NACDS Annual Meeting is all about people

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Gone are the days when significant events either triggered or highlighted a chain drug industry gathering. The occasional acquisition, the random executive promotion, an excursion into a new market, a new format experiment — these are largely relics of another age.

Rather, today’s industry gatherings turn on people, not on events. Drawing the right crowd insures a meeting’s success. So it was with the recent Annual Meeting of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, held in Scottsdale, Ariz., late last month.

This convention has long been, and continues to be, the bellwether of retailing meetings, not because of the agenda or the business program or the social activities but because of the strength of the retailers and suppliers who attend. So it was with the 2014 NACDS Annual Meeting.

On the surface, little of note occurred. The meeting, as it has in recent years, revolved around the activities of both CVS and Walgreens, the stunning reemergence of Rite Aid as a major drug chain, the presence of Walmart and Target amidst their current struggles, and the attendance of most of America’s significant regional and national mass retailers.

On a more personal level, the meeting was noteworthy for the initial presence of Helena Foulkes as the newly named president of the CVS drug chain and for the formal introduction of Alex Gourlay, former CEO of Alliance Boots’ health and beauty division, as one of Walgreens’ senior executives. It was important as well because it ushered in the tenure of Rite Aid CEO John Standley as NACDS chairman and said farewell to Thrifty White president Bob Narveson in that role.

The character of the meeting was molded in part by unexpected events, most notably the presence of RadioShack’s CEO, and former Walgreens executive, Joe Magnacca, who showed up to renew old friendships and possibly make some new ones. Additionally, many retirees were on hand, lured by the opportunity to visit with old friends and encouraged to do so by the fact that Phoenix is the retirement home for many.

So the meeting rolled out against this backdrop. The business program unfolded smoothly if undramatically. Socially, the most moving event was the reception accorded Tony Civello, on hand to receive the association’s Lifetime Achievement award.

Civello, as all serious chain drug industry students know, ran the Kerr Drug chain of North Carolina until Walgreens purchased it late last year. Though generally opposed to such personal recognition, Civello and his wife, Susan, traveled to Phoenix after just returning from a honeymoon trip to Italy. Helping to welcome Civello were two of his closest industry friends, CVS’ Larry Merlo and Lewis Drugs’ Mark Griffin, each participating in the awards presentation.

Otherwise, the most compelling social events were those hosted by individual supplier companies, events memorable not so much for their entertainment as for the roster of attendees. The highlights of the business program focused heavily on the industry presentations delivered by NACDS president and CEO Steve Anderson, Thrifty White’s Narveson and Rite Aid’s Standley. Against that background, the business speakers were largely secondary figures.

In terms of news, the Annual Meeting had little to offer. Apparent were the growing closeness of Walgreens and Alliance Boots in the aftermath of their stunning 2012 merger, and the increasingly important role Caremark is assuming at CVS Caremark. As stated above, Rite Aid’s remarkable recovery made news, as did Walmart’s ambitious presence — and, by contrast, Target’s largely low-key presence (this, remember, was before Target CEO Greg Steinhafel stepped down on May 5).

No. This meeting was, in the end, all about people. Fittingly so, because NACDS’ legendary ability to offer legendary meetings and conferences has always turned on the association’s strength attracting executives who routinely ignore the programs offered by other associations.

There’s no reason to believe that this won’t continue going forward. It remains one reason, among many, that the National Association of Chain Drug Stores continues to be the one retail trade organization against which all others are measured.


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