Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|September 8, 2022|21 Minutes|In Billionaire, Billionaire Today

Billionaire Today

The fit and fast millionaire on why entrepreneurs must hit the road less travelled. 

There is a supreme irony in the roots of the business loving healthcare millionaire Adrian Gore - his family didn’t like business and made money from unhealthy goodies. Just one of the small ironies in Gore’s stellar 27-year career as an entrepreneur has garnered him an estimated half a billion dollars in net worth. A career forged in political hard times, COVID-19 amid cheeky young disruptors; a story of risk and reward told in an exclusive interview with Billionaire Tomorrow.

Adrian Gore cuts an urbane and dynamic figure, fit as a flea in his late fifties, in tailored, skinny, suits; a picture of the business that made his fortune. He owns 6% of Discovery Health the business he started from scratch, nearly three decades ago. It now has more than three million members and beneficiaries, in South Africa alone, plus 20 million around the world. In the eye of a pandemic, he is investing millions into diversifying into banking, insurance and the future.   

Health could be Gore’s middle name. He often runs to work through the Johannesburg streets. When he stays in hotels overseas his first job, after check-in, is to find the stairs so he can keep in trim. One time in New York there was a small fire in a hotel. In the confusion, the only guest who knew the way to the fire escape was one Adrian Gore of South Africa who led everyone down to safety.

On the roof top of one of his offices, Gore built a running track so he could do a few laps at lunchtime. You may find richer millionaires than Gore, but you are unlikely to find faster.  

Yet the fact that Gore ended up in the health business is one of life’s little ironies. His father ran a business supplying cafés; his mother said she didn’t trust business and his father thought even less of it.  

“I will tell you what did stick with me, he hated business,” says Gore of this father.

Gore senior told his sons that if he had not needed to support a young family he would have gone straight to university instead of delivering boxes of cigarettes throughout Johannesburg.

“I don’t like it, it doesn’t interest me, he used to say,” recalls Gore.

“Ironically, I come from a family that doesn’t really have a passion for business. In fact, after he retired, he went back to do a whole load of degrees, my family believes in education and don’t really believe in business.”

The second irony for a health tycoon, who urges millions to look after their bodies, came when Gore had to pull his shifts in the family business, in the school holidays, for his father.

I did a talk recently for an entrepreneurial kind of organisationThere must have been 40 or 50 people there; all of them had done unbelievably well, super confident, on top of the world  they treated me like a boring suit!

- Adrian Gore

“I’m ashamed to admit it, but he was a tobacconist, he was supplying cafes with cigarettes – it was my grandfather’s business. He was a wholesaler of cigarettes, sweets and chocolate, all the things we try to get rid of with Vitality (Discovery’s reward scheme for healthy living) be that as it may. It was a very successful business, the manufacturers squeezed them out eventually, but they had a business supplying hundreds of cafés. I used to spend my holiday packing cigarettes, I remember Lexington and Rothmans – they were big crates of the stuff – and going to deliver them. That was my reality, you know what I mean. I grew up in that kind of environment it was a very liberating and exciting time. The business had great revenue, but very little profit, it was not easy at all.”

Spurred on by his studies at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, Gore took a fairly comfortable position as an actuary assessing risk at Liberty Life – a growing company in the relatively buoyant economic days of the 1980s. He could have settled for a quieter life in corporate, but, in 1992, he decided to go on his own as an entrepreneur.

Gore approached millionaire Laurie Dippenaar, who had built a finance group from scratch creating a fortune of more than $600 million. He was known in Johannesburg as Mr Big Deal – on the grounds that if Laurie is in the deal, it must be big – who had seen Gore as one to watch. Gore secured seed capital and mentorship from Mr Big Deal and made a leap of faith.

“My first daughter was just born. Before I started Discovery, I went on a holiday, a two-week break, I was sitting on the beach with her and held her up; she was literally a month old, I was 27, you kind of naturally do things at that age. I thought, I’ve given up everything here; I have got this little child my wife and I and you feel that sudden sense of responsibility. That was my only feeling of a reality check of what was at stake.”

When he got back to Johannesburg, Gore hit the road. He drove across South Africa  trying to speak to companies, and anyone who would listen, about the wisdom of health insurance.

“It was a pretty slow start I remember the first year and four months selling health insurance and medical aid to companies door-to-door; I remember I drove the whole of KwaZulu Natal I was on the road. It took a lot of time and I remember Laurie Dippenaar, at RMB, a fantastic businessman I have the greatest respect for him. He was the chairman and a major shareholder he was more of a mentor he was fantastic guy. I remember him coming to me and saying: ‘You are not selling business.’ I remember we had 1800 members and we couldn’t get past that and I remember Laurie said” ‘You have to be patient, you have to take time.’ That was an incredible thing, mostly shareholders say you have to move faster.”

It was a difficult time to start out as an entrepreneur as South Africa went through painful political change. 

“We started out in the early 90s, the fall of apartheid and Nelson Mandela. There were a number of years between 1990 and when the elections came out in 1994 when there was real uncertainty over whether the country would peacefully emerge. There was capital flight, as you say, and a great deal of emigration and there was great uncertainty, a lack of confidence and investment. So, to be fair I didn’t start out with the intellectual understanding of the opportunity because of that. But I have to say starting out at that time, people are distracted and competitors are distracted and that is the opportunity. That is the parallel with today , I think people investing now people actually building now will find they can make it through; there will be failure, you have got to be very careful, but people who are building big things now will be fine when the economy recovers they will be in a very strong position. We have got to have conviction about building in difficult times and I see it as the best time to build,” he says.

