Dressed in hospital scrubs, Brian Levy stands at an elderly patient's bedside, waiting for instructions from the physician on duty in emergency at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. The doctor examines the patient and discovers an irregular heart beat. Mr. Levy takes on the task of soothing the worried patient.
It's a far cry from his previous career. Before he became a medical student, Mr. Levy was chief executive officer of one of Canada's top electronics chains, the Source by Circuit City.
By next May, if all goes as planned, he'll graduate from medical school - a childhood dream coming true at the age of 51.
"I think you have to be a little bit obsessive to go to medical school," the plain-spoken Mr. Levy says with a laugh. "I've always been an over-doer."
He made the dramatic career switch in 2006, after 30 years of climbing to the top at the electronics retailer. But it turns out the jobs of CEO and physician have a lot in common. They both require hard work, persistence and sacrifice: Both vocations have kept Mr. Levy away from his wife and their two teenaged children for long stretches.
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And his medical training is just beginning. When he graduates this spring, Mr. Levy will have another five years to go as a resident before reaching his ultimate goal of specializing in emergency room medicine.
It helps that he has a security blanket. When he walked away from Circuit City in 2006 after a tumultuous period at the company, he pocketed about $11-million in compensation and stocks. That has allowed his family to continue to enjoy a comfortable suburban lifestyle outside of Toronto. "As much as anybody can be an idealist, it's hard to be an idealist when you can't pay the rent," he says.
Mr. Levy's midlife about-turn is something many a weary soldier in the corporate trenches has fantasized about. The rigours of the recession have only made that longing more pronounced and, in the case of executives who find themselves out of a job, it has suddenly become a real option. All it takes to make it happen, judging by Mr. Levy's case, is to have a dream and unlimited dedication.
An accidental career
Perhaps the first portent of Brian Levy's ultimate career was the bug hospital he created when playing in the backyard with his two sisters. "We'd find sick insects and cure them," says Debra Band, his older sister, now 52 and an artist living in Potomac, Md. "Once we thought we saw a splinter sticking out of a caterpillar. He removed it. I do not remember how long the patient lived."
Mr. Levy came by the interest naturally. Growing up in an orthodox Jewish family in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Levy (who still speaks with a Southern lilt) learned at an early age the importance of honing his intellectual skills. His father, a lawyer, brought home science kits and microscopes for his son, not football gear or tickets for games.
The young Mr. Levy spent hours poring over tissue samples and an encyclopedia. He was only happy if he had a perfect report card, says his mother, Josie Roskies, 74, now living in Montreal. She wanted him to be a doctor "from way back," she acknowledges. Every Jewish mother's dream? "I never forced it," she insists. "I would tell him to relax a bit."
Mr. Levy doesn't remember feeling pressured to be a doctor. Although he was drawn to TV medical shows and biology classes, he was also captivated by the budding world of electronics.
He was "always tinkering with something," his mother recalls. One of his favourite pastimes was hanging out at RadioShack, which was the dominant chain in electronics. At 15, he got his first job as a part-time clerk at an outlet in downtown Atlanta, where he had moved after his father joined a law practice there. The chain's policy was actually to hire no one younger than 18. Mr. Levy obtained his exemption by persistently telephoning the company's head of human resources in Texas.
For the next six years, while attending high school and then studying business at the University of Georgia, he continued working part time at the store, steadily gaining more responsibility.
And so what he calls an "accidental" career was launched. "It was just pretty addictive," he says. "At university, what I majored in was becoming a district manager at RadioShack. I was making more as a part-time salesperson than people who were graduating and working all year. It was a summer job that I forgot to quit."
Having become a store manager at the age of 21, Mr. Levy moved up the RadioShack ranks over the next 15 years to senior vice-president.
Then, in 1996, he got a call from a head hunter asking about his interest in a top position at a struggling furniture chain - for double his roughly $175,000 (U.S.) annual salary.
He couldn't resist, but quickly learned a lesson. "Don't ever do something that you're not passionate about," he says.
And furniture, unlike electronics, was not something he was passionate about.
Luckily, a year later, he was wooed back by RadioShack, to be president of its international operation, InterTan, based in Fort Worth, Tex. It boasted about 1,700 stores, most of them under the RadioShack banner, predominantly in Canada but also with locations in Britain and Australia.
A haunted feeling
Mr. Levy was promoted to CEO of InterTan after a year. He insisted on moving its headquarters to Canada, and set up shop in the Toronto area in 1999. His plan was to gain an edge in an increasingly competitive market by touting accessories and gadgets, including remote-control toys, often under the company's private label.
His travel schedule could be gruelling: When he wasn't overseas on product-buying missions, he was crisscrossing Canada to visit the stores.
But wherever he was, he put his work aside at sunset on Friday and went to synagogue to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Catching a plane back home or powering up his laptop had to wait until sunset on Saturday.
And Mr. Levy's passion for electronics never extinguished his obsession with medicine. He was haunted "on a daily or weekly basis" by the feeling that he might have forever missed his chance to go to medical school. "Every time it seemed like I got close to going back to school, I would get another promotion."
