A Simple Plan for Greater National Reach

Michael Fish developed a fascination with the brain when he was a teenager, and he planned on becoming a neurosurgeon. When he got to university, however, he wanted to pursue his other passion: business. Today, as president of Pacific Surgical—the parent company of Keir Surgical, Nightingale Medical Supplies, and Galen Medical—he combines both passions in a position that is both professionally and personally rewarding.

In 1993, Michael Fish bought into a small Vancouver surgical-supply business, and many acquisitions later, he and his umbrella company, Pacific Surgical, are supplying hospitals across Canada and changing the lives of impoverished communities

Michael Fish’s first job after university, selling photocopy machines, may seem to have no real connection to his current role, but it began a string of luck that would follow him throughout his career.

“I had a sense that if I knew how to sell, I’d never be hungry,” he says. And sell he did—so well, in fact, that his success led him to a dream job selling neurosurgical instruments and equipment for a division of Johnson & Johnson. It was his entrance into the medical field, but it would take him all the way to the helm of Keir Surgical Ltd., and it would also inform his belief in the benefits of giving back.

“[The Johnson & Johnson job] was like hitting the lottery,” Fish says. He spent the next five years in the operating room, where he met one of his mentors, Dr. Felix Durity, chief of neurosurgery at Vancouver General Hospital. “I learned things I never would have without the access that he provided me within his operating room,” Fish says.

Facts & Figures

12
Employees at Keir Surgical when Fish took over

55
Current employees at all companies operating under Pacific Surgical

$3.5 million
Approximate revenue for Keir Surgical in 2003

$20 million
Approximate revenue for Pacific Surgical today

3
Provinces Keir Surgical served in 2003

10
Provinces Pacific Surgical serves today

In 2003, Johnson & Johnson offered Fish, then just 30 years old, the position of national sales manager. It was a career-changing opportunity, but there was a problem: it meant moving from Vancouver to Peterborough, Ontario, and the timing wasn’t quite right. “I was just starting a family,” Fish says. He turned down the job, and immediately he began worrying about what he’d do next.

Luck struck again, however, when Fish got a call from a competitor, Brian Keir, who was running a small surgical-instrument company called Keir Surgical. “It was a family business, three generations in, and he wanted to see if I could help it grow,” Fish says. He readily accepted, and over the next 10 years, he slowly bought small pieces of the company. “I did whatever I could, even mortgaging my house when I ran out of cash,” he says.

Ten years later, when Keir retired, Fish got a loan and bought the balance of the business. “It was a leap of faith,” he says, but he already knew he had the right attitude for the work. “I love building things, and running a business is all about solving problems. They’re generally small problems, but there are many of them, so when you put them all together, your choices determine whether or not you’re going to be successful.”

When Fish bought Keir Surgical, it was a small company operating in British Columbia and Alberta, and he felt that if it was going to survive in a market that was changing quite dramatically, it needed to expand nationwide. “That involved taking a big chance, because in other parts of the country, no one had heard of us,” Fish says. Thanks to several acquisitions and strong brand recognition, though, Keir Surgical has found footing on a larger platform as one of three companies operating under Pacific Surgical Holdings Ltd.—the other two being Nightingale Medical Supplies, Ltd., which operates six British Columbia retail stores selling ostomy supplies, and Galen Medical Ltd., which sells neurosurgical equipment and spinal implants. Together, they sell to every hospital in Canada, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Fish is particularly fond of Galen because it takes him back to his roots. “It’s really exciting to be involved in technologies that remove brain tumours from patients who otherwise had no more options,” he says, noting further that being involved in meaningful technologies is only the tip of the iceberg. “I want every person in the company to feel proud to work here and feel that they’re part of something larger than themselves, because we’re not just selling more widgets; we’re doing things that bring meaning to people’s lives.”

Fish’s passion is reflected more broadly in Pacific Surgical’s intense culture of volunteering. The company matches employees’ charitable contributions, sponsors the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (where Fish sits on the board of directors), and donates supplies to charitable organizations for surgical procedures for impoverished populations. Particularly notable is the company’s work with Project HANDS, a charity that provides much-needed surgical relief to the Mayan population in Guatemala. “These people would otherwise have no access to these treatments, and they literally walk miles in bare feet to get to us, so it’s quite remarkable,” Fish says.

He personally goes on many missions and encourages his employees to do the same, paying for their travel expenses and their time away. “The first year we did it, our shipper, who is from Guatemala, went with his wife and was amazed,” Fish says. “We did 56 surgeries that week, and he came to me and said, ‘I grew up in this country and had no idea what was going on in my own backyard.’ So it’s the most meaningful thing of all that we do.”