NACDS regional chain meeting still vital, vibrant

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The most stunning aspect of the recently held NACDS Regional Chain Conference, convened on the west coast of Florida on February 1, was the absence of many of the industry veterans around whom the conference revolved in years past.

cdr-filler-opinion-750Tony Civello, until recently the head of Kerr Drug, was absent, having sold his drug chain to Walgreens last year. Larry Merlo, chief executive of CVS, was missing. Not that he officially belonged at the conference but rather that he had come often in the past, primarily, in recent years, to fulfill his duties as NACDS chairman.

On the supplier side, Lou Martire, a senior executive at Energizer, missed the meeting, his absence noteworthy because he has seldom been absent in the past, from this or indeed any NACDS event. Truth is, industry people will have to adjust to Martire’s absences, as he has announced his retirement, effective in April. Another supplier executive notable for his failure to attend was Bayer’s David Heist, a cancellation precipitated by a medical emergency.

Other no-shows combined to dampen the allure that traditionally surrounds this event, one notable in large part because of the industry figures it routinely attracts. Indeed, the only representative from the major drug chains to attend was John Standley, CEO of Rite Aid, who came in his role as NACDS chairman, there to address the state of the industry. Standley’s presence, though welcome, nonetheless did not fully compensate for those who missed the meeting.

As for the conference itself, it played to the small chains around which this meeting always turns. Much of the program emphasized pharmacy, an increasingly critical component of the regional chains’ sales mix. Government affairs played a role as well, particularly as it relates to the new health care legislation that is transforming the business of retail pharmacy in America. Surprisingly, or not, the Affordable Care Act is still being debated in some circles. More surprisingly, that debate still turns on the wisdom of keeping the law, though it has quietly but firmly become a centerpiece for retail pharmacy in America.

Meanwhile, what keeps the Regional Chain Conference particularly vital and vibrant continues to be the interaction — among retailers, between retailers and suppliers, between the attendees and the association. As the only meeting of its kind in the chain drug industry, the conference is of critical importance to those industry people who attend.

The other NACDS events during the year understandably focus on the larger retailers that grow, in stature and importance, each year and, consequently, grab the attention of most meeting-goers. But the Regional Chain Conference is different — because the regional drug chains are, in this instance, the major drug chains, and the people who lead and manage these companies are the meeting’s focus points.

Still, one can’t help but miss the people who no longer attend, for whatever reason. Perhaps more unsettling than those who are no longer present is the thought that this is but a preview of those who will drop out in the period ahead. For chain drug retailing, in 2015, is a mature industry, headed and staffed by people who have been a part of it for many years. The faces who are familiar are familiar because they’ve been around for some considerable period of time. They are, in a real sense, the people who have built this industry.

This longevity spreads to the industry’s association. Steve Anderson, NACDS’ president, has been on the job for eight years, though it seems that he began his NACDS career just yesterday. Jim Whitman, the organization’s No. 2 executive, has been with the association for nearly 40 years. Many of the other NACDS senior executives have been with the association for a decade — and longer.

So the issue is one of keeping such meetings as the Regional Chain Conference exciting as the chain drug industry transitions from one period to another. Tony Civello and Lou Martire are gone and won’t be easily replaced. But that doesn’t mean that new faces can’t be invited to such events as the small chain conference, faces who will insure that these events remain relevant, remain timely, remain productive.

NACDS has prospered largely because of its focus on people. It has been unique among retail and pharmacy associations in that focus. Now is possibly the time to reinvest in the one element, more than any other, that has kept the association young.


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