "better-cheaper" philosophy to solve local and global problems more efficiently than governments or other non-government organizations. In perhaps the most ambitious example, in southeast Africa, Patel is working to build specialized hospitals across a 1,000-mile zone to give residents access to world-standard care at a fraction of the usual cost. A heart hospital he is building in Tanzania will provide heart surgery for about $3,000 -- 10 times less than the government paid for residents to receive surgery outside the country.

Patel envisions building centers of excellence for other medical specialties, such as liver care or kidney care, in nearby countries, including Zambia, where he grew up. Instead of traveling to Europe or elsewhere for top medical care -- or more likely not getting the care at all -- the region's residents will be able to find it within a couple hundred miles of home.

The Patels try to fund a spectrum of the needs in a small community rather than target one cause in a country; for example, they don't build a school without also making sure its children have enough food and proper healthcare. They also look to fund work that creates model solutions that can be exported. In Chhotubhai Patel's native village of Mota Fofalia, a private academy founded by the Patels is one of the most progressive and rapidly growing on the subcontinent. The 800-student school, in a rural area where the pass rate for the national exam is less than half, has a 100% pass rate. The Patels' foundation will use some of the academy's experiences to try to turn around three "D" schools in Hillsborough County over the next three years, including a charter school they founded at USF, which draws disadvantaged students.

The Patels plan to eventually give away their entire fortune to help solve some of the planet's most intractable problems. "God wants you to acquire wealth, but what you do with it is very, very important," he says. "We provided our children with great educations, character and moral and spiritual grounding so they will generate treasure of their own."

Like Kiran and Pradip, the third Patel brother, Dinesh, also followed their father's course, making his fortune in a new country with his own capital. Dinesh, a venture capitalist in Salt Lake City, founded a pharmaceutical company and sold it for more than $300 million.

Kiran Patel's ego vanishes when asked if he thinks he's met his father's expectations. Choked with emotion, he says, "He would be very, very happy."

Making a Difference

In 2004, the couple founded the Drs. Kiran & Pallavi Patel Foundation for Global Understanding, a Tampa-based non-profit focused on providing programs and funding for health, education and the arts. The foundation gave away $661,110 in 2004 and $930,775 last year.

In 2005, they made the then-largest donation in the history of Florida's public universities: $18.5 million for a center for global solutions.
They also:

  • Built a modern 50-bed charity hospital in India
  • Helped rebuild four hospitals, four schools and a small village in Gujarat, India, after a devastating earthquake
  • Donated $5 million to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to fund a conservatory
  • Gave $3 million to Tampa's University Community Hospital for a research institute
  • Gave more than 70 scholarships to underprivileged Tampa youth over the past five years and endowed medical scholarships as well
  • Established at USF: A K-5 charter school; a pediatric care center; a program to provide HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and education throughout India; and an endowment to support new initiatives in heart disease treatment and research