Ray Elliott left The University of Western Ontario with no particular place to go.
After spring semester 1974, Elliott headed to Toronto secure only in the fact he had a place to stay – crashing with his brother. He had $50 in his pocket and no job prospects.
But what would unfold over those few months would change a lot for the young man from Guelph and for his alma mater.
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“A friend of mine (in the search business) called me up and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about selling medical products?’ I said, ‘Never.’ He said, ‘These are a bunch of young guys, it seems like a really great company, why don’t you go interview with them?’” Elliott remembers. “Of course, I wanted a job. I was running out of money for one thing. So I went.”
Elliott, who earned a BA in history from Huron University College in 1974, admits to only a passing interest in the physical sciences, particularly biology, during his undergrad days. Other areas, like physics, he simply couldn’t stand.
Needless to say, a career in medical products had not been on his radar.
But a job was a job.
His interview, as fate would have it, was with the American Hospital Supply Corporation, a legendary organization that produced from its ranks more company presidents in the United States than GE and IBM combined, more than 150 by one count.
“I went to the interview and I loved these guys,” Elliott says. “They have been my lifelong friends and it started with a simple interview.”
Most of that original team – part of Elliott’s “lifelong fraternity” – still keeps in contact to this day. He remembers something special about the organization; you can hear in his voice when he talks about that certain magic in the way the organization handled its people.
“The effort they put into realizing the world is a big place, and it’s not just a domestic market. A lot of focus was on international. A lot of focus on leadership development and developing people at young ages,” Elliott says. “It was an amazing company.”
And he should know. Elliott got his first presidential appointment at 28. He has been one ever since for a total of 33 years in the executive suite.
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Initially, he spent 15 years with American Hospital Supply Corporation culminating in his appointment as president, Far East Divisions.
Although based in Japan, Elliott was responsible for a large chunk of Asia as well as 1,000 employees. Not a stranger to all when he arrived, he had worked with many of the Japanese members of the sales and marketing teams in the past.
But that didn’t necessarily lessen the learning curve.
“I got over there and look around and thought, ‘I am the only guy who looks like me.’ I was it. I was the only foreigner and I was running the company,” he says.
“But health care is a global business and the issues are the same. I think I came back as a person who saw the world as my home now. … It opens your eyes and you realize it’s not just us here.”
Western, he feels, helped prepare him for the world.
“Even back then, you got a lot more international student mix, people from different places, than going back in those same heydays in traditional U.S. universities,” Elliott says. “Western was pretty well founded on international students, as well as people from every province. I think there was grounding in understanding.”
After American Hospital Supply, Elliott joined Zimmer Holdings, Inc., a medical device company. His role there would culminate in the role of chairman, president and CEO from March 2001-May 2007.
In 2005, he was named ‘Best CEO in America’ for Health Care (Medical Supplies and Devices) by Institutional Investor magazine. At the time of his departure in 2007, the company’s market capitalization was more than $20 billion.
Today, Elliott is in the final months as president and CEO of Boston Scientific, one of the world’s largest medical device companies. With the company since 2007, he is retiring at year’s end, then to serve only on the company’s board of directors.
During his career, he has served as a director on more than 20 business-related boards in the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe and has served on six occasions as chairman.
It’s a long way from those first days of wide-eyed amazement on Western’s campus, when he drove up the entrance of Huron and parked in front of the SAC (Student Activity Centre). His thoughts then days were of hooking up with friends, playing football and working at the CPR Hotel.
“I loved the campus at Western, and the people I met when I came to walk around.”
And that initial connection continues today.
On Sept. 6, Western announced a $1.5 million donation from Ray and Margaret Elliott which will be matched by the university to form a $3 million endowed research chair. The Ray and Margaret Elliott Chair in Surgical Innovation will help position Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at the forefront of surgical care, education and research.
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“I have benefitted immensely more than I am worth from living this life, having these jobs, being all these places and having great career opportunities. So one of the things you think about is how do you give back in a way that is going to help people keep going or do even better,” Elliott says. “I have been big in medical education over the years. Young physicians, medical education, teaching and training, I think you can see the benefit of the combination of those things with this type of chair.”
The Ray and Margaret Elliott Chair in Surgical Innovation combines two chairs, ones in minimally invasive surgery and simulation training. The position focuses on innovation – both in technique and technology – for the next generation of surgeons.
Elliott might be most excited about the possibilities of the chair working with CSTAR (Canadian Surgical Technologies & Advanced Robotics), Canada’s leading facility for multidisciplinary training in minimally invasive surgery. In recent years, the organization, a collaborative research and education program of Western, London Health Sciences Centre, Lawson Health Research Institute and St. Joseph’s Health Care, announced an international expansion of its programs in collaboration with West China Hospital, one of the world’s largest acute care facilities.
Elliott credits that Asian connection as well as his long relationship with Dr. John Denstedt, Chair of the Department of Surgery, and other Western clinicians for his eyeing Western for his gift.
“I have spent the vast majority of my medical career has been surgery-related or operating room-related, so I wanted to do something that tied to that. I wanted to do something that had a certain amount of focus on patient quality of life and not just bringing out the next great product. Less-invasiveness has been a huge part of my life, trying to find ways for people to have better outcomes that are less invasive to their bodies – less cutting, shorter recovery times, better quality of health coming out of it,” he says.
“I wanted to do something in Canada; I wanted to do something in surgery; I wanted to do something in minimally invasive patient care; I wanted to do something that ties to Asia; and I hadn’t done anything with Western,” Elliott continues. “It kind of fell into place.”
Elliott was also attracted to the tangible nature of the chair.
“One of the problems you get into (with some charities) is it’s kind of hard to see the progress as an individual giver. I mean you can read their pamphlets and booklets and how they did for the year or whatever promotional materials they put out. And I do some of that,” he says. “But here, I wanted to do something very specific that had some pretty measurable outcomes in terms of accomplishments.
“A chair in a new area or a CSTAR in China, those may take a few years, but they are measureable outcomes of progress. You can see it.”
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While the gift will have a lasting impact, so will the fact a second generation of Elliotts will be walking the campus this year.
During their time together, Ray and Margaret Elliott have lived in Japan, southern California, Colorado, Indiana and Massachusetts. Their permanent home for the last several years has been Muskoka and Scottsdale, Ariz. The Ontario-native couple has three children – Zachary, 25, Logan, 22, both of New York City, and Rachel, 19.
Rachel will attend Western this fall after transferring from Arizona State University.
“I am happy if she is happy. If she picked wherever, like Waterloo, that’s fine, it’s her choice,” Elliott says. “But it is kinda nice, kinda fun she’s going to be there.”