SME profile: It pays to apprentice for Abu Dhabi healthcare entrepreneur

Anne Vikkens, a Norwegian healthcare business professional, found that it can pay to be apprenticed with the government in Abu Dhabi before venturing out on one’s own.

Starting a business can seem like a Herculean task for those unfamiliar with the Middle East and its slower pace of business, where having connections and a grasp of the local language and ways of doing things always help.

Local laws also stipulate that entrepreneurs must have a local partner who has majority ownership, unless operating out of a free zone. (The country’s foreign investment law is being updated to allow foreigners to own 100 per cent in certain sectors outside of the free zones.)

While the prospect of having to have a local partner may be discouraging to some, Ms Vikkens says it can help when it gets down to doing a lot of the practical things needed to start a business.


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“It looks daunting,” Ms Vikkens said in her office overlooking the Arabian Gulf. “If you have a local partner, the local partner knows all the nitty-gritty things.”

Today, Ms Vikkens has her hands in more than one pie, including the ownership of a small enterprise in Abu Dhabi that specialises in plastic surgery and dermatology. She also has the post of managing director at another business, Manzil Healthcare, a home care company.

It started in 2010, when Ms Vikkens got a lucky break. At the time, along with her husband, she was employed in Australia at Aspen Medical, a Canberra-based healthcare company that specialises in helping rural and remote communities. Before that Ms Vikkens had done long stints at Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly, two of the world’s biggest healthcare product companies.

When Aspen won a government tender to help build National Ambulance in the UAE, Ms Vikkens became the chief administration officer of the new company while her husband became the chief executive. The National Ambulance Company, 80 per cent owned by the government and 20 per cent owned by Aspen Medical, is a healthcare company that serves both the government and private clients.

Ms Vikkens said she and her husband built the company from scratch and after a year had hired more than 1,000 people. After two-and-a-half years, she said the company was running smoothly, and given that the government had started to accelerate a programme of promoting local hires, she and her husband decided to hedge their bets.

“When a government company becomes very successful what they do is they Emiratise senior positions,” Ms Vikkens said. “That hadn’t happen yet. Since we were both in the same company, we said it might not be smart to be in the same company forever.”

An opportunity presented itself at Ms Vikkens’ local cosmetic skin clinic, where she got facials done.

She learnt from one of the co-owners, a dual-citizen Emirati, that the clinic, Bodyworx, was up for sale because it was not able to find a doctor, a requirement by the local authorities to stay open. The main Emirati owner had put the business up for sale, she said, but refused when a big corporation offered a sum deemed to be too little for what was on offer.

“So I said, ‘why don’t we buy it?’” said Ms Vikkens. “Why don’t we put in a bid 50/50, because she was half Emirati, half British? Even if you bid Dh50,000 more than this big corporation, she might see it as a good thing. So we did it and we got it dead cheap, for Dh800,000.”

The duo put some more in the boutique clinic, hired a doctor and got the show on the road again. Today, the clinic, which also offers plastic surgery, boasts three German doctors.

Ms Vikkens doesn’t have much time to go in for facials these days, as a year ago she threw herself into yet another SME project, Manzil Healthcare.

Manzil is a home care company that provides around-the-clock nurses and physicians for bedridden patients who have ailments including cancer, and some of whom need mechanical ventilation.

Almost all the patients are Emiratis because the health insurance programme for locals, Thiqa, covers most of the services that Manzil provides. The company is in talks with private insurers to get more coverage for expatriates who need similar services.

While the UAE is well-known as a place where people come and go all the time, Ms Vikkens says she is planning to stay for the foreseeable future.

“We have bought a villa, so we intend to stay,” she said.

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