By 2004, Mr. Levy was making headway at RadioShack, fending off big-box retailers like Best Buy Canada and Wal-Mart Canada. Then Circuit City came calling. The chain, itself a big-box operator, was being squeezed by larger U.S. rivals, and it was looking for ways to expand. Although its problems were on its home turf, acquiring the Canadian chain seemed like a strategic move - in part because Mr. Levy had been so successful at global sourcing of private-label products.
But the $284-million takeover of the almost 1,000 stores in Canada came with wrinkles. The chain soon faced a legal tussle over the rights to use the RadioShack name, which InterTan had licensed. A court decision forced Mr. Levy to stick-handle a name change to the Source by Circuit City.
Completed in a mere 90 days, the makeover was "a poster child for rebranding," says Ron Cuthbertson, who was an executive at Circuit City at the time. But the process also squeezed the operation financially, he says.
An even bigger battle emerged with the appointment of a new Circuit City CEO, Phil Schoonover. Mr. Schoonover was intent on running the Canadian division in the same way he ran the rest of the retailer. But the two chains were starkly different, Mr. Cuthbertson says. Circuit City's big-box outlets, up to 15 times larger than the Canadian stores, focused on big-screen televisions and computers. The Source specialized in unusual gadgets, accessories and parts.
"They just didn't seem to fit," Mr. Cuthbertson says. "What they [Circuit City]found was that there weren't the synergies they had hoped for."
Increasingly, Mr. Levy didn't see eye to eye with his new boss. "I'd be sitting in meetings for six to eight hours about something I thought had absolutely no relevance," Mr. Levy says. "Any time I wanted to bring up a plan that was important to our organization, it just wasn't important" to head office.
"At that point in time in Circuit City's evolution, it was: 'How many big-name consultants you can have to talk about on the next conference call,'" Mr. Levy says.
The rift made it easier for him to retire in 2006. Apart from the financial strain of the name change on his own stores, Circuit City was losing its battle against its bigger rivals. Last year, it succumbed to bankruptcy, forcing the still-solvent Canadian division into court protection because of a shared credit facility with its parent. This year, the Canadian stores were snapped up by Bell Canada and renamed the Source, with Mr. Cuthbertson reinstalled as president.
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Medical school at last
After his exit from the company, Mr. Levy finally applied to medical school.
Not able to sit idle, he meanwhile took undergraduate science courses at York University in Toronto. One of his lab partners was 17, about the same age as his own children.
But he wasn't hung up about wrinkles or thinning hair. "I never think of myself as an old guy," he says.
More challenging was competing with younger minds: "At first, I had doubts about my ability to concentrate on studies to the same degree they could. Truth is, I do study more than the average student in medical school."
He chose McMaster University in Hamilton, partly because its Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine welcomes students with life experience. And its students can graduate within three years, studying year-round, rather than the usual four.
The rigours of medical school were an adjustment for the entire Levy household. The children, now 15 and 19, had to keep the noise level down so their father could study.
Mr. Levy's wife, Angela, was steeled for the adjustment, having known from the time she met her husband - her Atlanta vitamin store was next door to his RadioShack - that he always wanted to be a doctor.
Mr. Levy bought a condominium in Hamilton and commutes home on weekends.
He figures he's a rare breed - a student who drives to class in a luxury car that he paid for himself. (He recently switched to a "more hip" Lexus IS 350 from a Lexus GS.)
He shares the condo with three other medical students, two in their 20s and another who is a 36-year-old pharmacist.
They usually study and cook separately; Mr. Levy keeps Kosher. "It's a very fluid situation since generally at least one or two of us are on call all night in the hospital," he says.
Not only his fellow students but sometimes even his professors are younger than Mr. Levy.
As part of his curriculum, he served two rotations in the family practice office of Michael Schweitzer, who is 10 years his junior.
"When I first met him, I was nervous about it," Dr. Schweitzer admits. "But I'm the guy who's been doing it for 12 years. He's the guy who wants to learn."
Mr. Levy is "indefatigable," Dr. Schweitzer adds. "He was always the most prepared for any clinic groups. Other people [students]would put together two- or three-page summaries on their subject. He'd come with a whole PowerPoint presentation."
During a recent hospital rotation, Mr. Levy stepped in to change the bedpan of a patient with dementia who shunned female nurses. When a psychotic patient refused to give any response to a treatment team but ask for ice cream, Mr. Levy went out and got her the treat.
"He built an immense trust with this patient with a small act of kindness," says psychiatrist Usha Parthasarthi, his 32-year-old supervisor. "No job was too small for him."
Thinking on his feet
Although he's not a doctor yet, Mr. Levy sees similarities between his new profession and the CEO life he left behind.
Both require the same basic ingredients: hard slogging, enthusiasm and a "shared respect for other people." But not all CEOs are created equal. "I don't think that respect for other people is a commodity that's very common among CEOs these days," he says.
His decision to specialize in emergency medicine relates even more directly to the corporate boss playbook. "It keeps my very ADD [attention deficit disorder]mind charged up," he jokes, adding on a serious note: "I like to be busy all the time.… When you talk about being a CEO, it's a very generalist type of job. Every phone call you take is different and every day is different. You learn to think on your feet. In that regard, it's very similar to emergency medicine."
Still, there's at least one difference: the comfort of emergency room attire. "There aren't many jobs like this that you can go to work in your pyjamas," he says. "It's great. I love it."