From Messi to CEIBS: The Gabriel Masfurroll Story

In the first instalment of our special Alumni Chapter Interview Series, Linkproved Founder, Product and Analytics and CEIBS Spanish Chapter Alumni President Albert Valero (CEIBS MBA 2014) talks with CEIBS Global CEO Programme alum Gabriel Masfurroll about representing Spain as an Olympian, building a healthcare company from scratch, and bringing one of the best footballers in history to Europe.

Albert Valero: You’re an entrepreneur who grew your company, USP Hospitals, from an idea to a fifty-plus private hospitals business. You’re a writer of five books and more than 600 articles. You’ve managed several companies in the health sector and are the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Universitat Autónoma. You were an Olympic swimmer and part of the Board of Directors as Vice President of FC Barcelona. Where do you get your energy and motivation from?

Gabriel Masfurroll: Well, it’s not easy to answer. From my point of view, it’s a combination of DNA, education, and the fact that I started my life project from zero. I’m quite daring and dreamy with a very open mind. I’m eager to learn from everything and everyone, am always trying to understand the world without barriers, and am very tenacious (sports helped me a lot in this regard). Also, I’ve always put professional ambitions ahead of financial gain, I have passion and I’ve lifted myself up after every fall. Finally, I always try to surround myself with the best – those who, for me, are good professionals and good people. In conclusion, I’ve always tried to keep an open mind and have never stopped learning through curiosity and exploring what I find interesting. I feel like an explorer of business life.

AV: How do you balance all your work with having a family?

GM: As for family, despite the fact that we started very young and without resources, it has been a fundamental pillar and we have always acted as a team. When our children were very young, they were already participating in family decision-making at a point in our life that, for various reasons, was not easy in the early years. My wife Cris is a nurse and I met her at my first job. She has always been by my side and is my alter ego. She complements me and has always been there even through our hardest and most critical moments. We have been together for 44 years now.

AV: At what point did you decide to enrol in the Global CEO Programme at CEIBS? And, why did you decide to choose CEIBS?

GM: The reason is very simple and at the same time demonstrates and confirms what I have said before. In 2010, I had just sold my company, USP Hospitals. I was very exhausted. It had been an exciting 15 years, but also enormously stressful. We started with two people and ended up being 7,000. But, suddenly I was empty. My children, Gaby (who had done an EMBA at IESE) and Paola (who had completed her business and master’s degree at ESADE), had heard about CEIBS’ Global CEO Programme and encouraged me to do it. It was the perfect way to disconnect, have a kind of sabbatical, and go back to the beginning. I spent a year traveling and visiting schools and universities around the world, and discovering new ideas. But, the biggest thing I gained was the friendships I made with many of my classmates, many of whom I still see and chat with regularly. We learned not only from our professors but also from each other.

AV: What was your experience at CEIBS like? And, what was the highlight of the programme for you?

GM: My stay in Shanghai was an experience I’d always wanted. I’d travelled to many countries, but never to China. My mentor, Mr. Juan Antonio Samaranch and his son always recommended it to me, as did [CEIBS Honorary President (European)] Professor Pedro Nueno. For me, CEIBS was not a surprise because my son Gaby had already been and recommended it to me. The best part was discovering Chinese society in person, as I had been very attracted to it for a long time. Between CEIBS and the free time I had, I took the opportunity to soak up everything I could about the country, its culture, evolution, and the economy. It was the start of a beautiful relationship. Perhaps what struck me the most was the country’s modernity and unexpected surprises – for example, I discovered that the headquarters where the Chinese Communist Party was founded is on one of the most luxurious streets I have ever seen in my life.

AV: What was the most valuable lesson you learned during your time at CEIBS? What can people in Spain learn from China? And, what do you think China can learn from Spain?

GM: CEIBS shows how the world is very big, but also very small at the same time. I saw how important it is for a country to have a good educational system and talent discovery. CEIBS, for me, is a very important school for China because it combines knowledge, roots and Chinese culture with international experience. This is very important. Spain could learn discipline and that community is first and individuals second. China could learn from Spain’s ingenuity and rigorous capacity for improvisation.

AV: Considering your experience in hospital management and private health, I can’t avoid asking about the implications of COVID-19 in the management of national health systems and private health organisations.

GM: Firstly, it’s necessary to differentiate between this crisis and those of previous years. The global pandemic we’re experiencing now is something humanity has suffered through before, but perhaps due to globalisation, this time it has spread very quickly. The virus has shown that many of us took normality for granted. This invisible thing which we know very little about has brought the planet to a standstill in just five months. This is something that has never happened before and gives us much to think about. No health system, public or private, was prepared for this. It’s very easy to criticise and blame others and it’s extremely difficult to manage a health tsunami of these dimensions. In my opinion – and I have been in the healthcare industry for 40 years in many sectors – without a doubt the best system is a combination of a solid and powerful nationalised system, with quality academic and research functions, co-operating together with a lighter but more agile private sector to work close to patients. Of course, a credible accreditation and quality assurance framework must be created as a foundation for the entire health system.

AV: In several countries in Europe, we’ve seen tensions regarding the perceived worsening quality of national health systems. We saw how important the NHS topic was for Brexit, for example. In Spain, some believe that part of the problem comes from the surge in private health starting at the end of the 1990’s. What’s your view on this topic? What metrics define a good health system?

