1. Where are you from?
I'm a third-generation Kiwi. I grew up in Herne Bay. My dad and his brother had a fruit shop on Jervois Rd and we all lived in the house behind the shop. After school we didn't have play dates, you either helped cook for the family or helped in the shop. Back then there were only about 100 Indian families in Auckland. It was a very tight-knit community. Anyone who came out from India would use our house as a pit stop. Mum was the first woman president of the Auckland Indian Association.
2. How did you meet your husband, Dr Kantilal Patel?
It was an arranged marriage when I was 18. My Kiwi friends worried that I'd been forced by my parents but it wasn't like that. I wanted to do it. In any relationship both people have to adjust but Kanti had the hardest adjustment because he left India to come here and be with me. We both come from hard-working middle class families and our basic values are closely aligned but we're very different people. He's very religious, well-read and deep thinking whereas I'm the practical one. It works well.
3. Why did you move to Otara to open your first GP clinic?
When Kanti started in the hospital system in 1975 there were a lot of barriers for coloured doctors. A top specialist told him, "No one's going to refer patients to someone with an accent, you need to work somewhere with people who look and sound like you." So we bought a practice in Otara and lived next door. Otara in the 70s were the days of the machete murders and the dawn raids, but we'd open our door at midnight if someone needed a doctor.
4. Your clinic soon stood out as different. Why was that?
Doing things differently has been our greatest strength. Right from the start, Kanti decided to work around our patients' needs first and worry about money later. We charged adults $10 and children were free. Many of our patients couldn't get to the clinic between 9am and 5pm so we opened from 8am to 6pm. We introduced walk-ins which was unheard of and really upsetting for the local European doctors. They started complaining that we were too busy, so the Health Department put restrictions on the number of patients we could see. Kanti said, "That's fine. You may only pay me for a set number of patients but I'm not turning anyone away."
5. What was your role in the business?
Our eldest son was 18 months old when we bought the practice so for the first few years I'd drop him off to Mum's on Sunday night and pick him up on Friday night. I was receptionist, cleaner, office manager and accountant. I had no formal training, I just worked it out. Kanti did all the medical side of it and the big picture stuff. He never worried about paying the bills. Even today people laugh because he won't go to the bank, he'll say to me, "Can I have some money?"
6. How did your clinic make money?
It worked because patients could come. We've built up loyalty over three and four generations. I'll walk into a clinic and someone will give me a hug and say, "How many mokopunas Mrs Patel?" We started our second clinic at Dawson Rd in the 80s. We'd put in IT by 1984 so patient notes could be seen at either clinic. Within 18 months we outgrew that, so we built New Zealand's first all-purpose medical centre, East Tamaki Healthcare, with a clinic, pharmacy, dentist, physio and lab.
7. You now operate 35 clinics and 29 pharmacies nationwide. What drove that expansion?
Our son Rakesh joined the company 12 years ago when he was 30. He didn't start out in the family business because he didn't want people to think he'd only got there because of his parents. So he worked overseas and gained the commercial experience both of us lacked. He was instrumental in our investment in an Australian healthcare business with 27 clinics.
8. You bought nine White Cross emergency clinics in Auckland, Whangarei and Palmerston North from Elders in 2009. Were they a good fit?
No. White Cross was a purely commercial business owned by accountants and so the culture was very, very different. Two years ago we put them all under the Nirvana Health Group umbrella and the culture's more aligned now. We employ over 1000 people but I still sit in on every final interview to be sure our staff are here to serve the patient.
9. How did you get involved in combating domestic violence?
The New Zealand police asked me to join their South Asian Advisory Board. One year, four out of 14 deaths were Indian women. The police asked us what could be done. I did a six-month social work course at MIT and organised a meeting of all the providers. It turned out that men being removed from their homes by police were just sleeping in their cars with a bottle of alcohol before going home even angrier. Providers said they needed a house where the men could go and receive counselling within 24 hours. So I fundraised for a house and in-house social worker.
10. Have you been able to make a difference?
Gandhi Nivas (Peace Home) has been open for two years and to date we've had 360 men through the door; 93 per cent of those have not come under police attention again. Because it's the only house of its kind, men of all ethnicities come from all over Auckland. It's been so successful Wellington and Hamilton want one too but they can't get funding.
11. Why did you build a Hindi temple in Papatoetoe?
Kanti was one of the five founders of the Balmoral temple. When we moved to South Auckland there was no temple here so we bought a former church site in Papatoetoe. In the five years it took us to build the temple, the local Indian community grew tenfold. Now, every Sunday we feed 500 people. I work in the kitchen. It's great for bringing the community together, welcoming new migrants, providing pastoral care for international students.
12. Have you ever felt discriminated against as a female business leader?
I've never outwardly felt discriminated against for being a woman. The worst discrimination comes from within. I get intimidated too easily. I don't think that ever goes away. You just have to work on it because if you worry about "what if?" you don't get anywhere.