The NACDS Annual Meeting, held in Palm Beach, Fla., three weeks ago, was everything both its supporters and detractors had predicted for it. And then some.

NACDS, National Association of Chain Drug Stores, NACDS Annual Meeting, CVS Caremark, Walgreens, Bryan Pugh, Greg Wasson, Kim Feil, Rite Aid, Paul Julian, McKesson, Michael Kaufmann, Cardinal Health, John Standley, Kerr Drug, Lewis Drug, Tony Civello, Mark Griffin, John Agwunobi, David Pinto

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Inside This Issue - Opinion

NACDS Annual Meeting has more ups than downs

May 25th, 2009
by David Pinto

The NACDS Annual Meeting, held in Palm Beach, Fla., three weeks ago, was everything both its supporters and detractors had predicted for it. And then some.

Where to begin? It was, first of all, what it has always been: quite a show. Almost every mass market retailer was represented, many in force. So too was the supplier community. In the main, those retailers and suppliers who failed to put in an appearance in Palm Beach were, with one notable exception, quietly acknowledging that they were not serious players in the mass retailing community and so should not be taken all that seriously by that community. That’s a lesson a handful of smaller suppliers have had difficulty mastering, as have some smaller retailers.

Socially, the agenda was in many ways the equal of meetings past, though the events were toned down in some instances — some small concession to the current economic environment, with the organizers taking the position that, in this economy, enjoyment should not be unmitigated. Still, the events held by Revlon, Colgate and Time Warner Retail, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, American Greetings, and several other suppliers were compelling — or compelling enough, at any rate.

The business program unfolded smoothly, effectively serving as a backdrop to the business meetings that remain at the heart of the conference. The economy, health care, the new president — each was debated, discussed, embraced and dismissed in its turn.

As for the retailer/supplier sessions that this meeting is all about, they also unfolded smoothly. CVS Caremark scheduled its own meetings rather than complying with supplier requests for one-on-ones, to generally very favorable reviews. But Walgreens generated all the buzz, with suppliers particularly interested in meeting Bryan Pugh, the retailer’s new chief merchant; getting to know Greg Wasson, the company’s new CEO; and taking the measure of Kim Feil, Walgreens’ new chief marketing officer.

(Of course, the real buzz surrounding both NACDS and Walgreens came two weeks after the meeting, first when NACDS announced a staff reduction, and then when Walgreens followed by announcing the departure of three highly regarded divisional merchandise managers.)

Elsewhere, Rite Aid’s senior managers collectively sported a new spring to their step in light of the retailer’s improved performance of late. The association’s new board members — a list that included two wholesalers, Paul Julian of McKesson and Michael Kaufmann of Cardinal Health — and Rite Aid’s impressive new president, John Standley, were roundly applauded.

And most impressive, several representatives of smaller drug chains, most notably Kerr’s Tony Civello and Lewis Drugs’ Mark Griffin, seemed to be everywhere, always on hand to meet with suppliers, inevitably present at industry functions, ever ready to say the right thing at the right time to the right people. If this industry determines that it needs a pair of goodwill ambassadors — and maybe it does — it could do no better than to appoint Civello and Griffin to those roles.

Why, then, did the meeting’s detractors feel vindicated in their assessment of the event? For several reasons, some old, one new. Those attendees, particularly on the supplier side, who have yet to learn how to approach and work the meeting, understandably felt left out. And the retailers, particularly the major ones, did little to include them. And why should they have? Simply put, that’s not their function.

On a more serious note, Wal-Mart was conspicuous by its absence. Truth to tell, there were reasons, some of them legitimate. Paul Beahm, Wal-Mart’s chief pharmacy officer and one of the best liked and most respected members of the mass retail community, was scheduled to attend but had to cancel at the last moment when his wife, Michele, underwent a serious operation. She passed away on May 8. Then, too, Ron Chomiuk, another of Wal-Mart’s legion of popular and respected staffers, had to cancel at the last moment when his mother passed away.

As a result, no Wal-Mart staffer showed up for the meeting in Palm Beach, though John Agwunobi, the executive who oversees health care for the world’s largest retailer, did put in a brief appearance. It must be said here that, for good or ill, a major mass retailing meeting without Wal-Mart is simply not as productive, as exciting, as important or as gratifying as one in which the retailer participates. That’s just the fact of things, and it needs to be recognized and appreciated by both Wal-Mart and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

In the end, however, it must be emphasized that, with or without Wal-Mart, the 2009 NACDS Annual Meeting remained what it has been for several generations: the single most important, productive and exciting event on the mass retailing calendar.