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The Missionary That Built A Business Empire

Published 4 years ago
By Forbes Africa

The man at the gate, lacking an intercom, leaves to deliver the message of a guest’s arrival by mouth. Fresh patches of plaster point to renovations on the iron-roofed single-storey building in the Kampala suburb of Bukasa. The occupants of the main workstation compete for space with stacks of paperwork. As Choksi, the administrator, offers a drink, she apologizes for the lack of glasses. The water comes in a mug with a conspicuous crack on the side. It’s a scene akin to start-ups run by varsity drop-outs in their parents’ garage. Only this time, the founder is a millionaire.

For two decades, Ian Clarke, a Northern Irish-Ugandan medical doctor, made his fortune operating the International Medical Group, which boasts 22 clinics, a health insurance company, a hospital, a diagnostic laboratory and a university. In 2015, he sold a majority stake to Mauritian company, Ciel Healthcare, retaining a shareholding of just 9.88%, according to records at Uganda’s company registry reviewed by FORBES AFRICA.

“I am in my 60s and you get to a point where you say ‘I have been doing this all my life because I am passionate about it’. I wanted to make a difference, and then somebody gives you a lot of money. You say ‘okay, that’s not bad’,” Clarke says.

Selling a huge stake in his company didn’t mean Clarke was prepared to put his feet up.

“I probably should have gone on a cruise, traveled the world and spent my money. And then decided I would invest it in start-up entrepreneurial companies, and I look at that now and I say ‘what the hell was I doing?’”

Clarke is no stranger to such decisions.

In 1987, he had a thriving medical practice and a retail business in Northern Ireland. But, a constant urge to live life to the fullest saw him move to Uganda, which was emerging from a five-year guerilla war that brought President Yoweri Museveni to power. Having sold his business to a brother, Clarke uprooted his family the following year and flew off to Uganda as part of the Church Missionary Society. He was assigned to Kiwoko, in the Luweero region, 77 kilometers north of the capital, Kampala.

Word spread of a doctor’s presence in the deprived village, and Clarke woke up to lengthy queues of people seeking medical attention. A priest at the local church gave up his chair and a papyrus mat served as the examination table. Operations took place under a tree. When Clarke sought volunteers for his makeshift clinic, he found Moses Sekidde, a 20-year-old elementary school dropout who understood just enough English to serve as an interpreter. Clarke trained a group of about 30 to handle simple ailments, leaving himself to deal with the complicated ones, which could be as many as 300 cases a day.

When rains poured, they moved the clinic into the church, where one vestry served as the examination room and the other as the treatment room. This was unsustainable and a few months in, the community started laying bricks for construction of a dispensary. By 1991, with the support of donations, the Kiwoko clinic had been built into a fully-fledged hospital.

“As a person I liked him because that was my first time to see a person from a developed country participating in activities which I thought an Englishman couldn’t do,” says Sekidde. “He was our driver, he was a carpenter, at times he would be the health educator teaching mothers, and other times he participated in farming.”

“Your duties at that time depended on the needs of the day,” adds Sekidde, who has since obtained university education and remains employed by the hospital.

Clarke’s past in Northern Ireland prepared him for the work he was doing in Uganda.

“Even though I was a medical doctor, I had done some business in Ireland as well. So I think, unlike many doctors who just know their medicine, I had learned something, I had a retail business which I sold to my brother. He’s got a very successful business there. And I was brought up on a farm,” says Clarke.

“That ability to just take what’s there and work with it, which I suppose I learned on the farm, is probably what I put to work in Luweero and built a clinic and then the clinic became a hospital and so on and so forth.”

Power Woes Stall Uganda’s Rise

After running the hospital for a few years, Clarke suffered testicular cancer which saw him leave for treatment in Ireland. He returned to Uganda in 1994 to start his own practice, the International Medical Center in Kampala, which evolved into the International Medical Group.

“I basically made a decision that I didn’t want to be just working the aid world. I didn’t want to always be begging for money,” says Clarke.

“That’s when I sort of moved and said let me do a clinic that people will pay for and then I would use the surplus to build – my ambition was to build a hospital… I had this vision and this goal, but there were many steps to achieve that. And in that process there were some successes and some failures. And a lot of it was just grind. Don’t forget it took 20 years, at least, from that time to today.”

As Chairman of the eponymous company, Clarke Group, he oversees diversified holdings in entities, including the International Medical Group; a US sterilization tech company, Eniware; an elementary school; the International Health Science University; chicken and coffee farms; the Seasons Lodge, a hotel in Zanzibar; and a start-up low-cost tech building company, IMG Construction. By next year, the group hopes to establish a business school in Kampala.

“I don’t really have these big bank balances, sitting around. I always invest in something. People come to me and they want me to invest in funds… but I think I would rather manage my own investments and be in control,” he says.

A low-cost house is being built at a site piloted by the Clarke Group in the Muyenga suburb of Kampala. (Photo by Joseph Burite)

With so many business interests, Clarke relies on his son, Sean , to help him run Clarke Group. Sean seems to follow in his father’s footsteps, having uprooted his family from Bristol, England, to return to Uganda seven years ago. The holder of an MBA had risen through the ranks of the International Medical Group to become chief operating officer, before the sale, and now runs the education segment of the group.

“Sean is the CEO of the education [segment], I am concentrating on the farm and I am still chairman on the medical side. So it splits it up easier,” says Clarke, who has two other children, Lauren and Michael. “I don’t want him following in my footsteps. I mean it’s easy for him being in my shadow, but saying he is the CEO of Clarke Education – that then put’s responsibility on his shoulders and he’s got to develop that and he’s got good experience.”

“There’s a lot about Uganda that I like. There’s a can-do sort of thing. You really feel like you can do whatever you want to do,” Sean Clarke, 41, says. “In the west, a lot of doors are closed. If you have a business idea, someone is already doing it. If you have a concept, there are a lot of things getting in your way, there’s a lot of bureaucracy to overcome. There’s a lot of regulation and a lot of circulation in a lot of markets if you want to do something.”

“In Uganda, there’s a lot of need and need equates to opportunity. And I think that’s where we have thrived,” adds Sean.

Though successful, Clarke remains humble.

“I am not an especially humble person, but I remind myself that I didn’t get here because I’m such a brilliant person. Any of those ventures could have failed. There were plenty of times that I lost money and made wrong decisions.”

“If you have a moment where things are okay, then be thankful and don’t ever get to that point where you are arrogant or think you are better than other people,” says Clarke.

“I don’t think I can ever feel like here I am, I am on top of the mountain. I don’t think an entrepreneur is really ever certain.”

He may be humble, but there’s no denying Clarke’s achievements. – Written by Joseph Burite

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Related Topics: #Clarke Group, #Ian Clarke, #International Medical Group, #Sean Clarke, #Uganda.