SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Reflecting on the 75th anniversary of the business his father started in 1942, Mark Griffin, president and chief executive officer of Lewis Drug, says he is most proud of how his daughter Nikki Griffin, the company’s corporate vice president, has stepped up to keep the Griffin legacy thriving.
“She’s extremely intelligent and has done a great job,” Griffin says of his daughter, who joined the family business in 2012.
Being heir to that legacy has both its special rewards and challenges, Nikki Griffin says. “There is pressure because there is that legacy and tradition, and it’s big deal,” she says. “It’s a big honor and a big responsibility.
Nikki Griffin represents not only the succession of the family name at Lewis but, in many ways, the face of the company as well. “I’m kind of the demographic that we seek to reach — a young to middle-age female. So I can identify with that,” says Griffin, who defines much of her role at Lewis as a community liaison.
At Lewis, family is really what’s it’s all about — and for Mark Griffin, family extends beyond blood to employees and especially to those in the communities Lewis serves. “People are everything in this business,” Griffin says. “And I’ve been fortunate to be able to hire great people.
“We have a great team, and I’m just one of the cogs in the wheel.”
Though he is the son of the company’s founder and now its chief executive, Griffin started his career at Lewis in the trenches — working in the warehouse, loading and driving trucks — and those experiences, he says, have made him a better leader and CEO. “When I go out and visit with the distribution center people, I can relate better with them — see what their issues are and try to solve them better, bring issues to their attention to solve things — because I’ve been there.”
Griffin studied business at Arizona State University, and after graduating he worked at various jobs until his father asked him to return to Lewis, which he eventually did in 1978. “And I’ve been here since,” Griffin says, adding that before his father died he had the opportunity to work for him for seven years. “I was able to learn a lot from that.”
Though 75 years is certainly a milestone for looking back and celebrating, Griffin is looking less in the rearview mirror than at the open road ahead. “We’re in the middle of a growth curve that’s unprecedented right now with building new stores,” Griffin says. “When you’re financing internally it’s a challenge, but that’s what we do. We don’t have a lot of debt, and we have a great business foundation. It has allowed us to grow at a comfortable speed.”
Strong relationships, Griffin says, have been key to Lewis’ expansion — and one example is the company’s partnership with Sanford Health, one of the largest medical providers in the upper Midwest.
Working in concert, Lewis and Sanford develop real estate and share common sites for pharmacies and clinics. “We have examples where we have seven acres and we ask them to join us, or they ask to join us on properties. And we have several that are our tenants,” Griffin says. “It’s a great relationship because we serve each other. So that’s another win-win deal. And that’s with all of our relationships.”
No relationship, however, is more important to Griffin than what Lewis shares with its customers throughout the communities the company serves in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. “People truly care around here,” he says. “They really care about their fellow citizens, and they care about what the community looks like.”
For instance, notes Griffin, Sioux Falls ranks as one of the top communities in the country for giving to the United Way. “The people here take care of their community. They give back, which is pretty unique.”
But while the characteristics of Lewis communities haven’t changed in 72 years, the demographics have. When it was founded, the vast majority of Lewis customers in Sioux Falls were of Norwegian and other Scandinavian heritage. Today, Sioux Falls is starting to mirror the American Melting Pot. “The community has definitely become more diverse,” Nikki Griffin says, “more in step with the rest of the nation.”
Lewis’ sense of community responsibility has been one of the largest factors in the company’s success, in Griffin’s view, and it is a substantial plank in its foundation going forward. “You need to be part of a community — we believe strongly in that, and you need to give back,” says Griffin. “We have a large budget for donations, and we ask people to be involved in the community. I think people respect that in the communities we serve or operate in. And it does two things — it helps us develop and it helps community development. So it’s another win-win deal.”
For Griffin, the community component is the area in which Lewis needs to focus because, as she says, “we are local and we are family.” Griffin believes that this focus allows Lewis to influence shoppers that might otherwise be attracted to some of the big-box stores that she says do not offer the same set of values as Lewis does. “We are a community values-oriented society, thankfully,” she says. “So that does push some people to want to support this local business, because they see that money coming back. So I like to be involved in different efforts to sustain that, because that’s one of our greatest assets.”
Community involvement is also a “win-win” because it provides an edge to Lewis against the competition, which, coming from many of the national big-box stores, is pretty stiff. What Lewis offers, in Mark Griffin’s view, is efficiency in shopping and personal service. As he puts it, “Some people say if you don’t have it at Lewis, you don’t want it.”
And as the competition over the years has gotten more fierce, Lewis has continued to stay in its own lane toward success. “My dad used to tell me that people thought that we wouldn’t survive when Kmart came to town. And we had three or four Kmarts, and people said we wouldn’t survive Target coming to town. Now we’ve got three supercenters,” Griffin says. “One just opened last year, and there’s Walgreens across the way.”
But throughout these incursions from competitors into the community, Lewis has survived, and it’s a point of pride for Griffin. “What we offer is a broader selection at a good price,” he says. “And we’re a value price. We make an effort to make sure we are, and we survey frequently to find out if we’re stacking up.”
Despite Lewis’ close ties to the community, Griffin believes it’s not enough that customers want to shop at a local and family-owned store. Lewis, he says, must continually work to earn that trust and respect the needs and intelligence of its shoppers. “Shoppers are smart — they want value,” Griffin says. “And we bring that value, but we also bring the convenience and the locations. And we have the benefit of knowing what the best locations are now and what they’re going to be in the future, and we take advantage of that.”
This closeness to the community, Griffin explains, isn’t just about sentiment; it provides a practical blueprint for the company’s continued success as a go-to destination as well as for future growth. “We know 10 years from now where the rooftops are going to be,” Griffin says. “And we know where the traffic pattern is going to be. And we’ve got great spots. We’ve got property around town we haven’t developed yet. And when I’m looking downtown, I call it back to the future, because we started downtown.”
Crucial to Lewis’ success throughout its 75 years has been its ability to adapt to the current trends and demands of the marketplace, as evidenced by the company’s 55 stores, which are estimated to generate a quarter-billion dollars in sales. Lewis’ innovation can also be seen in the variety of design concepts that define its various establishments.
Lewis operates two store formats — traditional drug stores, mostly in rural areas, and larger, multidepartment stores, where pharmacy and other core drug store offerings are complemented by an extensive selection of food and beverages, furniture, kitchenware, grills and outdoor living, toys, and pet care.
Although the larger formats — 35,000 to 50,000 square feet — are the company’s bread-and-butter stores, Griffin says the departures from the standard drug store model that played such a big part in the company’s rise must be reevaluated and strengthened for a 21st century appeal. “About 15 years ago we bought a chain in Iowa called Family Drug, 11 stores,” he recalls. “And I said let’s just put Lewis in front of it and then call it Lewis Family Drug, because those neighborhoods would recognize Family Drug and they might recognize Lewis, too.”
That idea underscores this type of forward thinking while maintaining the values that founded and shaped Lewis. The two formats, Griffin adds, complement each other — “and that’s basically our business plan.”
Taking in the business at 75 years and looking both backward and forward, Griffin says perhaps the biggest challenge Lewis faces comes from Washington — dealing with pharmacy networks and pricing challenges overall.
Lewis, Griffin says, is “just big enough” to deal with the marketplace, or, as he refers to it, the new marketplace. “When Amazon comes in and controls 65% of the internet business and then they’re talking about getting into the pharmacy, it gets your attention,” he says.