Entrepreneurial career just what the doctor ordered for Ottawa health-care pioneer

Sanjay Shah
Sanjay Shah left a secure job to launch his own company, ExecHealth. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)

Sanjay Shah was on a family holiday with his wife and newborn son in Hawaii when he found the beach-induced inspiration to quit his job and follow his dream of running his own business.

Maybe it was the Pacific Ocean breeze or maybe it was the better life perspective that one gets after becoming a parent. Whatever it was, Mr. Shah used that 2005 vacation – which he took while on six months of unpaid parental leave – to solidify the foundations for ExecHealth, the first private health-care clinic in Ottawa.

“After the six months, I handed in my resignation and said, ‘I’m going to give this thing a try,’” recalls Mr. Shah, 50, while speaking in his downtown office on Albert Street, where the walls are adorned with images shot by Ottawa-based landscape and wildlife photographer Michelle Valberg.

It can be financially precarious to jump from a comfortable job as a salaried employee to being the owner of a business, Mr. Shah acknowledges.

“I think a lot of people would like to do it, but you have to get over a certain fear of failure.”

Today, ExecHealth is the go-to clinic for many of the city’s top professionals from CEOs to partners at large law firms looking for concierge-level medical care. Patients pay an annual membership fee and in return get a higher level of care and service. Doctors perform annual physical examinations of two to four hours long, allowing them to better detect early signs of illness and disease before they develop into serious health problems.

“We find undiagnosed issues in about 30 per cent of the patients who come in here,” said Mr. Shah.

“I think a lot of people would like to do it, but you have to get over a certain fear of failure.”

From the start, Mr. Shah made the decision to fund his business without using partners or private investors.

“We always put our patients’ needs first,” he says. “Outside investors can put pressures on you in terms of pursuing profits. My view is that if you’ve got a good business model and you’re doing the right things, then the money will follow.”

ExecHealth began by providing comprehensive health assessments to business executives and has since grown to be a full-service multidisciplinary clinic with an on-site staff of family physicians, medical specialists, psychologists, physiotherapists and registered dietitians.  

“It was a slow and steady build,” explains Mr. Shah.

Biotechnology degree

Mr. Shah made the leap to entrepreneurship at age 37 – still young enough to nab an OBJ Forty Under 40 award the following year. He entered the world of business ownership with two degrees, a bachelor of science in biotechnology from Carleton University and an MBA from Syracuse University, and 11 years of work experience that included sales gigs at big pharmaceutical companies before he moved into marketing research.

The signs had always pointed to a future in commerce for Mr. Shah. Even in elementary school, his teachers’ report card comments predicted a successful career in business.  

“I always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” says the graduate of the now-closed Confederation High School in Nepean. “To be perfectly honest, my parents wanted me to be a doctor.”

His parents, Subhash and Lalita, had an arranged but happy marriage. They wed in 1963, only two weeks after first meeting in their homeland of India.

For two years afterward, they lived apart while Subhash earned his master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Ottawa. He wasn’t used to Canadian winters and would huddle by the radiator to stay warm.

By 1965, Lalita had moved to Ottawa to join her husband and start a family. Her husband worked as a public servant with Health Canada while she held down a cashier’s job at Kmart.

Even though the couple played it safe with their careers, they were the ultimate risk-takers by leaving India to start a new life in a foreign country.  

“Who knows what my life would have been like if they hadn’t immigrated?” says Mr. Shah. “Running a business can be a grind, but it pales in comparison to them. Being a cashier at Kmart isn’t the most glamorous job in the world. They worked hard.”

It might seem surprising, but Mr. Shah is a fervent supporter of Canada’s health-care system, noting it was there for his mother when she most needed it. Lalita was the recipient of a double-lung transplant after her own lungs began failing due to respiratory disease. The new organs bought her eight more years of life – including grandmotherhood – when she was in her 60s and early 70s.

Lalita died this past February after receiving excellent care at the Élisabeth Bruyère palliative care hospital. By contrast, her sister endured a slow and painful death while suffering from the same disease in India, where she did not have access to transplant surgery or palliative care.

“My mom was so well-served by the public health-care system,” says Mr. Shah. “It would have been an emotional and financial burden on our family if we had lived in the United States. Or, if we still lived in India, we’d never have had access to this top-quality medical care.”

Five things to know about Sanjay Shah

  1. Mr. Shah did not become a doctor as his parents had hoped, but he did marry one: family physician Bella Mehta. They have two sons, Kamren, 13, and Kiren, seven.
  2. In his free time, Mr. Shah likes to tinker with his classic British sports car, a Triumph TR6. He works on it in the garage of his Westboro family home.
  3. Mr. Shah was involved in a failed startup with friends in the early 2000s. They managed to secure exclusive data rights from the English Premier League for use in an online fantasy game, and sold the idea to Sportsnet. “It ultimately failed because we all kept our day jobs and worked on the business during off-hours. My big lesson learned from that was that I was going to be completely dedicated to my next venture.”
  4. Mr. Shah is an avid “yet extremely average” golfer and soccer player. In warmer weather, the whole family plays golf at the prestigious Royal Ottawa Golf Club.
  5. Mr. Shah has developed a reputation for being a stylish dresser. Whether attending charity galas in his grey paisley tuxedo or more casual events with blue wing-tipped shoes, Mr. Shah always dresses to impress.