Singapore Medical Group expanding footprint across Asia-Pacific

Singapore Medical Group chief executive Beng Teck Liang sees opportunities in the company's telehealth business amid the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO: SINGAPORE MEDICAL GROUP
Singapore Medical Group chief executive Beng Teck Liang sees opportunities in the company's telehealth business amid the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO: SINGAPORE MEDICAL GROUP

For medical entrepreneur Beng Teck Liang, 48, taking the road less travelled nearly two decades ago has made a difference.

Dr Beng began his career as a medical officer with Singapore's Ministry of Health in 1996, after graduating from the UK's University of Manchester Medical School.

"Although I was trained as a doctor, I wanted something more, so I decided to take a different path from my peers, and move from medicine to business," said the chief executive officer of healthcare services provider Singapore Medical Group (SMG), which is listed on the Singapore Exchange (SGX).

So he worked for a master's degree in business administration from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and a general management programme from Harvard Business School.

After spending the next decade managing multibillion-dollar businesses in information technology and healthcare across the Asia-Pacific for multinational corporations Hewlett-Packard and General Electric, Dr Beng was ready to steer in a new direction again.

"I wanted to build something for myself. And when my partners and I saw the opportunity with SMG, we decided to go for it," he recalled. "We launched a takeover and general offer for the company in 2013, and the rest is, undoubtedly, a beautiful history."

However, the milestones that SMG achieved in the seven years that followed did not come easy.

"SMG had seen better days - its reputation was marred by controversy, business was shrinking, and we were months away from going broke. The stakes were really high at the time," he recalled. "We had to reorganise teams, cut costs, retrench or fire staff, before we could grow again. During the first year, I was constantly asking myself, What did I get myself into? Am I really going to make this work?"

Determination and discipline, as well as biting several bullets, eventually yielded results. "We managed to turn around, slowly but surely, and looking back now, there's a tremendous sense of satisfaction."

Today, SMG has a market capitalisation of more than $120 million, up sixfold from its value of about $20 million before the takeover.

Incorporated in 2005 and listed on the SGX in 2009, SMG is a private specialist healthcare provider, with 36 clinics islandwide. It offers aesthetics, cardiology, dentistry, medical oncology, obstetrics and gynaecology and paediatrics services, as well as plastic and reconstruction surgery.

Dr Beng's vision for SMG was crystal-clear from the start: Export the Singapore brand of healthcare beyond local shores. "Apart from the biggest players in this space, like Parkway Pantai and Raffles Medical Group, there are no small and medium companies which have a significant pan-Asian presence."

Today, it has an expanding footprint in Indonesia, a network of clinics in Vietnam, and an in-vitro fertilisation business in Australia. "We were ahead of our peers in terms of taking that leap and targeting the markets, which are traditional sources of medical tourists in the region," Dr Beng said.

"Singapore's share of the region's medical tourism pie has been declining - we knew it would end at some point - so our goal was to bring the best-quality healthcare over to these countries. And I think we have made a lot of progress in achieving that."

These days, what keeps Dr Beng awake is none other than the Covid-19 outbreak. "This virtual enemy has complicated our previously simple growth strategy, which revolved around how fast we could expand, which markets to venture into, and which partners we should bring on board," he said.

Lockdowns across the region have prevented Asean patients from carrying out their normal clinic visits. "Covid-19 will definitely impact us - about 20 per cent to 30 per cent of our business comes from Asean."

Thankfully, there is a silver lining. "We unveiled our telehealth business at the beginning of last year, and are starting to reap the benefits of that," he noted.

Patients can tap into teleconsultation through SMG's HiDoc platform, which can be accessed via a mobile app or website. "We see huge opportunities in this space as medical tourism grinds to a halt from the pandemic," Dr Beng said.

• This is an excerpt from Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: The Company Brew, a column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed firms. Previous editions are on SGX's website

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2020, with the headline Singapore Medical Group expanding footprint across Asia-Pacific. Subscribe