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Seismic change has come to a stable industry

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It’s been a very long time since the remarkably stable top ranks of the chain drug community have witnessed so sudden and dramatic a series of seismic shifts — simultaneously. It’s as if the very earth that has long supported and grounded chain drug retailing has suddenly, and without warning, determined that stability has its limits, that change is, after all, inevitably for the good, that nothing of value should last forever.

So if we look back one day and determine that these were indeed the halcyon days of chain drug retailing in America — as we almost certainly must — it will have been in no small part due to the leadership and perspicacity of the people who led it through the second decade of the 21st century. The hope here is that those chosen to head the industry in the decade to come will prove to be as indispensable.

With that essay as background, let’s briefly look backward — and forward — to the once and future leadership the chain drug community has so generously provided.

First, we’ll examine the tenure of Larry Merlo, the remarkable executive who has headed CVS for the last so-many years. When he was named CEO in 2011, his appointment was greeted with applause from those who knew him — and some skepticism from those who did not. He was, after all, succeeding Tom Ryan, the redoubtable and brilliant retail mind who preceded him.

In the years since, Merlo took CVS into uncharted waters, redefining what a drug chain is and should be; replacing item retailing with a more permanent and valuable mission; transforming a corner drug store into an indispensable health care center. His decisions, and the changes they wrought, were not always universally applauded. But time after time he has been proven right — and CVS today is arguably the most valuable health care outpost in the medical community.

Karen Lynch

Karen Lynch

Merlo’s replacement is Karen Lynch, who has an impressive resume, but one most notable for the absence of chain drug store experience. As usual, the naysayers have expressed themselves as skeptical, wondering whether this is an insurmountable omission. Those who know better, however, are already examining her background and accomplishments. In so doing, they are finding an executive who has acquitted herself brilliantly in every phase of her career, including the handling of her current assignment, president of Aetna, the insurance company that Merlo recently added to the CVS portfolio.

Next, let’s look at Walgreens. Earlier this year, Richard Ashworth, the self-effacing but supremely effective senior manager, left that company to pursue another, equally challenging option. Those who know Ashworth best have no doubt that he will succeed in his new assignment, as he has consistently succeeded in his previous professional life.

John Standley

John Standley

To replace him, Walgreens turned to John Standley, the former Rite Aid president who had been largely absent from the chain drug scene since leaving his Rite Aid assignment. Once again, the critics — there are always critics — wondered (sometimes loudly) why. But here again, those who really know immediately understood what Standley is bringing to Walgreens, a retailing experience that does justice to a lifetime of study, work and accomplishment. Simply put, Walgreens is a better drug chain for Standley’s presence on Wilmot Road in Deerfield, Ill.

Heyward DoniganFinally, let’s call out Heyward Donigan, the somewhat new chief executive at Rite Aid. Once again, here is a woman (happily, many of the new additions to the industry’s top ranks are women) few knew before her appointment. But they have come to know and respect her very quickly, for an obvious reason: Donigan has returned Rite Aid to its glory days of yesteryear. And so it can once again be accurately said that there are three major U.S. drug chains: CVS, Walgreens — and Rite Aid.


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