Raffles Medical chief turns billionaire on firm's anti-virus efforts

Dr Loo Choon Yong, 72, co-founded Raffles Medical in 1976. He and his friend Alfred Loh initially bought two clinics and gradually built up the company.
Dr Loo Choon Yong, 72, co-founded Raffles Medical in 1976. He and his friend Alfred Loh initially bought two clinics and gradually built up the company. ST FILE PHOTO

A Singapore doctor has become a billionaire after his company became involved in efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, helping send its profit and stock surging.

Dr Loo Choon Yong, executive chairman of Singapore-listed Raffles Medical Group, is now worth US$1.1 billion (S$1.49 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, as the healthcare provider's net income more than doubled in the first half of this year and its shares climbed 104 per cent from a low in March last year.

Raffles Medical has been operating 15 vaccination centres in the city-state, and helping with air border screening, pre-event testing and pre-departure swabbing of cruise passengers. It is the latest example of how businesses adapted during the coronavirus outbreak when other lines of work were hit.

"When the country is facing a challenge like this, we have to help out," Dr Loo, who owns about 52 per cent of Raffles Medical with his family, said in a video interview. "Although we're private, we're part of the healthcare system."

Singapore has been speeding up its Covid-19 vaccination drive, expecting to have 80 per cent of its population fully inoculated by next month so that it can relax more virus restrictions, including starting to allow quarantine-free travel.

Raffles Medical, which operates more than 60 clinics and practices and one hospital across the country, began working on the efforts in January.

"The fact that Raffles Medical is one of the largest healthcare providers in Singapore meant it was able to assist in more ways than one," said CGS-CIMB Securities Singapore analyst Tay Wee Kuang. Their involvement "has benefited them", he said.

Dr Loo, 72, co-founded Raffles Medical in 1976. He and his friend Alfred Loh initially bought two clinics and gradually built up the company.

As well as its presence in Singapore, Raffles Medical has three hospitals in China, the latest one opening in Shanghai last week. The group also operates in Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia.

"The principle was to look after patients properly," Dr Loo said. "The business will look after itself. That's how we grew over the years."

Things did not look so bright when the coronavirus started to spread last year. Raffles Medical's regular business declined as people stayed away from clinics and hospitals, and medical providers were only allowed to provide essential services, according to Dr Loo.

"During the Covid-19 period, patients get worried and try to stay home," he said. "You don't want to go for health check-ups and pick up Covid-19." So the company deployed doctors, nurses and other staff to other areas, such as Covid-19 testing and screening at airports.

Raffles Medical more than doubled its earnings to $39.4 million for the first half of this year, as revenue rose 42 per cent to $343.8 million.

The company's shares have climbed 50 per cent so far this year, compared with a 12 per cent gain for the country's benchmark stock index.

Mr Tay of CGS-CIMB Securities sounded a note of caution, however, saying contributions from Covid-19 efforts may have peaked.

"We do not know how the situation will evolve," he said. Future share price upside may "need to come from border reopening that can boost medical tourism, and even testing of passenger arrivals at our air border", he said.

Dr Loo, meanwhile, said that amassing a fortune of more than US$1 billion is not how he judges his success.

"I don't measure our contribution or the meaning of my life by the market cap or share price," he said. "What's seriously important is how Raffles Medical, as an organisation, looks after patients well."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2021, with the headline Raffles Medical chief turns billionaire on firm's anti-virus efforts. Subscribe