Ranjna Patel has developed a successful healthcare business, built a Hindu temple and created a groundbreaking domestic violence programme -- all driven by determination and vision, writes Graham Skellern

Take one look at Ranjna Patel's impressive CV and you are immediately intrigued as to how she's found the time to string together so many achievements.

She is an innovator and motivator with a heart of gold, she is a successful businesswoman and a proud grandmother of seven, and she is a very worthy winner of the Deloitte Top 200 Visionary Leader award for 2016.

Patel's leadership style doesn't come from any executive management course. It is based on gut instinct, caring and emphasising family values of rewards, discipline and recognising people for their own individual contribution.

Without formal business or financial management education, Patel married at 18 and worked as a receptionist in her husband Dr Kantilal Patel's GP practice in Otara. They took over the one-doctor East Tamaki Clinic in 1977, and expanded from there. They focused on helping lower socio-economic groups adults were charged no more than $10 for a visit to the doctor and children were free.


Patel, a third-generation Kiwi Indian, made sure she got to know her customers and their situations and needs. She knew some families were walking two to three kilometres to reach the clinic.

She wanted to improve access to healthcare and wasn't afraid to open up more affordable clinics in South Auckland, even if they were just 2km apart.

Some questioned the business model but Patel, the social entrepreneur, thrived on a challenge. East Tamaki Healthcare, founded by Patel and her husband, grew and grew.

Now renamed Nirvana Health Group, it operates 35 clinics, 29 pharmacies and a call centre, employs 1060 staff including 300 doctors and more than 200 nurses, and conducts 1.2 million consultations a year or up 4000 consultations a day.

It has a mental health team of 12. Nirvana is the largest independent primary healthcare group in New Zealand. Seventeen of its clinics are open seven days a week, four of them past 10pm, and two, Ascot and Henderson, operate 24 hours a day. The group includes nine White Cross emergency clinics in Auckland, Whangarei and Palmerston North, bought from Elders eight years ago.

Nirvana has also invested in a Sydney-based healthcare business that has 27 clinics and more than 150 staff in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, and see a total of 2000 patients a day.

If we look after the patient, the business will take care of itself.

Currently, Nirvana's staff represents 40 different ethnic groups and more than 25 different languages are spoken, which ensures every patient understands their consultation and what their management plan is.

Ranjna Patel and Dr Kanti Patel on the red carpet at the Deloitte Top 200 event. Photo / Nick Reed
Ranjna Patel and Dr Kanti Patel on the red carpet at the Deloitte Top 200 event. Photo / Nick Reed

Nirvana's medical model, developed by the Patels, takes a "whole of social system" approach to meet the needs of patients and their families. The service delivery not only addresses immediate problems, but also it looks at prevention and self-management, and improving quality of life.

Nirvana works closely with the south Auckland community to better understand population needs and respond to them. It works with schools, churches and community groups, making presentations on health topics, answering service provision questions and delivering health message materials.

As the business grew, the Patels stuck to their values and principles of "creating patient satisfaction". All patients are seen on the day that they need, appointments are not necessary and no patient is denied service because they cannot afford the fee.

Takanini Medical Centre is part of the fast-growing Nirvana Health Group.
Takanini Medical Centre is part of the fast-growing Nirvana Health Group.

Patel's business philosophy was simple: "If we look after the patient, then the business will take care of itself." She built an intimate knowledge of practice management, community services and need, and the funding environment in healthcare.

She was the driver in the human resources and business management aspects of the business. For the first 15 years of the business, she handled all the financial matters.

Now, Nirvana has a finance team of 12, and a management support office of more than 40 staff including six doctors who provide advice, professional development and risk assessments at the different clinics.

Patel worked tirelessly building the teams, adapting systems including online patients' records and creating a model of care. She still sits on the final interview for all new staff, except doctors.

She became known as a practical and cost-effective innovator in healthcare, and is a sounding board for Ministry of Health officials who may be faced with a stumbling block and are looking for a solution.

They have run a business with clever use of technology and smart use of workforce, and provided quality, affordable healthcare.

Son Rakesh Patel, who is managing director of Nirvana, says Patel never backed down on a challenge. "Mum's incredible. As soon as there's a challenge she jumps on it. She's great with people and always finds ways of doing more to help them.

"Some of the Pacific Island women in the business have been with her for 20 years. They started on $9 an hour and are now in management earning good wages. They are absolutely the most successful within their wider family, and mum has been an inspiration for them."

Tony Ryall, former Minister of Health and a consultant to Nirvana, say Patel and her husband built a great business in some of the most challenging parts of Auckland.

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"They have run a business with clever use of technology and smart use of workforce, and provided quality, affordable healthcare. Most of the customers pay no more than $10 a visit. The Patels have developed a business model that works and what they have achieved is quite remarkable," says Ryall.

While she built the business, Patel found the time and energy to complete a wide range of community work -- and be innovative.

She became a Justice of the Peace and marriage celebrant, and never charged for her services. She supported schools by funding books and sports gear for students.

