DEERFIELD, Ill. — Steve Lubin had just finished a presentation in Anchorage to all the suppliers Walgreens was looking to do business with at its new stores in Alaska. “Any questions?” he asked. An executive from Alaska Chip Co. stood up and said, “You say you know a lot about us and want to be part of the community. So tell me, what’s our state flower?”
Lubin stared at him. He let the tension build for 10 seconds before saying, “Forget-me-not.”
The crowd howled with delight, the Alaska Chip executive smiled, and Lubin knew that he and his team had smoothed the way for a successful entry into the state’s biggest city.
Knowing Alaska’s state flower was typical for Lubin, who laid the groundwork for Walgreens to enter — or solidify its presence in — markets from St. Thomas to Hawaii, before retiring last month as divisional vice president and general manager of marketing for non-mainland operations.
He also worked on Walgreens’ integration of stores acquired from Duane Reade, USA Drug and Kerr Drug.
For his record of accomplishment in far-flung markets and successes in other facets of his four-decade-plus career at Walgreens, he has been honored with a Chain Drug Review Ronald L. Ziegler Lifetime Achievement Award.
He called his preparation for work in markets, “101,” as in “Puerto Rico 101.” It entailed scouting the area a year to 18 months before moving in, and assessing competitors, especially their pricing and mix. Then there was a visit to a local ad agency to learn about the community’s customs and culture.
“We’d spend an entire day with the people at the agency,” he recalls, “and say, ‘Spill. Tell us everything you think we should know about this part of the world.’ That paid back in spades. People knew we were serious about localizing and becoming part of community, because we took the time to learn about it.”
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
The state flower question was not an idle challenge, he notes, but a demonstration that locals wanted a new company to prove it was interested in the community. They wanted a new retailer to be versed in the local terminology — i.e., to know that what people elsewhere call snowmobiles Alaskans refer to as snow machines.
“People are serious about you backing up your promises to be involved with the community,” Lubin comments. “We firmly believe one source of our success in Hawaii, Alaska, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico is that we worked diligently with local vendors, chapters and community groups. We customized our approach and made a point of giving back.”
All of Lubin’s work in exotic markets was far in the distance when he joined Walgreens as a stockman at a store at on the North Side of Chicago while attending college. He had been working at a Rexall outlet on the South Side, but changed companies when his parents moved north. When he took the job at Howard and Western it was October 1970 and Walgreens had a little over 600 units. The manager of the store — one of the retailer’s top five outlets — was Vern Brunner, who would become a legendary merchandiser.
At Rexall, Lubin had occasionally filled prescriptions as a 16-year-old “pharmacy apprentice.” His major at the University of Illinois-Chicago was prepharmacy, but he found the front-end work at Walgreens so stimulating that he switched his area of study to business.
“Pharmacy seemed like a pretty good profession, but it just did not feel right for me,” he says. “My passion was for all the action at the front of the store.”
He found the front end so fulfilling that he increased his hours at the store, switching to night school. “I really started to get caught up in retail,” he says.
His eagerness was not lost on the man who succeeded Brunner as the store’s manager, Jerry Karlin. Karlin, who would become Walgreens vice president of operations, promoted Lubin to assistant store manager.
In the mid-’70s he was promoted to store manager, a job he held at outlets in the suburbs of Highland Park, Round Lake Beach and Elk Grove Village, as well as at Howard and Western. His years in stores helped shape his lifelong approach to the business, he said. “My store experience was invaluable. If you understand what it takes to run a store then you have a much better idea of what is required from people at every level to take care of the customers.”
Nineteen eighty brought a call from the corporate office asking him to be a buyer. The source was Brunner, by now senior vice president of purchasing.
Lubin initially bought small kitchen appliances, vaporizers and humidifiers, and personal care appliances such as electric razors. “For the first couple of weeks I thought I made the biggest mistake of my life,” he says. “All I knew was working in stores. I had 12, 13 years in stores. But as I got busy I forgot about that.”
Lubin bought a range of categories over the years, from toys to sporting goods, before being named senior buyer of cosmetics and fragrances. He and one assistant handled color cosmetics, fragrances, bath and body products, and implements. And he did it well enough to be promoted to divisional merchandise manager.
Nine years ago he was asked to move to San Juan as general manager of marketing for stores in Puerto Rico to give a lift to the chain’s 60 stores on the island. He ended up living in the commonwealth for three years. While leading merchandising and marketing, he had the ability to interface with operations personnel on an everyday basis.
Looking back on the entirety of his 43 years with Walgreens, he comments, “I feel I worked extremely hard and effectively. I can feel proud that I added considerable value to the company until my very last day and, in turn, the company took care of me. It was a great marriage for a very long time.”
At age 62, Lubin says he’s still determining his plans for the future: “I’m not done.”
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