Birinder Ahluwalia: Dr entrepreneur who made it big

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Dr Birinder Ahluwalia with wife Diana.

Amritsar-born doctor created Canada’s leading diagnostic imaging centre

By Gurmukh Singh

How many foreign-trained immigrant doctors get a break into the medical profession in Canada?

Very few.

How many do well in their profession?

Even fewer.

And how many make it big?

Hardly any.

Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia is one such rare foreign-trained doctor who has made it big in the medical profession.

A doctor entrepreneur, he runs the state-of-the-art BSA Diagnostic Medical Imaging which is one of the biggest in North America.

‘‘Yes, we are one of the leading and largest imaging diagnostic centres in North America, with cutting-edge technologies,’’ says DrAhluwalia who was 26 when he landed as an immigrant in Toronto in 1986.

In a city which is globally known for its Dr cabbies as foreign-trained doctors drive cabs to make a living, the young Sikh doctor was rubbing shoulders with Canada’s very best in the medical profession within days of landing in this country as an immigrant.

And by the end of his first year in Canada, he was making a cool five-figure salary!

He says he happened to be in the right field – diagnostic imaging – when it was in its infancy.

‘‘I happened to work with the best people, learn from the best,’’ says the quinquagenarian doctor.

A topper student from Government Medical College in Amritsar in India, Dr Ahluwalia comes from a family of medical professionals. His physician grandfather went to serve in Africa. His renowned father Dr Balbir Singh Ahluwalia headed the Department of Pathology and Forensic Medicine at Government Medical College in Amritsar.

In this interview, Dr Ahluwalia takes a trip down memory lane to recall the turning events which shaped his destiny in Canada.

Q: First off, why did you leave India when you could have done very well there because of your family background?

We discussed in our household that I should go abroad for further studies and explore medical breakthroughs and new technologies in the West.

So, in the spring of 1985 when I was still doing my post-graduation in medicine, I left India and landed in the UK where I had some friends.

Then I went to Norway before coming to Canada towards the end of the spring of that year.

Dr Birinder Ahluwalia in his diagnostic imaging centre.

Q: How were your initial days in Canada?

I stayed in Toronto for some time because I had to return to India to continue my post-graduation in internal medicine/cardiology and also attend my sister’s wedding.

During that brief stay, I enjoyed exploring the city by travelling around in TTC and trying to understand how this city was created on the grid system. Sometimes even these days,

I take TTC just to reminisce about my early days in Toronto.

So I went back to India, attended my sister’s wedding and continued my post-graduation studies and left India again. First I went to the UK and then Norway. In fact, I joined a hospital in Norway…they asked me to learn the Norwegian language and I started attending classes.

But soon I left for Canada because Norway was too cold and dark and they had six months of twilight. I don’t think I could have settled there.

Q: Tell us about the struggles that you went through in your initial days in Canada?

I started studying for my certification in medicine right away. To survive, I became a courier for the tax preparation company H&R Block.

Actually, there is an interesting story about how I got that job at H&R Block.

When I went for the interview for the H&R Block job, I was wearing a three-piece suit.

The lady at the interview seemed to be pretty impressed with the way I looked and my fluency in English.

She asked me: ‘What are your educational qualifications?’

I said: ‘Grade 10.’

She didn’t believe me and asked: ‘Tell me honestly.’

I said, ‘Will I get the job if I tell you my qualifications?’

She said, ‘Yes.’

I said: ‘I am a medical post-graduate!’

She had expected that.

So she said, ‘Yes, you have got the job, but I am sure you won’t stay here for long.’ And I didn’t.

Dr Birinder Ahluwalia with his wife and daughters.

Q: So how was your first job?

It gave me the opportunity to see the city – I enjoyed travelling around Toronto in my delivery van given to me by H&R Block.

It was a good experience. I was in that job for only two weeks. I got my first pay cheque for about $390 and I enjoyed it.

Q: Why did you quit that job?

I had applied at the Toronto Vascular Institute-Toronto General Hospital to be trained in diagnostic imaging. Dr Roger Donald Stronell interviewed me and I was selected.

Dr Stronell was a leader in diagnostic imaging. I used to wear a turban in those days.

Q: Why did you choose diagnostic imaging?

It was a new technology at that time. I happened to be in the right field in the right place at the right time. (I had topped pre-medical exams at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar.)

Q: What was your first feeling when you got a break in the medical profession in Canada?

I felt great. I started earning a four-figure income, but financially my wife and I were very tight. I used to travel by subway.

To supplement my income, I started freelancing at a medical lab in Vaughan without telling my boss Dr Stronell. But one day, he saw my red eyes because of a lack of sleep and asked me the reason.

I told him that I work at night at a medical lab to supplement my income. He asked me to stop it immediately and raised my monthly salary by a significant amount. I was very happy that day. During this period, I got separation from my wife.

At home: Dr Birinder Ahluwalia.

Q: So what happened next?

Within months, Dr Stronell gave me extra work and now I was earning a five-figure salary.

Becoming financially independent and being at the best place for diagnostic imaging was the second turning point in my life. It all happened before the end of 1986. Imagine a new immigrant making a five-figure salary a month within the first year of his arrival in Canada!

Dr Stronell was very generous and smart, but very possessive also. He would say: ‘For anything good in life, you have to pay.’ This has stuck with me throughout my life. I was lucky to have a great mentor who was a visionary and at the forefront of diagnostic imaging.

But then came the third turning point in my life.

Q: What was the third turning point?

