Ottawa’s pharmacy flipper

Courtney
Courtney Symons
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Why one local entrepreneur launched a business in his 70s

Al Saleh knows the pharmacy business. He bought a Stittsville shop called Village Chemist in the 1980s, later converting it to an IDA that still stands today. He then launched a small pharmacy in the Orleans community of Fallingbrook that was purchased and expanded by Shoppers Drug Mart.

Al Saleh, owner of Al’s Care Pharmacy.

And now, at the age of 71, Mr. Saleh is the owner of a different kind of pharmacy in Centretown; a methadone clinic with an on-site doctor.

But it wasn’t only his entrepreneurial spirit that inspired Mr. Saleh to start up one more business.

It was a matter of necessity, after divorce proceedings forced him to sell his home and left him without enough money to retire. He was also let go by the Ontario Addiction Treatment Centre on Somerset Street.

Beyond the financial need is Mr. Saleh’s personal belief that addicts deserve fair treatment and respect.

Mr. Saleh told OBJ what it’s been like to launch Al’s Care Pharmacy in his 70s and what he’s learned throughout his decades of business ownership:

THE EXPECTATIONS:

"Not too many people thought I would succeed (with Al’s Care). Nobody told me that, but they were betting behind my back: how long’s it going to take, two months or three?

When (OATC) fired me, I knew Zellers was closing. Every Zellers has a pharmacy, and every pharmacy has two or three pharmacists in it ... so I knew there were lots of pharmacists who would be looking for work.

I took a bad situation and I made it work to my advantage. And now, I can pay the bills, and I was able to pay the bills after the third or fourth month."

 

ON METHADONE TREATMENT:

"I don’t know why in an urban city with lots of pharmacies and physicians, why do we have remote dispensing (for methadone)? Basically, the patient never sees the pharmacist. He gets a drink given to him by a nurse’s aid. The difference here is that I’m here every day. I make myself available even after hours. Here, we treat them with respect. We offer them free coffee. It doesn’t take much.

I have a patient who is blind and takes a bus here from Navan each day for his methadone. It’s two hours here, two hours back.

When (patients) get better, you see the progress. They come here and they have these nodules on their faces, it doesn’t look good. They start to improve as time goes by and you see the clothes are getting cleaner, the speech patterns are getting more coherent. You see (them) improving. The first time they have a job, for example, or bought new clothes – I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel a little warm and I say, 'Wow, look what I did.'”

 

THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY:

"We’ve been one year in business and it’s turning out all right. I didn’t die, and the place is still in business.

Most people after a year, they’ll place an ad and spend $1,000 or $500 on advertising and blowing their own horn. We said, “Let’s give that money to our own patients.” We hosted a big buffet and it was amazing."

 

ON CHALLENGES:

"Right now, shoplifting is the biggest issue. That’s why I keep very little up at the front of the shop. I don’t think I’d ever be able to have a full retail shop. But this helps me because the big drug stores and corporations don’t like to do methadone because of the (shoplifting) issue.

The other challenge is the tight cash flow problem. The government sometimes owes us up to 45 days’ worth of payments. When we’re in a growth stage like this, our accounts receivable is much bigger than accounts payable. So theoretically, we look very good on paper. But the cash flow is very tight."

 

ON COMPETITION:

"I don’t pay any attention to other people. I don’t care what they do because they do what’s good for them. I do what’s good for my patients. I don’t think of it as competing with anybody. I’ll never be the biggest player in town, and all I wanted was to make a living. I didn’t want to make a killing.  It’s not about your bank account, it’s about these people who really are a very neglected segment of society."

 

ON FAILURE:

"I have been too rich and too poor so many times. I wear the same clothes, I eat the same food, nothing changes. I really don’t know the difference. I’m happy now. I have a lovely family and I’m very grateful.

Money isn’t my motivation. It never was. That’s why I don’t plan, “I’m going to make that much this year.” Definitely businesspeople would laugh at me, but I have enough to pay the bills and take a vacation every couple of years."

SIDEBAR: AL’S CARE PHARMACY

- Opened May 10, 2012 at 240 Bank St.

- 1,100 square feet of commercial space

- On-site doctor that visits once or twice a week

- Six employees

 

AL SALEH: BIOGRAPHY

“I grew up in a poor country. The first of the four noble truths is that life is suffering. I didn’t need Buddha to tell me that. I knew that firsthand.”

 

- Born July 4, 1941 in Egypt

- Graduated from Alexandria University in 1961

- Lived in Germany for several years

- Went back to Egypt and realized he wanted to live in a western society

- Travelled to Canada and landed in Alberta

- Obtained pharmacy licence in 1979

- Moved to Ontario in 1982

- Bought Village Chemist in Stittsville, followed by many other local pharmacies, including a failed venture in Bells Corners

- Opened Al’s Care Pharmacy in 2012

Organizations: IDA, Zellers, Ontario Addiction Treatment Centre on Somerset Street.Beyond Bank St. Alexandria University

Geographic location: Stittsville, Ottawa, Orleans Centretown Navan Egypt Germany Canada Alberta Bells Corners

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  • Matt
    October 04, 2014 - 11:33

    I had the privilege to get to know Al when he was working at OATC (I was, and still am, a methadone patient). He was ALWAYS kind, caring, respectful and NEVER lost his temper or spoke in anger. He's a great person who has worked for everything he has and deserves all the success in the world.