When Sue Paish left the top spot at one of the city’s biggest law firms to head a national chain of pharmacies, it was a bit of a shocker. But then again, Paish has never been one to play it by the book.
When Paish was named managing partner at the Vancouver office of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in 2000, the move broke a few stereotypes. Not only was it rare to see a woman heading a major Vancouver law office, but it was unheard of for a mere 40-year-old to take the post. In law circles, managing partner is typically the reward for a long and distinguished career – and also a gentle easing toward retirement. When her term as managing partner was up in 2006, Paish was hardly ready for retirement. To her pleasant surprise, she was flooded with invitations, not from law firms, but from the corporate sector. Perhaps it was her renown as a mediator of workplace conflict that attracted the attention of executive headhunters. And serving on the boards of several corporations, including Pharmasave, didn’t hurt. Paish was named CEO of Pharmasave Drugs Ltd. in May of this year. After just a few months in the corner office, she sat down with BCBusiness to share her story about moving from the book-lined halls of a downtown law office to the hectic life of the CEO of a national retail corporation. What prompted the move from managing partner at a law firm to CEO of Pharmasave? A lot of us get into a career or a position and quite like it and we keep doing it, then retirement comes and we wonder, “Gee, I wonder what it would have been like to do something different?” When the term of managing partner ended, I had the opportunity to sit back and think about what I really enjoy in my professional life, where I think I bring the most value and what I do the best. I realized that I really love being given the opportunity and the challenge of taking an organization that is in a certain place but wants to be in a different place and helping it get to that place. What is the direction you hope to take Pharmasave? I think the company is in the right place at the right time. Canadians have never been more focused on health and wellness than they are right now, and that’s Pharmasave’s business. The other thing is that Pharmasave offers the platform that I think is exactly right. Obviously consumers support the big-box stores, because if we didn’t they wouldn’t continue to build them all over the place. So we do like to go to the big box when it comes to buying a television or chesterfield or computer. But when it comes to getting products and advice on the wellness of our parents and our children and ourselves, we like to go to someone who we know and trust and who lives and works in our community. So those two things as a board member caused me to say Pharmasave had an opportunity to really expand and grow its platform across the country. How would you describe the cultural differences between law and retail? Some remarkable differences were apparent right off the bat. In professional-services firms, the culture is very focused on analysis, discussion and then more analysis and more discussion. Retail is very decision-based: let’s make a decision, let’s set a timeline. I’ll say, “Have we ever thought about such and such?” and within a matter of hours or days, there’s a report back or a memo or a request for a meeting to talk about that idea and where we should go with it and what the time frame is, and let’s just get it done. There is an orientation to act and to make decisions, rather than talk about making decisions. What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make so far in your new job? I wouldn’t say I’ve made any really tough decisions, but I have made some that I think are very important. For example when a new CEO comes in, one of the first things they’re asked to do, or that they conclude they need to do, is clean house: change the people that are in the leadership team. I was unsure where I would land on that, and the board was very open that this is my leadership team and I’m going to have to work with them and those are my decisions. I spent a very significant portion of my first few weeks trying to get to know my leadership team and assessing not so much the technical skill, because that’s something I’ll have to assess over time, but assessing whether these folks have the fire in their belly and the sparkle in their eye to take this company to where I think it can go. I was delighted to come away from every one of the meetings I had with my management team members thinking, “Boy, that person’s really got the drive, the enthusiasm and the engagement to lead their division.” People were waiting for the shoe to drop. It dropped and I’m comfortable that we’ve got the right management team. How does your workday compare? I’m not somebody who has ever travelled at rush hour – I’m just not a good rush-hour commuter. I have always left my home early in the morning and left my office late in the evening – not because I’m trying to make a point about working long hours, but because I don’t like driving at rush hour. I was arriving in the office in Langley earlier than most of the other folks, and the first few days, by 6:30 or so in the evening, most of the people were gone, which was a little different than the law firm. I was chatting with one of my friends who is in banking and another one of my friends in retail, and I said, “What’s it like in your environment? When do people come to work and when do they leave?” They both laughed. They said, “You know, Sue, the real world, most of the time, goes home at a reasonable hour. It’s only lawyers that feel they have to make a point by staying in the office.”