In the middle of 1987 when I was having a few free days after finishing my work early, a physician (Dr C. Pangalos) at another clinic called me. He said he was adding ultrasound testing to his clinic. Since he was not trained in ultrasound, he asked me if I could help him. So I started going there to help him and my boss Dr Stronell didn’t know about it.

But a few months later, Dr Stronell called me one day and said: ‘Here is a report which is similar to what we do.’ I had done that report at the other clinic. So when I told him that I work part-time at the other physician’s clinic, he said: ‘Do you know I can reduce your salary by half in a day?’

I was shocked – and he was smiling.

I came home and called another doctor (Lloyd Padmore) and told him that I needed a place to set up my own clinic. He asked me to meet him next week and he got me a space in a clinic.

That’s how BSA Diagnostic Imaging was born. It was early 1988. Apart from my own practice, I also started freelancing with other clinics.

Dr Birinder Ahluwalia and family.

Q: So when did you hit the big time?

By early 1994, I was making a significant six-figure income annually. You can call it big time, but it was just the beginning. Then came the fourth turning point in my life.

Q: What was the fourth turning point?

I was doing pretty well as I was having my own practice and freelancing at other clinics. However, in late 1995 something happened at one of the clinics where I was making a cool five-figure monthly income. Because of their internal politics, I decided to end my verbal contract with that clinic.

It was then that I decided to start my first large independent clinic on College Street in early 1996.

In 1997, I started the Sheppard-Kennedy clinic which became the largest in Canada over time. It is still one of the largest in Canada. We have been going from strength to strength since then.

Q: You said it took you 14 long years to get remarried. Why?

First, I was busy raising my daughter Sohni. Second, I didn’t meet the right person. When I met the right person, Sohni was 15 and she was okay if I remarried. That’s how I married Diana in 2000.

We are proud parents of our twin daughters. And Sohni is just finishing her law.

Q: Did you take up the medical profession just because you wanted to follow in your father’s footsteps?

My whole family was in the medical profession. My grandfather was a physician who went to serve in Africa, my father was a doctor. When you grow up with the medical profession around you, I think it is natural that you will follow the same profession. My two sisters are also in this profession.

Dr Birinder Ahluwalia’s daughters.

Q: Being political, what kind of politics is your cup of tea?

Not to compromise on principles with your political party. You have an opportunity to serve people – so do it right. Serve for the public good.

Q: Your biggest weakness.

My children. They are also my biggest strength.

Q: Your biggest asset.

Again, my children.

Q: If you were not a doctor, what would you be?

I don’t think I will do anything else.

It is the most rewarding and satisfying profession. Yes, it is business for me, but its nobility transcends the pettiness of business. Thank God, I became a businessman as well. I just enjoy what I do. I never haggle with people.

Q: Who are your heroes in life?

Two persons. One was my father DrBalbir Singh Ahluwalia and the other is my former mentor Dr R.D. Stronell. Both had great values, and just watching them taught me a lot about life. I am very thankful to them.

Dr Birinder Ahluwalia and wife Diana.

Q: In the city (Toronto) of Dr cabbies, do you think you have been plain lucky to succeed in life?

Well, I was motivated right from the beginning to succeed. Even when I had the courier’s job, I was proactively looking for opportunities in the medical profession, applying and trying to get interviews. I was preparing for my exams.

When I didn’t make enough money from a job, I took part-time work elsewhere to make more money.

It must also be said that I happened to work with the best people, learn from the best, and deliver the very best. I walked away from conflict and established my own business.

Q: One thing that you miss the most in life.

My father. I wish he could have been around today to be with his grandchildren. He would have been 83-84 this year. I would have made him a drink just to say: ‘Thank you, dad’.

Q: What would you say about your mom?

Thank you, mom, for teaching me how to be compassionate.

Q: One thing about yourself that you wish you could change.

I should have been more compromising in my 30s and 40s.

Dr Birinder Ahluwalia and wife at their annual Christmas party

Q: What was the lowest point in your life?

When my two daughters got really sick one after another a few years ago. One of them had pneumonia and she was in hospital for 10 days. Believe me, I lost 10 pounds of weight in those 10 days!

Q: Do you believe in God?

Yes, there is a higher power which watches over us. As the saying goes, man proposes, God disposes.

Q: Do you have any superstitions?

Yes, I have two big superstitions. One is the fear of number 13 and the other is when a cat crosses my path.

Lots of bad things have happened to me on the 13th. My car has broken into on the 13th, my flights got cancelled on the 13th and I received bad mail on the 13th. So I am very superstitious about the number 13.

I don’t make big decisions on the 13th. I never start any important work on the 13th.

I am also stricken with fear when a cat crosses my path. When it happens, I stop and take a few steps back.

Q: What do you do if a cat crosses your path on a busy road?

I drive to the edge of the road and stop. In fact, I have even reversed my car when I could possibly do and the traffic allowed me (laughs).

Q: How do you relax after a day’s hard work?

By being with my children.

Q: Any hobbies.

Yes, I have always had hobbies which have changed over time. When I was very young, I used to play tennis, cricket, hockey, etc. Then I took up badminton in which I was our college champion. I also played billiards and became the state champion.

Nowadays, my hobbies include travelling, reading and sometimes playing badminton and tennis.

Dr Birinder Ahluwalia’s home party.

Q: What is your favourite dish?

Rajma-chawal (rice with kidney beans) prepared by my mom.

Q: What books would you recommend others to read?

Two books.

The first is the novel Shogun. It is a fascinating book about the Japanese empire, war, intrigues, betrayals, etc.

The second is The Fountainhead. Again, it is a tale of love, betrayal, colonialism, etc., etc.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

I have yet a life to live.

 

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