20 March 2009
AT LUNCH WITH THE FM
Shoks Mzolo with Surgeon & Safari founder Lorraine Melvill at Doppio Zero, Rosebank, Johannesburg
By the time we place our order, Lorraine Melvill has spoken about her children, a bit of politics and how she's been "a wild card all my life". And, of course, Surgeon & Safari, her medical tourism firm, which is turning 10 in November.
She's turning 50 in the same month. And she's talking about forming a 50-plus gap club - "an elders' exchange programme" to travel the world.
Melvill is talkative and an extrovert who wears "my life on my sleeve". Born in Johannesburg, this daughter of a liberal businessman and a university lecturer was schooled in Grahamstown, Cape Town and Pretoria before registering at UCT for business science because her parents insisted she pursue a "proper career".
HOW SHE CHILLS
> Listens to African jazz, pop and classical music and is a fan of Andrea Bocelli
> Enjoys the bush and walking
Now a mother of two university-going sons, Oliver and Max, Melvill talks about her first job at Barclays and her stint at Blue Moon, a production house owned by her then husband. After the divorce, she left Blue Moon to start a clean slate, but ended up doing "insignificant jobs, but enough to put food on the table", because, "I wasn't going to go back to corporate life. I am, as I said, a wild card and I had children to look after."
The idea to form Surgeon & Safari, which featured in a 2002 FM cover story on medical tourism, was sparked in 1997. Melvill's uncle, Gerald Mahoney, a US citizen, told her he was having a face-lift operation abroad. Her response: "Why not do it here? We have an excellent health-care system."
Six months later he came back and had the op performed in Jo'burg, says Melvill before our calamari and pasta arrive.
Her uncle booked himself into a hotel while recuperating, she says, recalling that the dollar/rand exchange rate those days was R61. With the rand where it's at now, travelling to SA for medical treatment is even cheaper. But Melvill expects the industry to start taking pain from the economic downturn. For now, though, her clients spend an average of R120 000 (including the R70 000 or so for treatment, accommodation and meals) during their 10-day stays in SA.
She has built Surgeon & Safari into a world-recognised brand but has also had to contend with growing competition. It helps that she's loving what she's doing and making good money in the process.
Melvill's come a long way since she borrowed R40 000 in seed capital from her brother. She then built up a network of doctors and got the classy Mount Nelson and Westcliff hotels to host patients.
For a while there were no inquiries and no clients. Now Melvill hosts 20-30 patients a month or about 300/year. Unlike in the past, when her patients stayed at hotels, she now hosts them at her big house in Bryanston. That can be taxing.
Indeed, she wakes up at 4 am, spends two hours on administration, plays hostess during the day - this includes cooking, and scheduling and driving clients around - and goes to bed after 10 pm. She makes it sound simple, but it's a demanding job.
Melvill prefers to keep her business this small because "attention to detail is important". She whips out her BlackBerry, her "PA", to show me an e-mail to one of her clients. "You should find out how people are doing. Call them and say: 'How are you?' People need that."
Melvill gets a phone call. This time it's not a client but a Dutch journalist. Then she makes a call to reschedule her next meeting because our impressive lunch has taken a bit longer than expected.
"I had no idea Surgeon & Safari would explode," she says. "I just wanted to do something small - for the love of it." Look at her now.