When Len DeMino retired earlier this month after over 50 years of service to the profession of community pharmacy, he closed the door on the golden era of chain drug retailing, an era he helped define.
When DeMino began his career in 1958 as a pharmacist for Washington, D.C.-based Peoples Drug Stores, America’s drug chains were supplanting the independent drug store as the community drug store of choice for the American consumer. As he retires after working for and helping lead the National Association of Chain Drug Stores for the past 36 years, he leaves a chain drug store industry that is dominated by three drug chains and faces unprecedented pressures, challenges that DeMino never envisioned when, in 1956, he obtained a degree in pharmacy from George Washington University.
“The chain drug industry has changed in ways I’d never have imagined when I began my career,” says DeMino. “When I joined Peoples Drug Stores full-time after getting my degree in pharmacy, there were three important drug chains based in Washington, D.C.
“Today, only CVS, which is headquartered in Woonsocket, R.I., has a significant presence in Washington. But its size and reach dwarf anything we would have imagined when Peoples, Drug Fair and Dart competed with each other.”
It is fair to say that DeMino has dominated chain drug pharmacy to a degree unequaled by any individual in the 100-plus years of chain drug retailing in America.
He worked his way up at Peoples from in-store pharmacist to vice president of professional services. In 1989 he retired from Peoples and moved to NACDS, where he was instrumental in molding policy and securing member involvement in the organization’s pharmacy and government affairs enterprises. Now, at 79, having participated in the halcyon years of chain drug retailing, he leaves an industry in which change has been the only constant.
“I’ve lived through countless predictions of the demise of community pharmacy,” he notes. “When I began working as a pharmacist, most prescriptions were sold on a cash basis. Today, most prescriptions are paid for by a third party. We’ve had to learn how to do business in this environment, and how to deal with PBMs, with Medicare and with new forms of competition.
“At the end of this learning curve community pharmacy is as strong today as it has ever been.”
DeMino remembers a time when it was relatively easy to do business — and make money.
“When pharmacy was a cash business, retailers had total control over sales and profit. Today, government and third-party programs have combined to remove much of that control — and profit. On the other hand, when I worked at Peoples, if we filled 100 or 150 prescriptions a day we had put in a good day’s work. Today, community drug stores routinely fill as many as 700 prescriptions a day.”
DeMino has seen the population age and the dependence on prescription drugs increase dramatically. “Where patients once used one or two prescription drugs, they now use six or seven,” he says. “And the drugs are more effective in treating such diseases as diabetes and heart disease.”
DeMino speaks from experience, having recovered from several serious illnesses. If the practice of pharmacy has changed during DeMino’s career, so has the practitioner.
“Years ago,” he says, “the pharmacist was the doc on the corner, the first health care professional the patient turned to. We don’t get that kind of recognition today, and the appreciation of what we do is not always evident.
“I do believe, however, that the community pharmacist is regaining that respect, and that patients really do value what the pharmacist does.”
As does anyone who has spent a lifetime doing something he loves, DeMino has his heroes. The first one who comes to mind is Bud Fantle, the legendary chain drug retailer who, as Peoples’ chief executive officer, nurtured DeMino’s career. “Bud saw something in me and brought me along, finally installing me at Peoples’ headquarters as corporate vice president of pharmacy.”
“Bud was a unique individual,” DeMino recalls. “He once promoted me, telling me jokingly that he couldn’t pay me any more money. ‘But,’ he said, ‘you can call me Bud.’ Of course, everyone always called him Bud.”
When DeMino joined Peoples, it operated 275 drug stores. At the time of its sale to CVS, it had become an 850-store drug chain.
Another of DeMino’s heroes was Ron Ziegler, the NACDS president who brought him to the association as vice president of pharmacy when it became apparent that Peoples was about to be sold and DeMino considered retirement. “I believe Ron hired me because he appreciated my knowledge of the industry, the people and the issues.”
Looking back, what pleases DeMino most about what he has done with his life is how much he has enjoyed it. “I’ve always had the job I wanted,” he says. “And I never had a job I didn’t like.”
To say that Len DeMino will be missed doesn’t really get to the point. During a career that began when Dwight Eisenhower was president, he has touched and profoundly changed his profession, while influencing the lives of his peers — those he knew and those he never met — in ways too numerous to mention.
At the NACDS Pharmacy and Technology Conference held in Boston earlier this month, DeMino was honored for his years of service. Among those who were in attendance at the meeting and paid their respects was CVS president Larry Merlo, who worked for Peoples when DeMino did.
Early in Merlo’s tenure at Peoples, he asked DeMino for advice on managing his career. “Never forget where you came from,” was DeMino’s response, a caution that Merlo has remembered and lived by to this day.
So too has the dispenser of that advice — which is perhaps why no single pharmacy executive in the annals of chain drug retailing is more respected, admired and, yes, loved by his peers than Len DeMino.