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Awaiting answers about Walgreens’ direction

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Stefano Pessina

Stefano Pessina

Amid the coronavirus pandemic that never seems to end, several stories have captured the attention of those who follow the chain drug community. As of this writing, none is as compelling as the drama at Walgreens, where an ongoing shuffle at the very top levels of management has raised issues and questions for which there are as yet no ­answers.

The shuffle involves three executives, each of whom has played or will play a key role in the drug chain going forward. The three:

• Steffano Pessina — the executive whose vision and perspicacity combined to meld the current drug chain into the U.K.-based Alliance Boots retailer and drug wholesaler. Pessina’s creation of Walgreens Boots Alliance has captivated the U.S. chain drug community for the past six years.

Alex Gourlay

• Alex Gourlay — the executive Pessina chose, at the time of the emergence of WBA, to head its U.S. operations. Gourlay had previously acquitted himself admirably running the U.K.-based Boots drug chain.

• John Standley — the mass retailing veteran who most recently led the Rite Aid drug chain. Standley was brought to Walgreens over the summer, ostensibly to work with Gourlay to run the drug chain. That appointment came shortly after Pessina announced that he was stepping back from day-to-day operations at Walgreens and would, henceforth, only be spending some 120 days a year in Chicago.

The question that emerges from all this is, on the face of it, a simple one: Who will be running Walgreens going ­forward?

As with so many apparently simple questions, however, the answer is proving, at least initially, to be elusive.

John Standley

John Standley

Anyone familiar with Pessina knows that he has always been the key decision maker of any enterprise with which he is associated. His plan to spend over 100 days a year apparently confirms that supposition. If that’s the case, however, what’s Gourlay’s future at Walgreens? And what’s the role being carved out for John Standley?

As of now, there are no easy answers to these questions. Time, of course, will ultimately provide at least some of those answers. In the interim, this much is certain: The three people who remain, for now, atop Walgreens’ management structure are three very talented individuals. If they were not, they wouldn’t be where they are today. More to the point, they would not have ­accomplished all that has been, correctly, attributed to them over their long and productive ­careers.

For now, however, their future, and the future of the drug chain they jointly lead, is something of a mystery. It is, however, the kind of mystery that has made chain drug retailing so entrancing a subject for so many for so long.

Stay tuned.


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