I personally think it is better to go the road less travelled, in other words, ironically, you have to you have a better chance going in industries are doing much, because if there are a lot of people going there, there will be billionaires but it wont be you!

- Adrian Gore

There can be few more difficult times than the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 that knocked the South African economy side-ways, costing millions of jobs. Gore has been in the front line against the pandemic; on the business front he has had to gird his company against the tough times. It laments  more than 5,000 of its members died in the pandemic along with a dozen of Discovery’s staff, amid a huge loss of life and confidence in South Africa.

The loss of jobs has also forced many to cut back on medical aid. On the national front against COVID-19, Gore is the Chairman of the Ministerial Vaccine Acquisition Task Team. As the vaccine is rolled out, Gore believes the nation should be thinking about ways of rebuilding a tottering economy in trouble long before the pandemic. He believes that effort needs to come not only from government.   

“I think we need a lot more from business leadership as well. I am not ignoring the problem, but it is not just pontificating a about how bad things are, we need action and activism to get this idea that we are moving forward. So, it is not a simple thing and I hope I am not sounding patronising, I have the same concerns, but we need to be activists more and get out there and give people a sense of hope,” he says.

“First people in big business have got to pay SMEs on time – whatever cashflow they are owned get it to them…Then items like artificial kickstarts like Black Friday – we should be saying to South Africans every Tuesday and Thursday night, if you can afford it, you must use restaurants or get take outs or whatever you need.  Buy local, go on holiday here, you actually need to stimulate demand.”

Beyond the COVID-19 gloom, another threat looms over the business that Gore built – NHI. The national health insurance scheme promises free health for all – that the government has been pushing for over the last decade. 

Right now, a few million South Africans pay for top quality health care. Those who can’t pay go to overstretched public hospitals. The pressure that COVID-19 put on all hospitals in South Africa brought into sharp focus this well-meaning plan to use the entire country’s resources to give private health standards to those who can’t pay.  

“It is interesting it has happened with the COVID pandemic has pushed both side of the argument. On the one side we need a coordinated health care system. You can’t have one side of the system. You can’t have one side of the system – private or public – without the other and you need it coordinated. The systems did well through COVID, frankly, there was cooperation. I think it illustrated the need for a much more coordinated system, that is the case for NHI in some way. On the other hand, you see the resources and fiscal headroom of government is really, really, limited and the ability to spend much more on healthcare could be problematic,” he says.   

“Where will it go? I am hoping we can build an NHI that has some potential, that we do our bit in that as well, but I think it is very difficult to think how you can offer comprehensive NHI to meet the needs of everyone – I don’t think that is doable…We have always held the view that private healthcare has a critical role to play, I think it is absolutely suicidal for the private health care system to think you can just switch it off, you have voluntary money flowing in with massive capabilities, it is part of the tapestry. We are of the view that we can coexist and I am sure that can happen.”

Entrepreneurs? Gore believes there are too few of them in Africa. He is sceptical about the modern trend of online courses for entrepreneurs, but has more faith in mentorship even if it can sometimes be uncomfortable.

“I have had people who have come to me with ideas, that compete with us, that are quite obnoxious about it. Almost, you know: ‘We’re going to do this, you guys are doing it so badly and I am going to take you on.’ Which is quite ballsy! I am bombarded with people with ideas at the moment. The amount of entrepreneurial activity around COVID is unbelievable, I get two or three emails a day from people who are saying they can remedy the situation, or cure, it is incredible how industrious people are. I know one group who set up a testing centre, you ring them up and they despatch someone to test you. It is an institution today with a call centre – that is how industrious people are they have developed a whole business in two months and they are doing well out of it. Good luck to them,” he says.

 “I think there are some amazing entrepreneurs, I really do, what has happened I think is a number of issues are complex, many entrepreneurs don’t see a future in a corporate environment. When I grew up you go to university and then enter into a big corporate, but it is changing now – many don’t head that way at all. I did a talk recently for an entrepreneurial kind of organisation…There must have been 40 or 50 people there; all of them had done unbelievably well, super confident, on top of the world – they treated me like a boring suit, you know what I am trying to say to you. They were confident and they knew what they were doing but on the other hand, as a country, we don’t have enough entrepreneurial activity you have got to grow big businesses you really do.”  

And where will the billionaires of tomorrow spring from? Gore believes they are going to come from clean energy and climate change. 

“I personally think it is better to go the road less travelled, in other words, ironically, you have to you have a better chance going in industries are doing much, because if there are a lot of people going there, there will be billionaires but it won’t be you! Often the road less travelled is easier for an entrepreneur,” says Gore.

“I would say search for the positive opportunities. Often in difficult times, it is easy to get drawn into a negative space and I think that is a very bad thing for an entrepreneur. I think attitude and experience and I think some things are destined to fail and you need to know that, other things have great potential and you need to know that too.”

Great entrepreneurs are they made or born?

 “I think entrepreneurial activity is good, everyone in them has a desire to build something. I don’t think there is some special skill I really don’t.” 

In the uncertain future, Gore is investing millions in diversifying his business, into motor insurance and banking – tough terrain for an entrepreneur in an economy reeling from COVID-19.

“I think it is very, very difficult, you know banks are very competitive they are not broken by a long shot. Having said that Banking is powerful and huge. With the behaviour change there is such economic value in banking concept…our early data is good and I am very optimistic about it.”     

There lies the Gore doctrine, work hard, keep fit and all else shall follow.