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Analysis: Naming of co-COOs right step for WBA

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Move ushers in next phase of Walgreens-Alliance Boots integration

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The appointment of Alex Gourlay and Ornella Barra as co-chief operating officers of Walgreens Boots Alliance signals the start of a new stage in the process of forging the two companies that came together to form WBA at the close of 2014 into a new corporate culture.

The two executives, whose talent, experience and leadership ability make them ideally suited for their new joint role, will ensure that WBA’s far-flung retailing and pharmaceutical wholesaling operations function smoothly, even as the company looks to further expand its reach around the world.

Gourlay will oversee WBA’s two biggest retail components — Walgreens, where he has been president since December 2014, and Boots, the leading drug chain in the United Kingdom, which Gourlay ran for six years prior to moving to the U.S. in the autumn of 2013. He helped make Boots a dominant force in the British market. At the time he left to join Walgreens, it had a 25% market share in pharmacy and health and beauty care.

cdr-filler-opinion-750Trained as a pharmacist, Gourlay knows retailing from the inside out. He started his career at Boots when he was 16 years old, working as a pharmacy assistant on weekends. Over the course of the next 37 years, he steadily moved up the ladder, serving as, among other things, a store manager, regional manager, head of human resources for stores, and health care director.

Barra will continue to run WBA’s Global Wholesale and International Retail divisions, as well as take on responsibility for global brands, human resources and other business services. Like Gourlay, she was trained as a pharmacist and operated an independent drug store in her native Italy before teaming up with Stefano Pessina, the driving force behind the creation of WBA and now the company’s vice chairman and chief executive officer.

As he went about methodically building the company up from the foundation of a small, family-owned drug distribution business in Italy, she ran wholesale operations and emerged as one of the world’s most respected executives in the field.

She now sits on the board of directors of AmerisourceBergen Corp., with which WBA has signed a long-term distribution agreement for the U.S. market.

Along the way, Barra was the driving force behind the creation of Alphega, a network of 6,500 independent pharmacies, primarily in Europe, that receive support from WBA in such areas as merchandising, marketing and training, and she took on responsibility for the company’s retailing business outside the U.K. and U.S. Those operations extend around the globe, from Norway and the Netherlands in Europe to Thailand in Asia, and on to Mexico and Chile in Latin America.

Throughout her career, Barra has mastered the art of tailoring the WBA model to meet the needs of local consumers and the requirements of business partners.

The promotion of Barra and Gourlay provides needed clarity about how the ongoing operations of an organization that has holdings in 25 countries will be run. That is especially important as WBA is poised, pending Federal Trade Commission approval, to take on the task of adding several thousand Rite Aid outlets to Walgreens’ base of 8,173 stores across the U.S. Moreover, the two executives work very well together, having, for example, joined forces to rationalize the drug distribution model for Boots stores.

Equally important, the restructuring of WBA’s top management will free Pessina to do what he does best. It is significant that when commenting on the appointment of Gourlay and Barra, he said, “I will [now] be able to further focus on driving the growth strategy and development of Walgreens Boots Alliance.”

Pessina never wanted to be bogged down in day-to-day administration; his greatest talents are seeing where health care and related categories that support people’s well-being are headed and positioning WBA appropriately.

The new management structure closely resembles the alignment at Alliance Boots, the company that joined with Walgreens to create WBA. Together Pessina, Barra and Gourlay have an enviable track record. There is no reason to think it won’t be extended.


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