Passport to Africa
Dan Proctor, MBA’83, seeks a new challenge in Ugandaby Seth Robertson | Corporate Spotlight, Spring 2010 | Comments | Print |
Picture this: A man, wearing aviator sunglasses and a pilot headset, is behind the controls of a single-engine prop plane flying just below the clouds in the East African country of Uganda. Only an occasional muddy river or dirt road punctuates the thickly wooded countryside unfurling beneath him. And in the passenger seat next to him are duffel bags full of money—thousands of dollars in Ugandan currency that an untold number of bandits would like to get their hands on.
While this may read like a scene out of a Hollywood script, the circumstances were, in fact, very real. The man in the cockpit was Dan Proctor, MBA’83, who was making a cash run for an air charter business he is in discussions with in Uganda. The money he was transporting was payroll for employees at isolated tea farms scattered throughout the country.
Despite the potential dangers involved with such a business, Proctor has embraced the adventure of it. He may not be a thrill seeker in the conventional sense, but he is an entrepreneur. And some might argue that takes just as much courage as any movie hero can muster—especially in the wilds of Africa.
As a student at the Owen School in the early ’80s, Proctor probably wouldn’t have been mistaken for the person described above; at the time he was neither a pilot nor a seasoned traveler to Africa. Yet one trait had already taken root in his life: He had come to Vanderbilt with a taste for entrepreneurship.
When the first generation of microcomputers hit the market in the 1970s, Proctor became fascinated with their potential. He studied software engineering in college and soon found an opportunity to apply his newfound skills at his father’s medical practice. Like many physicians, his father struggled to keep up with the process of billing patients. To Proctor, software seemed like a natural solution.
“I wrote software to do the billing and then started selling it to other doctors,” he says. “Eventually I got interested in the communications side of health care and started handling claims over the phone. That’s when I got the itch to do a startup.”
But before taking that next step, Proctor decided to enroll at Owen and round out his education with an MBA. He admits having some ambivalence about the decision to return to school since he was already having success writing software. The experience at Vanderbilt, however, proved invaluable.
“Owen gave me the tools to look at problems differently,” he says. “The school took me beyond my perspective as an engineer and made me think about building sustainable business models. In other words, I learned to consider not only what people need, but also what they’re willing to pay for.”
Armed with that knowledge, Proctor continued selling his billing software to health care providers over the next few years, all the while looking for the next big opportunity. In the mid-’90s that opportunity came with the advent of the Internet. It was the technological breakthrough he’d been waiting for.
“The Internet removed all of the communication barriers in health care that I dealt with. Everybody could use the same medium. Now it’s taken for granted, but that was a big concept at the time,” he says.
Proctor leaned on his Vanderbilt degree to raise the funding for the startup he envisioned. Not only did Owen’s alumni network prove useful, but the reputation of the school itself opened doors that might have been closed otherwise. “Having the credibility of having been at Owen was very helpful to me in terms of approaching venture capitalists and angel investors,” he says. “They knew I’d been through a rigorous program, and that gave them confidence.”
With the backing of investors, Proctor founded Passport Health Communications Inc., a health care information technology and services company, in Franklin, Tenn., in 1996. The company, which originally built websites for health care providers, eventually found its niche selling administrative, clinical and financial tools to help those providers determine eligibility and get paid faster. As Chief Technology Officer, Proctor oversaw remarkable growth in the number of transactions Passport processed annually: from 92 in 1997 to approximately 130 million a decade later.
With this growth came interest from potential buyers. In 2008 Proctor and his partners agreed to sell Passport to a private equity firm for a nice sum. While many in his shoes would have taken the opportunity to retire to a quieter, more comfortable life, Proctor had no desire to slow down. And yet he didn’t want to continue working within the familiar confines of the health care industry either. He had bigger plans afoot—a second, altogether different career on the other side of the world.
Africa has had a hold on Proctor ever since he first visited the continent in 1998. That initial trip was to Kenya, a place where his father had done missionary work. Uganda didn’t enter the picture until a few years later, when Proctor’s brother, a missionary himself, settled there. After traveling to visit him, Proctor was hooked.
“Uganda has a lot going for it. It’s a beautiful country,” he says. “And it’s fertile. It’s probably one of the most fertile countries in the world.”
While Proctor is talking about the land itself, he could just as easily be describing its people. He says a general spirit of entrepreneurship pervades the country. “The people are very resourceful there,” he explains. “Entrepreneurs identify unmet needs and then find a product or service to fill them. And if you look at Uganda, there are plenty of unmet needs.”
Many of those needs stem from the political turmoil that has afflicted the country in recent decades. Mention Uganda to most Americans, and the first thing that comes to mind is Idi Amin and his ruthless dictatorship of the 1970s. Yet, as Proctor points out, the country has rebuilt considerably since then, and the government is on much more stable footing now. Under current President Yoweri Museveni, there has been an effort to restore the rights that Amin revoked. Uganda is, in many ways, one of the true success stories of Africa.
Proctor is hard pressed to say anything negative about the country that he and his wife, Dee Anne, someday plan to call home for six months out of the year. Yes, he admits, there’s corruption in Uganda. And yes, there’s risk, too. However, he says, “When you get into areas where there’s some risk, that’s usually where the opportunities are.”
In fact the main thing that gave Proctor pause about moving to Uganda is the same thing that gave him a reason to stay: the poor roadway system. Most of the roads are unpaved, he says, and some are treacherous—not only because of the difficult terrain but also because of the likelihood of encountering bandits along isolated stretches. “It’s very unpleasant to drive on the roads,” he says. “I was concerned that, when I brought my wife over for the first time, she was going to like everything except the roads.”
While pondering different business ideas that might work in Uganda, it occurred to him that there was an unmet need for the safe transportation of goods, such as cash, which is by far the payment method of choice there. Why not bypass the roads altogether, he thought, and just fly over them instead? Starting an air charter business seemed like a simple enough solution. The only problem was he didn’t know how to fly a plane.
Not to be deterred, Proctor began taking flying lessons back in Nashville and earned his pilot’s license soon thereafter. The experience confirmed for him that he had chosen the right business concept. “I had no idea flying would be so much fun,” he says. “It’s beautiful being up there in the sky.” Meanwhile Proctor also began research into the aviation industry in Uganda and the requirements to live and work there. The business concept, as it has since taken shape, will provide safe transport for people, including tourists visiting the country, and cargo, like the payroll he delivered on that cash run.
In the case of the latter, the irony is not lost on Proctor that he’s now exploring, in some sense, what he used to specialize in at Passport: helping people get paid faster. Only this time around, the process is not nearly so technical, nor quite as fast. Unlike an instantaneous transaction over the Internet, each delivery by plane requires more effort and personal attention. And that’s perhaps why it’s all the more gratifying for him. As in his earlier days, Proctor is still stretching his entrepreneurial skills and filling unmet needs, but now he gets to see firsthand how he is making a difference.
“Time spent in Uganda is rewarding because I’m helping make people’s lives easier,” he says. “That’s what I enjoy about it the most.”
photo credit: John Russell
illustration credit: Soopysue, istockphoto; Mike Smeltzer composite Image