She worked tirelessly for the Indian community and became Chairperson of the NZ Central Indian Association Women's Group, the first woman president of Manukau Indian Association, and Chair of the Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) Indian Community Advisory Group.

She worked with the police and is a member of the Counties Manukau South Asian Police Advisory Board and the NZ Police National Ethnic Forum.

Hindu Temple

In 2008 Patel and her husband completed the construction of the International Swaminarayan Satsang Organisation (ISSO) Temple in Papatoetoe. They funded the ornate Hindu temple which has become a community meeting place for all sects.

Every Sunday Patel organises a team to prepare meals for up to 500 people at the temple. The evening starts with a prayer session and caters for recently-arrived Indian families who are having social acclimatisation problems.

Patel will conduct a marriage at the temple in front of up to 700 guests.

Domestic Violence

In 2014 she established the Nirvana Foundation, the charitable arm of Nirvana Health Group, and is a trustee with her daughter in law, Nikki Patel.

The foundation's first project is the Gandhi Nivas programme, which focuses on ending domestic violence, and is delivered by Sahaayta Counselling Services in conjunction with the police.

Four out of 14 women killed in New Zealand are Indian, and 55 per cent of breaches of domestic violence orders are by Indian men. Patel decided to turn an empty medical clinic in Otahuhu into early-intervention accommodation for perpetrators of domestic violence -- men who have been issued protection orders.

She attended a family violence social worker/counselling course at MIT, and learned that when men are removed from the home they have nowhere to go, and they return more angry and aggressive, so the women don't ring the next time it happens.

"We established a home for the police to drop off the men, where social workers work with them and the next day another counsellor goes to the women and checks they are okay," explains Patel. "Most importantly [to me] is they talk to the children, counselling them that it's not okay for mum to be hit and it's not okay for dad to hit. I believe children learn and normalise what they see, and then the girls tolerate being victims and the boys think it's normal to hit. This is the long-term generational change we need."

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Rakesh Patel says: "It's a new way of thinking. The victim is still faced with the same problem when the man come backs home. The re-offending rate is reducing. Some of the men have come to the [Otahuhu] house saying: 'I've been taught the trigger signs and I'm losing it'."

Some 300 men have attended the counselling programme over the past 18 months, and a survey of the first 100 participants showed a 93 per cent success rate, proving early intervention can be successful and change men's behaviour.

Rakesh Patel says the Gandhi Nivas intervention programme is one of his mother's proudest achievements, and it can become a mainstream solution of police and communities.

Asked how his mother fits everything in, her son says: "We live next door to each other, and I wanted my children to spend time with her. She's out every night, either at the temple or one and another community activity.

"Mum's got more energy than I ever imagined and she has patience. If people call her to do something, she does it. She's a good time manager and she just balances business with her charitable community work," he says.

Looking after the customer comes first at the Takanini Medical Centre (above), part of the fast-growing Nirvana Health Group. Right: the interior of the ISSO Temple decked out for a wedding. Bottom, left- right: Sergeant Gurpreet Arora (Auckland District Ethnic Services Co-ordinator); Gurpreet Ranjna Patel and Inspector Rakesh Naidoo (now on secondment to the Human Rights Commission).

Judges' comments

Deloitte Top 200 judge Dame Alison Paterson said, "what's wonderful about Ranjna Patel is that she had no business experience and no tertiary education yet has achieved brilliant business success."

"She certainly had the support of her husband, and she does acknowledge that," said Paterson, who is an independent director of a number of major New Zealand companies. "But she has contributed more than equally to the business they've built and to the wider community benefit that Nirvana delivers, and she probably has spearheaded.

"So as a grandmother nearing 60, she's now on the board of a leading Indian bank, she has important appointments to positions where she really can add a lot of value.

"I think that this award will be wonderful encouragement and recognition for her, and will help her in future years as she builds on what she has achieved to date.

"She is raring to go and we wish her well."

Ranjna Patel's achievements:

• Awarded Queen's Service Medal (QSM) 2009 for services to Indian community.
• In 2009 Supreme Business of the Year in Indian New Zealand Business awards.
• In 2011 Supreme winner of Westpac South Business awards, and Best Businesswoman of the Year in Indian Business awards.
• In 2013, 2014 and 2015 Westpac Women of Influence finalist.
• In 2016, Finalist in EY Entrepreneur of Year awards.
• In 2014 inducted into the New Zealand Hall of Fame for Women Entrepreneurs.
• Next year, one of 10 global attendees to the Indian Government's leadership advisory forum on making India a destination for holistic healthcare services.
• Founding and Executive Trustee for Total Healthcare PHO.
• Chairperson for NZ Central Indian Association (NZCIA) Women's Group
• Executive Committee Member (previously President) for Manukau Indian. Association.
• Board Member for Lottery Auckland Distribution Committee, Member of Counties Manukau South Asian Police Advisory Board and NZ Police National Ethnic Forum.
• Chair of MIT Indian Community Advisory Group and member of the NZ Asian Leaders Advisory Board.
• Director of Bank of Baroda.
• Board Member of Global Women, and Co Of Women.