Azhar Harun had to learn how to sew in order to sell sewing machines.
“I believe that in order to sell a product you have got to go down to the ground and understand the pulse of the market,” explained the 49-year-old who has since moved from marketing Singer sewing machines and other consumer durables to become CEO of Assunta Hospital, a well-known landmark among the folks of Petaling Jaya.
Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would end up running a hospital, said this father of one who was involved in marketing for some 17 years, taking responsibility for markets in Turkey, the sub-Saharan region, and Singapore.
Why a hospital?
“I thought it was something different,” he said in a recent interview. “I guess management is a skill that is adaptable to any kind of services or products that need to be marketed.”
A qualified accountant, Azhar considers himself a marketer who, in his former job, went out “to meet clients, dealers and find new ways to sell sewing machines.
“I guess you can say marketing is in my blood.”
His management skills are currently being tested under Assunta’s RM90mil modernisation plan to transform itself into a sophisticated facility.
When he was appointed in 2002, Azhar said, the mandate given to him and his management team was simply to modernise Assunta, which was set up more than 50 years ago.
“Previously, the hospital was isolated in the sense that it had not much competition when it was initially built,” he said.
“But the façade has to change even though we have this charitable type of mission. The operations have to be run commercially in order to compete healthily.”
The history of the hospital began with the arrival of four sisters from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Dec 1953 at the request of the Catholic hierarchy in Kuala Lumpur. They were tasked to look after the medical needs of the underprivileged living in Puchong and Petaling Jaya.
It began as a tiny clinic and blossomed into a maternity home and convent. The idea of setting up Assunta Hospital was born with the help of founder member and first secretary-general of MCA Tun Leong Yew Koh, the public, businesses and governments.
In the hospital’s Jubilee Celebration newsletter, it was stated that ownership of the hospital was handed over to the board of directors in 1974.
Initially, working in the hospital was not as easy as he had thought it would be, Azhar confessed.
“It was tough, and it was the first time a non-doctor was running the organisation.”
Apprehension, he said, was rife among the staff.
“Assunta is not run like a corporation, it is an institution. The values and caring spirit, are central in this place, and for many years the relationship was built around these values.
“It is not a straightforward employee-employer relationship. Instead, we are like family.”
But he persevered, and after a while, he began to realise that he was glad to be there.
“I learnt how to swim in the deepest end of the pool,” he said.
And at the deepest end of the pool, religious issues were also involved. Azhar was aware of the impact and sensitivities of having a Muslim as a front man of the hospital, which is a Christian-based organisation.
“Obviously, many were surprised with the appointment of a Muslim,” said Azhar, who explained that when he took on the job, he did not treat it as “just a job, it was an adventure”.
“For the first three months, people had to adapt to me as much as I adapted to them.”
He believed it was his international exposure that gave him the understanding of working with different cultures and religions.
“I believe that whether you are a Malay or Chinese, Christian or Muslim, there should not be any difference. We are all working towards a common cause, trying to be good citizens and instil positive values,” he said.
As the months went by, the staff became used to Azhar’s down-to-earth style and easy-going nature. This acceptance of change in leadership, improvements and upgrade was important for the transformation of the hospital.
One of the main reasons behind the modernisation exercise was to allow customers to experience high quality service and treatment in a pleasant atmosphere.
As unusual as it sounds, the car park was one of the main areas identified for improvement.
As parking at the hospital was always a problem, a seven-floor car park was built to provide over 250 parking bays for patrons, Azhar said.
New disciplines will also be introduced to expand the types of treatments available for patients, he said.
“We also renewed our ISO standards in 2003 and 2004 as well as obtained accreditation from the Malaysian Society of Quality in Health (MSQH), which is touted as the highest accreditation for hospitals in Malaysia.”
These are quality standards that Assunta has achieved and intends to maintain in order to meet the requirements of a new and improved facility for the public.
“By September this year, the transformation will result in Assunta becoming the newest oldest hospital,” he said with a laugh.
The revamp that began in Dec 2003 will also see the hospital equipped with a new wing to fit in its new wards and clinics, which have been increased to 37, more than double from its existing 16.
The old Assunta building will also be renovated and the whole process is on track to be completed by the scheduled date.
The hospital will also be installed with a high-class filtration system and a warning system, features that were non-existent before.
It will also adopt a paperless system to allow medical records to be viewed online.
The board decided change was necessary to remain competitive, Azhar said.
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