Inside This Issue - Opinion
Brunner kept things interesting
April 20th, 2009
by David Pinto, Editor
What can be said about Vern Brunner that hasn’t already been said? That he fought a courageous, 15-month battle against the lung cancer that finally, at age 68, took his life earlier this month. That he remains today what he has been for more than 30 years: the standard against which all mass retailing merchants are measured and evaluated.
That he was attractively and fallibly human, often ignoring his role as manager to concentrate on his skills as merchant, sometimes managing upward rather than down into the Walgreens organization, wondering from day to day and hour to hour if he was indeed as talented as his benefactors insisted or whether he was about to be fired for incompetence.
That he never tired of helping new companies get a foothold at Walgreens or giving talented people new to the chain drug supplier community a chance to prove their worth.
That he was unique, as an individual, representative of the Walgreen Co., and, as a merchant, the chain drug industry’s minister plenipotentiary to the mass retailing community.
That he never truly grasped his brilliance, nor came to accept and understand the rare abilities that were his alone, abilities that enabled him, with Cork Walgreen, Fred Canning and Glen Kraiss, to resurrect a moribund drug chain and return it to the very front ranks of mass market retailing. And that, in doing so, he brought the art and science of product selection and merchandising to a previously unknown level.
Watching Vern Brunner evaluate a product, assess a category or challenge a favored supplier to do more business with Walgreens was equivalent to watching DiMaggio play baseball, Astaire dance or Brando act; listening to Bernstein conduct an orchestra or Sinatra sing; examining a Picasso or evaluating a Rembrandt. He just took your breath away.
Listen to him discuss the art of merchandising and you were transported to an advanced seminar at the Harvard Business School, at once amazed at what he knew, delighted at how easily he made you understand his thinking, and humbled that he cared enough to teach you.
Yet in the end it was Brunner’s humanness and his human frailties that remained. He once, in all seriousness, confided to a friend what he believed was wrong with the Walgreen Co.: “Top management,” he said, “doesn’t listen.” At the time Brunner was executive vice president of marketing, one of the five most senior positions at Walgreens.
Another time he defended himself against allegations that he was deficient in developing merchants. “Why should I teach others how to do what I do?” he asked. “I do it twice as well in half the time.” Reminded that his primary job was managing, he had no comment.
He was never quite comfortable around the people for whom he worked, with the possible exception of Fred Canning, his first boss after Brunner was brought to Walgreens’ Deerfield, Ill., headquarters in 1975 and handed the key merchandising position.
So it was that, sadly, he never understood the genius of Dan Jorndt, who got the job as president of Walgreens that Brunner always dreamed of. In failing to appreciate or utilize the talents of one of chain drug retailing’s giants, Brunner, not Jorndt, was the loser.
All these memories come flooding back in the immediate aftermath of Brunner’s death. In the days following his departure the chain drug industry, individually and collectively, expressed an outpouring of love, affection, respect, gratitude and loss that Brunner would have been at a loss to even understand, much less accept.
Indeed, a year ago he received a well-earned if much-belated award from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores at the association’s Annual Meeting. When the award was greeted with a standing ovation, Brunner was as much puzzled at the response as he was pleased with the outpouring of affection and respect.
Now Brunner is gone, cementing his rightful place as a chain drug industry legend, the yardstick against whom all future merchants will be measured. If the industry is lucky, one will eventually emerge. A few have come close, but no one to date has totally hit the mark.
Growing up, Vern’s biggest competitor was his brother Gordon, who was to become, in adulthood, a senior researcher and executive vice president at Procter & Gamble.
At school, Gordon routinely outperformed his brother, while Vern excelled only at getting into trouble. “That’s O.K.,” Vern’s father once told him. “You’re the one who keeps things interesting.”
The same can accurately be said about his tenure in the chain drug industry. Vern Brunner always kept things interesting. And he will continue to do so.