The determination is made more difficult by the fact that, as of this writing, Walgreens’ acquisition of Rite Aid remains unresolved. Should this deal disintegrate, a possibility this late in the game, Rite Aid chairman and chief executive officer John Standley will emerge, or reemerge, as one of chain drug retailing’s strongest leaders for the job he has done in leading the transformation of Rite Aid from the brink of extinction to the ranks of leading chain drug retailers.
No such note of caution need be attached to Stefano Pessina, the executive who today runs Walgreens Boots Alliance and has done so, very effectively, since Alliance Boots, the retailer and pharmaceutical wholesaler he previously ran, was acquired by Walgreens at the end of 2014.
Also making this list is Ornella Barra, who has long been the very capable No. 2 to Pessina, a designation she earned well before the Walgreens-Alliance Boots tie-up. Today, she is arguably the most capable drug wholesaling executive anywhere in the world, a designation that will serve Walgreens Boots Alliance admirably in the years ahead.
The other key executive at Walgreens Boots Alliance is Alex Gourlay, who serves as co-chief operating officer with Barra. Gourlay is responsible for running two of the world’s great drug chains — Walgreens and Boots.
By virtue of its performance, CVS merits at least two spaces on the list of most influential leaders — Larry Merlo, president and CEO of the CVS Health conglomerate, and Helena Foulkes, president of the CVS Pharmacy drug chain. Each has brought to his or her latest assignment a degree of expertise and experience that has pushed CVS to the very top of the chain drug tree.
From here, the judging gets more problematic. Certainly, there are other senior staffers at Walgreens Boots Alliance who deserve consideration for their leadership skills. Just as clearly, Rite Aid boasts more than the efforts of John Standley for its reemergence as a drug chain of both performance and promise.
Then again, many smaller drug chains can also claim leadership that has brought them significant prominence, though the fact that several of the top companies are privately held has in turn obscured their progress.
Finally, or maybe not, are those retailers that do not conform to an easy definition of what a drug chain used to be, though clearly by today’s definition they qualify. Walmart, given its performance in pharmacy and health and beauty sales, must have some title to chain drug leadership, though it’s not easy to identify a specific individual or group of individuals. Doug McMillon, Walmart’s CEO, must get credit for a chain drug leadership role, though others at America’s largest retailer, including the company’s president of health and wellness, George Riedl, also deserve notice.
Target is a more difficult retailer to identify by its chain drug performance, having sold its pharmacy business to CVS last year. Still, the retailer does a strong business in the basic health and beauty categories, so CEO Brian Cornell and senior vice president of beauty and derm store John Butcher deserve credit for that performance.
Then there are Costco and that group of retailers classified as value retailers. In both cases, credit should be given to those leaders who specialize in the health and beauty categories. At Costco, for instance, senior vice president of pharmacy Vic Curtis stands out.
Finally, the nation’s grocery retailers must be mentioned. Surely, their role in health and beauty sales qualifies them, as it does the people who run these businesses. A good place to start is with Albertsons, the newly minted joining of two supermarket retailers, Albertsons and Safeway, both of which have a history of strength in health and beauty retailing. Grocery and drug store veteran Bob Miller runs the company as chairman and CEO, and he is supported by Mark Panzer, senior vice president of pharmacy, health and wellness.
The list will certainly change as the year progresses. But this is a start and, judging from the initial position of many of these companies, it is a strong one.