GM: Health demand has exponential growth and is increasingly consuming a larger part of GDP. In addition, in case some did not know, health is the most precious asset of every human being, and having an optimal health system is crucial for any society. As we say in my company, we must heal but also take care. When someone goes to a doctor or hospital, they are usually sick, they have a medical condition, but they are also scared and distressed, as are their loved ones. Both aspects must be treated.

AV: Considering your experience in education, and the fact that health and education are pillars of social welfare systems, how do private and public systems work together? Is there a way to ensure that having two tiers does not create inequality?

GM: True, health and education are the basic pillars of any society that wants to progress. Nevertheless, I insist the public and private sectors can and, in my modest opinion, must co-exist, and I would even dare to say that they compete. For me, public or private can be a fallacy. There is no pure public and neither is there a private public. For me, for there to be social equity, we need efficient hospitals and universities. For me legislation isn’t the point. What matters is who pays and how institutions are managed. The important thing is to identify present and future demand and plan accordingly.

AV: What is the status of Spanish education? Is it a contributing factor to the increased lack of both quality of junior jobs and opportunities for people in general? What is the solution?

GM: This is a very long and complex discussion that I have also had the good fortune to face since I know both the healthcare and academic sectors very well. I have been on committees of experts in my country discussing it. What I can say is in Spain today, we have an important gap between basic education and university. We must promote the range of intermediate degrees that allow us to produce professionals to improve the fabric of Spanish industry. Spanish universities have been a magnificent social elevator of equity, but they can still improve further to keep up with changing times. And, after this crisis we must reinvent ourselves to focus much more on the humanities, and the preservation of our planet.

AV: What about the transition from universities to the corporate world? We’ve heard many times the concept of ‘PhD students in Spain are basically bound to become professors because there is little application for what they do’. How do we compare to the rest of the world? Where should universities be heading in this aspect? Is the US a good reference model?

GM: Knowledge transfer is a very pertinent subject in Spain. For too many years, with some exceptions, the academic and business worlds have lived with their backs to each other. But in recent years many things have changed. Civil society has begun to contribute much. The private sector and many talented young people, have created their own companies with R&D. What happened? Well, universities no longer have a monopoly on research, and legislation has obliged the university system to open up to the society which finances them. Having said this, both parties have realised that they need each other and that together they are more powerful. But the transfer of knowledge is a round trip because today knowledge is generated both in universities and in different areas of society. The secret is to share, work together, and thereby enrich the process and speed up progress. As for the model to follow, I would say that we have to take the best of those countries that have similarities to us. Germany is a good example, the northern European countries, too. But, we must always take into account our roots, culture and habits, as they are part of our education. I’m sure that we will improve and I think that the COVID-19 crisis gives us the opportunity to reflect and improve.

AV: Another aspect that might be different between Europe, the US and China is philanthropy towards universities as a way to give back to society. You participate in many philanthropic activities. What drives you? Where is your focus now and why?

GM: Without a doubt, the differences are more than obvious. I wouldn’t say so much Europe, but the Anglo-Saxon model. This model prioritises tax incentives to encourage donations and allows citizens to direct their donations where they are considered most appropriate. This system is fine, but it must be highly regulated as it lends itself to complex and sometimes perverse situations. For Spain, we are still very archaic. Philanthropy or patronage are not incentivised (with some and very little-known exceptions). In general, we could say that in our country philanthropy is more emotional than financial. In my case there have been two reasons that led me to philanthropy. First, the birth and subsequent death of our second son Alex, who was born with Down syndrome. As a result, I first became involved in the creation of the Catalan Foundation for Down Syndrome and then a few years later the Alex Foundation in memory of our son. I’m currently involved in six different foundations in my country. However, the most important at the personal and emotional level is the Alex Foundation, where we are dedicated to helping children and young people with disabilities to integrate them into society through sport. I was a young man, a highly competitive swimmer, I have always been closely linked to sport and many athletes have helped us, including Leo Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Johan Cruyff, Vicente del Bosque, Raul Gonzalez, Rafa Nadal, Marc Marquez, and Jorge Lorenzo. We are proud of what we are doing and what we have achieved.

AV: Now that you mention him, I couldn’t finish this interview without asking for an anecdote about your time at FC Barcelona with Leo Messi.

GM: As I said before, my connection with sport has been very intense and as a young man I competed in swimming at a high level for Spain. Later, I was lucky to join the board of Directors of FC Barcelona, ​​where I spent several years and became Vice President. I also spent four years as Vice President of the FC Barcelona Foundation. I could tell you many anecdotes, but perhaps the most relevant is that I was Vice President when we signed Messi – he was just 12. I saw him grow as a person and as a footballer and I sincerely believe he is the best footballer in history and also a good person. I have personally met who I believe are the best five footballers in history – Di Stefano, Pele, Cruyff, Maradona and Messi. But none are quite like Messi. I’m also honoured to be friends with him and his family. Looking back, I think the decision to sign him was probably the most important one in the history of the club. Leo came to Barcelona with his father because he had been through the majority of Argentine clubs and he needed a very expensive growth hormone treatment. Nobody wanted to finance it and we decided to do it. We saw this little boy play against older boys and do marvellous things with the ball. We never doubted our decision. It changed the history of Barça as a club and world football. It turned out that our daughter Paola, one year younger than Messi, had the same disease, so this experience helped everyone in many ways.

For more information about our CEIBS European and other overseas alumni chapters, visit our alumni chapters page here. For more information or to get in touch with the CEIBS Alumni Association Spain Chapter, click here.