Floridian of the Year: Kiran Patel: ‘First, I give to charity'
Health Care Entrepreneur
Tampa entrepreneur Kiran Patel has made hundreds of millions of dollars growing and selling health care companies. Together with his wife, Pallavi, he has given more than $240 million over the years to support the arts, education and health care in Florida. His business and philanthropic activities in 2017 alone would be lifetime accomplishments for many.
In the mid-2000s, Kiran Patel paid about $40 million for three parcels of beachfront land in Clearwater Beach on which a Days Inn and two other hotels sat. He demolished the hotels and lined up financing for a resort. But his plans fell through with the 2008 recession, and the property stood vacant.
As the economy recovered, city officials grew impatient, with some questioning whether Patel could pull off the project. “This is a prime location. But if Dr. Patel can’t put this together, then maybe he ought to figure out some other plan,” Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013.
Three years ago, construction got underway after Patel reconfigured the deal and secured new financing. In January 2017, he spoke to a crowd that had gathered to celebrate the opening of the $175-million, 750,000-sq.-ft. Wyndham Grand resort, the largest development on Clearwater Beach.
Patel invoked the American dream, saying it was proof that “vision and innovation, faith and perseverance, can create something where there was once nothing.”
“Well, nothing but the world’s most expensive parking lot,” he added, prompting laughter from the crowd.
About 15 years ago, Kiran Patel developed an autoimmune disease, vitiligo (pronounced vittle-EYE-go), which destroys pigment-producing cells, leaving white patches on his skin. Although treatments can return color to the patches, there is no cure. Patel has chosen not to seek treatment for the condition, which doesn’t affect his health. “I have the respect of society, and my wife tells me that people love me for who I am,” he says. “Fortunately, I’m in a position where 99% of the people who meet me want to meet me.”
Patel, 68, a cardiologist, comes by faith and perseverance naturally. Born in Zambia to parents of Indian descent, he grew up in a British colonial environment where he was seen as neither white nor black.
Initially, the town in Zambia where he lived with his parents and three siblings did not have a school for Indian children. His father, a businessman, persuaded government officials to build a small schoolhouse. Patel says his father expected him to excel, telling him that if he wasn’t at the top of his class he shouldn’t bother coming home.
“He might have jokingly said it,” Patel says. “But I remember complaining to my mother that no matter what I did, I could not please him.”
Patel’s father helped build a Hindu temple and community center where Patel learned to speak Gujarati, the dialect of his father’s native state. As a boy, Patel also took note of his father’s negotiating skills. Once, a neighbor, a widowed mother, was facing bankruptcy and having to send her children to live with relatives overseas. Patel’s father renegotiated her debt, in part by explaining to creditors that they could either work with her and get partial repayment or drive her out of Zambia and get nothing. She and her children ended up staying.
At 12, Patel left home to attend the only high school for Indian children in Zambia, about 100 miles away from the family’s hometown. Educated under the British system, he earned degrees from Cambridge and the University of London before heading to India for medical school.
When Patel arrived in Tampa in 1982, the local Indian population was tiny, and his ethnicity was an issue for some patients. “Some people did not want to come and see me,” he says. “Some would make a racist remark but still stick with me.” Over time, he built up a patient base and developed the understanding of the health insurance business that enabled him to buy and grow WellCare, the source of his initial fortune.
To pull off the Clearwater project — his first major real estate development — Patel got Wyndham to take over one of the towers for a timeshare operation, leaving less risk for Patel and his lenders.
“I think he’s about the only person who could have gotten that deal done,” says Steve Cohn, a Tampabased banker who has worked with Patel for more than a decade. Most notably, he says, Patel was able to bring “different parties together to reach consensus” on a host of financial and regulatory matters.
“He’s a tough negotiator, but not a difficult negotiator,” says Cohn, a senior relationship manager at Bank of America. “He’s not going to let a large project fall by the wayside over a small negotiation point.”
Patel says challenge motivates him. “When somebody says it cannot be done, that’s the thing I want to do. I have to be different.”