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Originally published Wednesday, August 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle fund bankrolls Asian private hospital chain

Seattle investment firm Columbia Pacific said it has raised $135 million to help its Malaysia-based Asian hospital business expand into India's burgeoning private health-care sector.

Seattle Times business reporter

Columbia Asia

The Malaysia-based hospital operator, owned by Seattle's Columbia Pacific, raised $135 million in a bid to grow in the Indian health-care market.

Existing facilities: 5 hospitals in Malaysia, 5 in India, 2 in Vietnam, 1 in Indonesia

Employees: 2,600

Total equity raised: $325 million

A Malaysia-based hospital operator run by Seattleites and backed by local investors says there's money to be made by treating India's upwardly mobile to American-style health care. And it's betting big bucks on it.

Columbia Pacific, a Seattle investment firm, said it has raised $135 million to go after the Indian market. Its Asian venture, Columbia Asia, has 13 facilities in Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam — and expects to have 39 by the end of the decade, more than half in India.

The latest investment, expected to be announced today, brings the total equity raised by Columbia Asia to $325 million. Columbia Pacific's main investor is the Baty family, a local clan that also owns Corus Estates & Vineyards.

Its patriarch, Daniel Baty, founded and still is co-CEO of Emeritus Corp., an operator of assisted-living centers. In June another fund controlled by Columbia made a $173 million offer for the Red Lion hotel chain.

Neither Baty nor other investors were available for comment, a spokesman said.

Columbia Asia's operations began in 1994, when Chairman Rick Evans — who previously worked for Baty — opened an extended-care facility in Malaysia, then one of Southeast Asia's blossoming "Tiger Economies." The idea was to adapt business methods honed in U.S. health-care management to private hospitals serving the region's budding middle class.

Now India, with its booming economy and giant population, is looking more like the land of opportunity.

"It took me one day of driving around Bangalore, India, to see the opportunity was unbelievable," Evans said. The southeastern city is India's Silicon Valley, housing Microsoft's research campus, among others. Middle-income households there were "underserved," he said.

India's economy grew at a pace of 9 percent last year, but it still lags behind in health-care services. It has 1.5 beds per 1,000 people, half the rate of Brazil and China. The developed world has four to eight beds per 1,000 people, according to an article by McKinsey & Co. consultant Rajat Gupta.

At the same time, the country's population may rise 8 percent annually until 2025 and is bound to become the world's largest in a few decades, Gupta wrote.

Columbia Asia is not the only health-care provider to go after the money in Indians' increasingly deep pockets. In April, Pacific Health Holdings of Singapore announced a joint venture with an Indian firm to replicate its existing Mumbai cosmetic and spa center across the subcontinent, aiming "to cater to the burgeoning numbers of increasingly affluent Indians."

Columbia Asia's initial foothold was Malaysia, a rapidly modernizing former British colony where the widespread usage of English and the common-law system made it easy to import business practices developed in the U.S.

All of the company's manuals and medical records are in English, said managing director Matthew Powell.

"We insist all of our doctors speak English," he said. But most of the company's 2,600 employees are from the host countries, Powell said.

Facilities are small: a typical hospital has about 65 adult beds, costing about $15 million to $16 million to build. It sees about 8,000 patients a month, and brings in about $1 million in monthly revenue, said Evans.

The company's growth is in part driven by the expansion of private health insurance in Asia. About 70 percent of the company's revenues come from insurer payments, Evans said.

Columbia Asia already has five facilities open in India, but expansion there presents its own set of challenges.

For one, trained nurses are hard to keep, as many are lured away by jobs in the U.S. and other countries, where their skills are in high demand.

Second, cultural sensitivity is a must. For instance, when the company opened a facility in Bangalore, protesters showed up asking that the company's logo be spelled in the local alphabet — one of many used the country.

"India is complicated," Evans said.

Ángel González: 206-515-5644 or agonzalez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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