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News of Gourlay’s plans spurs swift reaction

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Reports from sources close to Walgreens Boots Alliance to the effect that the company’s talented and personable senior executive Alex Gourlay was, for now at least, preparing for retirement brought a sharper reaction from the chain drug community than so important a transition usually elicits.

alex gourlay

Alex Gourlay

The response was primarily the natural result of the affection and respect this industry has developed for Gourlay. Simply put, he has been a hugely popular executive, much in keeping with Walgreens’ unique ability to tap the right executive at the right time to steer a retail ship that has sometimes found itself with a ballast that threatened to overturn it. Typical as well of America’s most successful drug chain, Walgreens, in choosing Gourlay, took the unconventional route, tapping not a native American but rather an individual from across the pond who had learned about chain drug retailing primarily at Boots, a product of the United Kingdom that had enjoyed the same measure of success in the U.K. as had Walgreens in the U.S.

If Gourlay appeared to take naturally to his new environment, appearances may have been a bit deceiving. America is not, after all, England, and Chicago is hardly London or Edinburgh or any other European community. But Gourlay came to his new assignment with three huge advantages: a winning personality, an enquiring mind and a willingness to make decisions. Those qualities help him engage seamlessly with the Walgreens organization and the people within that organization. Similarly, it enabled the new recruit to win over the chain drug industry. In short order, industry people lined up to meet him, to connect with him, to gain his respect, approval and affection.

It needs to be pointed out that not all of Gourlay’s decisions won the approval of his compatriots or of the wider chain drug arena in which he operated. A few — but very few — were, like grandma’s chicken soup, a bit too salty or, more commonly, not salty enough. But at bottom he has been a leader, and his company and the industry has responded to the man, not to the individual programs he initiated, implemented or championed. And, in the main, those programs injected Walgreens with a sense of urgency and importance it had sometimes lost sight of in the past.

Gourlay’s plans are, at this early juncture a bit hazy. He will remain with the retailer in an advisory capacity, the current thinking seems to go, until the end of the year. At that point, he appears ready to retire. With Alex, you never really know. And his personality, his inquisitiveness, his intelligence, his competitive nature may combine to dictate otherwise.

So we won’t say goodbye to Alex just yet. The hope here, and the wishes of the many who have come to know and admire him, is that he will stick around for a while, to meet people, to say hello, to enquire after his friends, to sincerely ask how the other guy is doing. For that, at bottom, is who Alex Gourlay is and who, in all likelihood, he has always been: someone who cares more about the other guy than he does about himself. And, oh, yes, one more thing: Margaret, we’ll miss you even more.

Finally, one last word about the recent virtual NACDS Annual Meeting. Bravo. Anderson, Whitman and company have pulled off the impossible. They made us remember the Breakers fondly while understanding that, in the current nature of things, this event was as nearly perfect as it could have been. Keep up the good work.


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