In just over a year as CEO, Sue Paish has spearheaded two huge acquisitions at LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services, which runs a network of labs that perform tests on millions of patients in Ontario and British Columbia. In the spring the company completed a deal to buy B.C. Biomedical Laboratories Inc., and in June signed an agreement for the $1.2-billion takeover of rival CML Healthcare Inc.
These are big transactions for Ms. Paish, who herself has made some abrupt career shifts in recent years. She was managing partner of a law firm, then ran a chain of pharmacy franchises, before moving to the diagnostic lab business.
How did you end up doing two big acquisitions so close together?The two transactions [came about because of] a combination of strategy, planning and some serendipity in terms of timing.
We were fortunate to have had a long history of working with B.C. Biomedical, as competitors in the marketplace and also as colleagues on the development of innovative technologies. When I came to the industry I had a conversation with the folks there and felt a fairly instant connection with the leadership. That led to the negotiations and the eventual agreement with them.
The CML agreement was a very different situation. They received a proposal from a third party, brought in investment bankers and ran a very thorough, comprehensive process that resulted in a number of bidders from inside and outside Canada. We were encouraged to participate in that process.
What will the acquisitions bring to your company?We need to be as efficient as we possibly can. That will come in part through scale, and in part through investments in technology.
It is also important for an organization like us to be able to deliver to as many Ontarians or British Columbians as we can the kind of services that we have that are unique. We are the only company that provides an online appointment booking system. With these consolidations we can apply that so more people can take advantage of it.
In B.C. we also have a program, called “my ehealth” where a considerable portion of the population gets their test results electronically within hours of visiting one of our test facilities. We want to be able to provide those kinds of services in Ontario.
[We also want to have] the scale to allow us to make the kinds of investments needed to aggressively innovate. In the next 10 years diagnostic testing is going to look pretty different from what you have right now. It is going to move to genetic testing and genomic testing.
CML has been divesting its imaging business, which does X-rays, ultrasounds etc. Will you continue to spin those off?The imaging business is not part of the transaction. We have enough on our plate to try to do the best we can with the diagnostic testing.
Will you consider moving into other parts of Canada?It is important for LifeLabs to finish the integration with B.C. Biomedical and hopefully gain the necessary [regulatory and shareholder] approvals for the CML transaction. Let’s get all of that put together and then we can assess where we are at.
Your career has taken you from being managing partner at a law firm, to the CEO of a pharmacy business, to this lab company. Was that planned?I spent 25 years in the legal business, the majority of that practising in the employment and labour context, and then in the human rights field. I then got drawn into management right at the time that the legal industry was going through some pretty massive consolidation. When my term [as managing partner] was over, I started to think of other things. I didn’t want to wake up when I was 50 and not have tried something other than the legal business.
Had you also developed a taste for management?Exactly. I loved the leadership experience and wanted to try it in the business world. I didn’t have a job to go to. I just went out and started talking to people.
I had sat on the board of [drug store chain] PharmaSave for many years, and their search committee asked if I would be interested [in the CEO job]. I thought, ‘Well, I am not a pharmacist, I am not a merchandiser, I don’t know retailing, I don’t know franchising. I certainly don’t know anything about the health care industry.’ But the board said, ‘We’d like someone who can help us with the regulatory world, government relations, and moving the organization forward.’ When they presented it in that context, I thought that sounded challenging and fun.
Was the transition to LifeLabs a bit less drastic a change?The move to LifeLabs was perhaps less dramatic, but it was a pretty significant move because Pharmasave is a franchise. Leading a franchise co-op is very different from leading a corporate organization. When LifeLabs approached me, I [initially] said no because I thought it was going to be a Toronto-based job. But now I live in both places. I have the privilege of being a citizen of both British Columbia and Ontario.
How tough is it to live in two cities thousands of kilometres apart?I depends on one’s personal circumstances. It is a question of balance, and making sure that your family, as well as your colleagues, have access to you – that you are not perceived as constantly not being there. One does see the complexities of living in a country where each province runs its own set of services. You end up having a driver’s licence that only works in one province and can’t be used as ID in another province. Little things like that are somewhat annoying.
Does it make sense from the company’s perspective that you work in both places?Lifelabs had a long history and a significant presence in British Columbia, and yet most of the senior executives were in Ontario. I have a very strong belief that, as leaders, we need to be where our people and our customers are. They are in both places so I need to be in both places. And it is not just me. All of our executives are under the strong encouragement to be present in each province in an appropriate way, so that our teams know that we see our organization as national.
What is the role for private companies in Canada’s health system?The notion that we have a public health care system and private health care threat in Canada is not accurate and is unhelpful. We have a publicly funded, publicly governed health-care system, that in large part is delivered very effectively and efficiently through private sector. That is our past, our present, and is going to be our future in many contexts in health care.
If you look at the delivery of medicine throughout the country, it is done through private retail pharmacy companies. One just needs to think about what it would look like if, as taxpayers, we had to fund the development of an infrastructure for the delivery of pharmaceutical products across the country.
In diagnostic imaging, it is even more profound because of the intense capital investment that is needed in order to effectively deliver those services to the community. It is very effectively delivered through the private sector and has been for a half-century or more.