Sean Simpson, owner of two pharmacies in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is the third generation of the Simpson family helping keep his community healthy.
Just shy of 100 years ago, Sean’s grandfather graduated from the University of Toronto College of Pharmacy and joined a pharmacy in Welland.
Sean’s father, Ward, followed suit in 1972, eventually opening what is now Simpson’s Pharmacy in 1977, in the Niagara Medical Centre, the former private hospital on Niagara Stone Road, across from the old high school, where it remains today.
Sister Lisa joined the family business after her graduation in 1994 and Sean followed in 2006.
“I don’t know if this is a legacy or a curse,” offers Sean, with just enough of a smile to make you guess what he really means.
If busy-ness is a measure, it’s easy to understand why.
He’s got lots on his plate running two pharmacies in town — the family opened the Simpson’s Apothecary on King Street in 2010 — but his current consuming focus is making sure people who aren’t registered with family doctors have access to care.
“There are lots of people falling between the cracks in the current system,” says Sean. “Ever since the early 2000s, with the family health team model, doctors’ rosters of patients top out at a certain level.
“I’d guess 25 per cent of people fall through the medical cracks.”
Cracks his company is attempting to fill.
Firstly, he’s actively campaigning to allow pharmacies to provide more acute care treatments. He compares it to the evolution of the role of nurse practitioners, who, over time, have taken on a larger role in day-to-day health care.
“I’m talking about diagnosis and treatment of minor ailments. Things that can be more efficiently dealt with in the pharmacy network.”
His next target is taking aim at the many ancillary medical services that aren’t readily available in the local community.
“Our current plans include walk-in/urgent care for locals and tourists. We are also exploring X-ray and lab services, physiotherapy, naturopathic care, chiropractic, massage, and any other health-related service that makes sense.
He is collaborating with a nurse practitioner who, according to the plans, will be available Saturdays at the King Street pharmacy and Sundays at the Virgil store, starting in April.
He is also hoping people will let him know what medical services they want here in town. “We are open to hearing what the community thinks the needs are.”
Sean, 46, and his wife Stephanie have two children ages 9 and 11. They live in Garrison Village, in the house where his parents, Ward and Oresta, raised the family. They bought the house from his parents in 2011.
He attended St. Vincent de Paul elementary school, later moving to Stella Niagara, an independent school in Lewiston, N.Y. Then off to Denis Morris Catholic High School in St. Catharines.
Sean worked in sales for two major pharmaceutical companies, until the call of the family business drew him back. He joined the family firm immediately after graduating from U of T’s pharmacy program
Sean’s sister, Lisa, four years his senior, graduated as a pharmacist in 1994, and joined the family team at the tender age of 22.
Lisa admits it seemed inevitable after spending her spare time and summers working at the pharmacy from aged 13 that she would simply move on to help her father in the business.
“It just made sense,” says Lisa. “And I liked it. No regrets. I can’t think of anything I would have enjoyed more.”
“Dad made it look so fun. And he’s so fun. He was such a role model in the way that he built relationships.”
After 18 years on the pharmacy side of the business, Lisa switched gears and joined the profession’s regulating body, the College of Ontario Pharmacists in Toronto.
“It (the job opportunity in Toronto) was just kind of fortuitous. Sean had come and joined, so we weren’t short-staffed by my leaving. I was looking for something else in both my personal and professional life.”
After completing different assignments, Lisa is now an investigator, helping the college fulfil its role as the province’s pharmacy regulator.
Here’s an odd little factoid about the Ontario College of Pharmacists: It also operates the historic Apothecary at the corners of King and Queen streets, on behalf of the Ontario Heritage Foundation. The Niagara Apothecary is an authentic museum restoration of an 1869 pharmacy as part of a practice that operated in Niagara-on-the-Lake from 1820 to 1964.
But back to the Simpson’s …
You can take Lisa out of the pharmacy, but it’s hard to take the pharmacy out of Lisa.
“You develop relationships. In the 18 years that I practised here, I watched my patients have babies and by the time I left they were heading off to university.”
“It tugs at my heartstrings. I follow the local newspapers and Facebook and I read the obituaries.”
And she visits a couple of times a month to buy her fresh eggs and visit family and friends.
Ward Simpson is now 78. After a smooth ownership transition to his son’s leadership, he was ready give up the helm.
“I had mixed emotions. I really enjoyed my work and I enjoyed the contact with the public. I had such wonderful, loyal, long-serving staff. It was fun to go in to work. I could feel the heartbeat of the community.
“But the government interference is stifling. The more they tried to make things easier, the more difficult it became.”
“On my 70th birthday, I waved goodbye and was out the door.”
Ward is the youngest of nine children, born in Welland and basically raised in his father’s pharmacy. At 13, he was making deliveries on his bike and taking out the store garbage.
He describes his high school performance as modest. So, he tried different things, mostly hard work at a couple of manufacturing jobs.
Lesson learned. By 1972 he’d graduated from pharmacy and started working in Hamilton; then back to Welland. It was his wife Oresta who encouraged Ward to explore the possibility of his own business.
He and Oresta had come to Niagara, on the trail of available retail space and been wooed by the doctors at the 12-bed private hospital on Niagara Stone Road.
Fast-forward to November 1977, to the opening of the Niagara Community Pharmacy. He admits it wasn’t a very catchy name.
“It wasn’t long before everybody just called the pharmacy, Simpson’s,” he says with a chuckle. “So, I changed the name.”
Ward, who moonlights in a red suit for the annual Santa Claus Parade, is proud of both his pharmacist-children.
Sean took over in 2010, just as the Apothecary was opened on King Street.
“The transition (to Sean’s ownership) has been very strong. Part evolution of what was and part new ideas. Sometimes the machine needs a different kind of oil.”
Ward praises Sean’s approach to the COVID pandemic. “I give Sean a hundred thousand credits for maintaining the business through the pandemic. I’m not sure I could have handled it as smoothly as he did.”
Sean admits he wants to manufacture time to get it all done.
He’s been on the board of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, president for two years. He’s also been involved over the years with numerous community organizations, including the United Way.
And he’s working toward his minor hockey coaching designation. “Being out on the ice is definitely a good escape.”
But now he spends most of his time responding to changes in the business.
Firstly, he needs to mind his marketplace. “With four pharmacies in town, you can get caught in the trap where you think everybody knows you. We have to keep getting the message out.”
And the business itself has evolved.
“Business has changed a lot. There is a lot of government regulation, especially affecting pricing. Margins have compressed a fair bit. We’ve seen a lot of changes just in the past few years.”
Sean contends the primary care funding model needs an overhaul.
“The last major rethink happened almost 20 years ago. Clinical services are increasingly evolving online because they are simpler to access.”
“These are great enablers. But I don’t think practices have shifted effectively to reflect the advances.”
Not surprisingly, Sean wants his pharmacies to be part of those advances.
And maybe, just maybe, there will be a fourth generation Simpson in the pharmacy business to help him.