Inside This Issue - Opinion
Reluctant leader made Longs better
April 28th, 2014
by David Pinto
Bob Long died last month after a long illness that had depleted his energy and, in the end, his will to live. Finally, his body deserted him, shutting down and giving him the peace that had for so long eluded him.
For a very long time, Long headed the drug chain that his father and uncle had founded in the midst of the Depression, and he had emerged, by the time he succeeded his father as chief executive, as the envy of the chain drug industry. It wasn’t that Longs Drug Stores was larger or more successful or more profitable than other drug chains. Rather, it was that Longs was more exciting, more innovative, more creative — and, as a result, more than a drug store was designed to be. Much more.
Bob Long, in a sense, was a beneficiary of this retailing phenomenon. The reality was that his father and uncle, Joe and Tom, came to retailing with a vision of what a drug store should be and, indeed, must be, if it was to attract and retain customers diverted by a wealth of retail options.
In a larger sense, though, Bob Long was a victim — of his father’s brilliance, of a career choice that was never his to make, of an indifference to chain drug retailing that was in stark contrast to his father’s driving ambition, to his family’s indifference to his own preferences, his own interest, his own wishes.
All of which make Long’s contributions to chain drug retailing all the more remarkable.
During his years as its chief executive officer, Longs Drug Stores never lost its luster, never deserted the ranks of leading drug chains, never forfeited the legacy his father placed in his hands. If the drug chain sometimes failed to change, grow or adopt as quickly, as smoothly or as radically as did its competitors, it altered its formula and its priorities often enough to remain ahead of the competition, to stay atop the industry, to routinely bring chain drug executives to the West Coast to study Longs and try to determine why Longs‘ per-store sales consistently led the entire industry.
While heading Longs, Bob Long found the time to represent the industry of which Longs was an integral part. For years a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, he ascended to the chairmanship of the association in 1984, capably shepherding the organization by returning it to its chain drug store roots while stressing the indispensable role drug stores played in communities throughout the United States.
What made Bob Long’s accomplishments still more remarkable was the fact that he really wanted to be a photographer. Indeed, growing up, photography was his passion. But his father and uncle had other plans for the youngster. So they sent him to college to hone his skills as a retailer and a manager, not as a photographer. After college, he began his career at Longs — starting, as every Longs employee did, in the stores.
His innate intelligence, along with his family connections, moved him swiftly through the ranks at Longs, though he was not outwardly ambitious. Indeed, he spent much of his early Longs career in the Pacific, in Hawaii and Tahiti, and enjoying both — to the extent that many of his friends believe he would have preferred working in that geographical environment to returning to the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek to take command of Longs.
Bob Long’s personality set him apart from his peers, most of whom were more driven to succeed at retailing. By contrast, Long had other interests. He loved fishing, traveling to Alaska each year to indulge his favorite sport. He was equally intrigued by travel, especially to Europe. Indeed, his European travels yielded the serendipitous advantage of exposing him to retailing concepts and retail executives that most of his peers would never have come into contact with. He learned from each of these experiences, even if he didn’t always bring his learnings to Longs.
When CVS acquired Longs in 2008, Bob Long retired, devoting his remaining years to travel. As well, he spent much of his time with his wife Eliane, who had always taken precedence over his duties at Longs.
Long’s death will leave no lasting void in the chain drug store industry. He never had the commitment to chain drug retailing that characterized many of his peers. Nor did he easily make friends. Even those industry people to whom he was close found him difficult to know, as did the few personal friends he acquired during his retailing career.
Yet the ultimate measure of the man was the way he conducted himself, handled his duties, understood the difference between his public and private personas. In that context, he was incredibly efficient, invariably honest, eternally fair and unfailingly committed to doing the right thing — in business and in life.
Thus, to the question, invariably asked, as to whether Longs was better for Bob Long’s involvement, there is only one answer.
Longs Drug Stores was a better company when Bob Long retired than it was at the start of his career. Dealing with a more competitive, more sensitive, more complex, more nuanced retail environment, Longs Drug Stores remained, during Bob Long’s tenure, one of the very best drug chains America produced during the industry’s halcyon years.