How Samuel Menaged’s career switch helped change the conversation on eating disorders

Samuel Menaged

Samuel E. Menaged

By Alyssa Hurst

When Samuel E. Menaged first learned about the devastating effects of eating disorders, he felt so moved that he upended a career as an attorney that he had spent years building, and jumped headfirst into his new cause. After extensive research and heart-wrenching encounters with those affected by eating disorders, Menaged decided to help establish The Renfrew Center. Decades later, the center has helped pave the way for 65,000 to women fight their disease in a more holistic way. Today, Menaged is even more passionate about his work.

As a healthcare attorney with initially little knowledge of eating disorders, what made you decide that this was a cause you wanted to be involved in?

Menaged: In the early ‘80s, a good friend approached me to ask if I would devote some of my energy to establishing an eating disorder facility. My first question was, “What is an eating disorder?” In those days, eating disorders were a well-kept secret, and there were no specialized treatment facilities in the U.S. In fact, there were only a handful of medical and psychiatric hospitals that accepted eating disorder patients, but they dealt mainly with symptom reduction and did not address the core of the problem.

As a pioneer in the industry, you didn’t have a model to work off. What was it like when The Renfrew Center first opened?

Menaged: Those early years are memorable to me, as we were close like family. Recognizing we were pioneers, we rolled up our sleeves and did whatever was necessary to make Renfrew a success.

We were fortunate enough to receive national publicity early on. The New York Times ran a full-page feature story on Renfrew. Because we believe in the restorative and healing power of nature, we built our site on a wooded, 27-acre horse farm. Our residential building was designed to blend with the beauty of the environment.

The phone started ringing off the hook. We were hearing from adolescent girls and women about their failed experiences at psychiatric and general hospitals. Renfrew was providing something different. We started with two patients at our residential campus in Philadelphia, and reached capacity within two short years, with patients from around the world.

What keeps you motivated to continue doing this work after 30 years? 

Menaged: The more than 65,000 adolescent girls and women Renfrew has treated. The strength and courage these women have shown in reclaiming their lives motivates me daily to continue working to provide access to treatment. Over the years, eating disorders have “come out of the closet,” and we’ve seen a demand for services across the country. We now have a total of 16 sites nationwide, with two residential facilities: Philadelphia and Coconut Creek, FL.

I would imagine that you go through a lot of emotional ups and downs doing this type of work. What do you do to get away from it all for a bit?

Menaged: First and foremost, I spend time with my family. I have a wonderful wife, four children and 4-year-old, twin grandchildren. I enjoy reading, playing tennis and traveling in my spare time.

What is the best decision you think you’ve ever made? 

Menaged: Walking away from my job as a healthcare attorney and opening The Renfrew Center 30 years ago has been my best business decision. Knowing that the time I spend helps women gain access to treatment, heal and lead productive lives is tremendously motivating.

Who has inspired you the most in your life?

Menaged: My father. He was the person who always told me, “You can be anything you want to be; just put your mind to it.” He was a renaissance man who stimulated my mind by encouraging me to read, introducing me to cultural events and including me in discussions about business. A CPA and solo practitioner, he frequently had clients over to the house to discuss accounting and business-related matters. I often had the privilege of listening in on those conversations, which helped me develop my own business sense. He did whatever he could to broaden my horizons. I thank him for getting me into the business world early on in my career.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Menaged: The best advice came from my father: “There is nothing you can’t accomplish — just fulfill your potential.” Through my dad’s own work ethic and determination, I was taught that any goal that is set can be accomplished.

What is the greatest challenge you have faced? How did you overcome it?

Menaged: The greatest challenge I’ve faced was opening The Renfrew Center. Before Renfrew was established, eating disorders were a well-kept secret. Specialized treatment centers were non-existent. It was hard to get licensed, to raise money and to get insurance reimbursement. It was extremely difficult to sell this new idea to all those entities, but I was able to overcome this challenge by creating meaningful relationships. Starting and growing a business has a lot to do with developing and maintaining relationships.

What has been your proudest moment in the last year?

Menaged: My proudest moment this past year was opening our 16th location in Los Angeles. Many of the 65,000 adolescent girls and women we have treated over the past 30 years have come to us from the West Coast. For this reason, and because of requests from the professional community, we wanted to provide care for them closer to home.

About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.