Under his guidance, the company has grown into a top regional chain.
SEATTLE — Over the past four decades, George D. Bartell has met many challenges in the chain drug industry as he has helped transform his family-owned business into one of the top regional chains in the country.
Bartell Drugs’ deep roots in the Pacific Northwest date back to 1890, when George H. Bartell Sr., an ambitious 21-year-old pharmacist from Kansas, decided to buy the Lake Washington Pharmacy in Seattle’s Central District. He devoted his efforts to offering innovative products, trusted and personalized pharmacy experiences, and customer service second to none.
In 1939, George Sr. handed the reins to his son, George H. Bartell Jr., who led the company for 50 years and remained active in the business until shortly before his death in 1956.
As the third generation of the Bartell family, George D. Bartell knows the importance of tradition. With over 40 years of experience in the chain drug industry, Bartell has built on the legacy created over 130 years ago, continuing the innovation and industry leadership established by his father and grandfather.
In recognition of his major contributions to Bartell’s and the industry, the editors of Chain Drug Review have awarded George D. Bartell the publication’s 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award.
“My grandfather instilled in all of us the value of customer service. Serving the customer is still the main focus for me, my family and Bartell Drugs,” Bartell says.
He learned the family business from the ground floor up. His first regular job was at the chain’s Fourth and Pine location in the heart of downtown Seattle, where he held jobs ranging from shelf stocker to cashier.
“I started working in the stores when I was about 12, taking inventory the old fashioned way with a pad and pencil. After that I was working the cash register. I was one of the worst cashiers, but I got better at it,” he recalls.
While he was in college, the company’s head of operations decided to get him started on his career path by making him a relief store manager. “When I graduated from college, I became a store manager full time. I had that role for about five years. Then I went to business school. When I got out of Harvard Business School the dean of retailing, Walter Salmon, told me not to get involved in the drug store business because combo grocery stores were eventually going to kill that business. He also said, ‘Whatever you do, get a job where your performance is measurable.’ Of course I didn’t do either.” When he graduated from business school, he says his dad basically let him create his own position. “At that point in time, we were putting in a whole new inventory system, and I drove that project. By 1983, I had worked my way up from store manager to assistant vice president, where I dealt primarily with real estate, merchandising and pricing.”
Bartell’s has long been lauded for its innovations in both pharmacy and retail. “We were an early adopter of gelatin capsules as a medicine delivery vehicle, the first in the area to have in-store photoprocessing and one-hour photoprocessing, and we are now utilizing technological advances such as the MyIR system, which puts the ability of patients to track their own immunization records,” he explains.
When marijuana was legalized in the state Bartell’s was one of the first chains in the country to offer CBD products. The chain also offers hundreds of unique and hard-to-find gift ideas with its Christmas Gift Guide. Bartell’s was also one of the first chains to have clinics in some of its locations.
Bartell explains that the company’s 100th anniversary in 1990 was a very significant time for him. “I remember my mother told me that it was important that he could say that he and his father had run the company between them for 100 years, so I postponed taking the president title until that anniversary.”
In 1990 he became chairman and chief executive officer of the company while his sister Jean (Bartell) Barber became vice chairman and treasurer.
A few years later Bartell was named chairman of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Regional Chain Conference. “NACDS was really fun to be involved with. I really enjoyed helping put the conferences together. I remember one year we had one in San Antonio, Texas, where it actually snowed. People were out in front of their stores and restaurants trying to sweep the snow away with brooms because they didn’t have snow shovels. When it was time for me to be chairman of the regional show, I said, ‘We’re going to go back to San Antonio because it won’t snow twice,’ ” he recalls with a smile.
Under Bartell’s guidance, the company grew into a regional chain, operating in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties in Washington state.
Although he isn’t as involved on a day-to-day basis, it’s not unusual to see him in one of the company’s 67 stores talking to customers or employees. “I gave up my president and CEO role during the 125th anniversary in 2015. Today the role of president and CEO is being handled by Kathi Lentzsch. She’s in charge of the day-to-day operations, but I still like to visit the stores. I still do like to be involved. Hey, that’s my socialization. I still need that,” he points out.
He says the chain is still looking for ways to expand its scope of products and services. “It’s all about being a community store. We’re always looking at adding new products and services for the customer. We feature many different kinds of local products sold in our stores. It’s really fun to collaborate with local people and hopefully generate some success for their businesses. I’ve always been proud of that. We also have to be diligent about how we use our resources. This allows us the flexibility to be creative in how we work. It’s part of why we can be so responsive to our customers and be innovative in our products and services.”
When asked about the secret of the chain’s longevity and success, he says, “I think it is that community feel we show and the local products we sell. I would think that’s probably one of the reasons for how it’s worked so well for us. Customers say they love Bartell’s, and they tell us they really love to shop in our stores. That’s quite a statement. How many people really love the retailer they shop at?”
He adds that another reason is Bartell’s has permission to be “quirky.” “Particularly this time of year, when we get into the Christmas holiday selling season, we have some kind of quirky things that we carry, some that you probably don’t see in the normal drug store. We’ve also been lucky over the years to attract so many great people that have great customer service skills.”
Bartell notes that the chain’s recent acquisition by Rite Aid Corp. should afford more opportunities to expand in the future. “I’ve read a little bit about their pharmacy-centered initiatives, which is key. The acquisition may allow a loyalty program to be put in place.”
Bartell’s is considered one of the most successful regional chains. In 2006 the company was recognized as the Best in the Northwest in the large business category at the Washington Family Business Awards, sponsored by the Family Enterprise Institute at Pacific Lutheran University.
Outside of the family business, Bartell has been active in a variety of civic and professional organizations. He still serves on the board of NACDS, is a member of the Pacific Northwest chapter of Worlds’ President Organization, and supports the Salvation Army.
When he was growing up Bartell could have only dreamed that his little pharmacy would one day become the oldest family-owned drug store chain in the country, and that his family name would represent one of the Puget Sound region’s greatest success stories.
Four generations later, Bartell’s grandfather’s simple philosophy continues to guide the company. Though Bartell’s now has 67 stores in the Puget Sound region, each location features its own distinct neighborhood vibe and products. “We may be a chain, but we’re local, and we always remember that our customers are also our neighbors,” he concludes.
Every store has its own distinct neighborhood vibe and items.