LAMBTON SHIELD MAGAZINE

Bringing trust to the front counter

At Northgate Pharmacy, a history of service is helping to deliver the kind of answers people need to thrive in a complex world

There’s more than a few pharmacists in Sarnia-Lambton, each with their own story about how they got into one of the more specialized service-oriented professions around.

For Richard Kelch, who owns Northgate Pharmacy on the east side of the iconic plaza located on Exmouth Street in a sprawling space that was once home to Sears, the decision to pick pharmacy might take first prize in a contest to determine the most random career choice.

“I was in Grade 13 at Northern Collegiate and we were filling out our choices for university,” recalls Kelch, who’s now in his early 50s. “I turned to the guy behind me and asked him what he was going to do and he said, with no hesitation, pharmacy. I said ‘okay, I’ll do that.’”

This was a time when becoming a pharmacist was a four-year program, not the degree-plus education it is today, which makes him—he says at least partly in jest—one of the least qualified people who he has working at Northgate, who include two doctors of pharmacy.

But back to a younger Richard Kelch, who packed everthing her owned in the back of his Dad’s 73 Volvo oand headed to the University of Toronto, with no plans to return to
Sarnia.

Not long afterwards he met his future wife Fiona, a second-generation Scot who was from St. Catharines).

While Kelch describes he and his wife as sharing a headstrong personality, at least they had a plan for when they graduated four years later—to pick a spot to live thst was halfway between St. Catharines and Sarnia.

That turned out to be London, where Kelch began working for an independent family pharmacy. He was there two years before deciding to take some time off to travel.

Returning to the job market, Kelch joined the Big V group, specifically managing the store in Ingersoll.

Then one day he got a call from his boss. “We’re doing coffee,” Kelch recalls the conversation, which ended up including news of Shopper’s Drug Mart buying Big V in a transaction that would ultimately merge the two operations.

And because the Ingersoll Big V that Kelch was running was within shouting distance of the Shopper’s Drug Mart there, the question remained as to where he would land.

The answer was Sarnia, in the Big V formerly located just south of Kelch’s Northgate Pharmacy, and soon to be a Shopper’s when the merger was comleted.

Kelch would remain at that location for about 10 years before, as he puts it, “Shopper’s and I parted ways.”

With the “deed” done—otherwise known as being walked out the door—Kelch saw this as an inevitable career development opportunity.

“Everyone has an expiry date,” says Kelch of his departure from the corporate operation where he had, so far, spent his career.

“In a place like that you either toe the line or you get shown the door. And I just don’t play well with others.”

As Kelch gets closer to discussing his shift to what today is an independent, family owned enterprise, the subject of entrepreneurism comes up. Any connection there with family background?

Not a one.

“My Dad worked in the refinery and my Mom stayed at home, so there was no entrepreneurial path to follow,” he says.

With some mouths to feed—Fiona was facing elbow surgery and they had two young kids—Kelch spent the next six months or so doing local work for other pharmacists, an important role in that legislation requires a pharmacist be in the building before a drug store can open its doors.

“But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” says Kelch.

That thought process lasted about three months, culminating in the realization that he really missed doing his own thing.

“I missed being in charge,” he says.

The building Kelch ultimately took on as the home of Northgate Pharmacy had previously been an Indian restaurant and probably several other types of business, including a bulk food outlet, before being transformed into one of the area’s most well-known destinations, and not just for the typical prescription fulfilment.

Today, Northgate offers specialized services that Kelch is particularly proud to offer his community.

In addition to professional medication management, the Northgate team offers pharmacogenetic testing, designed to optimize many medications, especially those for mental health.

An Automated Medication Management system is designed for those who may struggle to manage their medications.

For the travelers among us, Northgate Travel Clinic uses travel specialist pharmacists, certified by the International Society of Travel Medicine, who can meet with clients to ensure they are properly protected. This “by appointment only” service is available by booking through Northgate’s website (www.northgatepharmacy.ca).

For Kelch, serving what he calls “high touch” customers remains a key differentiator in his line of work.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and I don’t want to have to do anything I don’t need to do,” he says. “I’ve gotten picky over the years and I’ve been able to assemble a team of professionals who largely think the way I do. We’re trying to branch into things that are service based, where while it’s value added for people who need something more, when they say their health situation has changed and they need someone who knows their records and could sit down and give them more.”

Kelch says those needs include mental health issues, which are increasingly affecting families who are supporting younger people.

“They need someone who can help them understand things from a pharmacological standpoint land how it all fits together,” he adds. “Because a lot of these things are not treated with just one thing. They’re treated with counselling and lifestyle and medication.”

Today Northgate has five pharmacists, Kelch included, as well as a cadre of assistants on staff.

All that said, he can’t imagine a career that offers more satisfaction than the one he’s had so far.

“I get up every day and I think, ‘what else can I do?’ And then I get here and I realize I enjoy the people. I’ve said for years that putting pills in bottles is boring, but building relationships with people is fun. You get a chance to pick up the phone and talk to someone who says ‘I didn’t know where to call, so I called you.’”

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