The people who founded, built and served the chain drug industry in this country during its halcyon days are rapidly disappearing from the scene.
During the summer death claimed Charlie Bowlus, the founder and driving force behind ECRM. And last month the industry lost Len DeMino, one of its founding pharmacists, who died at age 81 after a legendary chain drug career that was instrumental in creating and defining the practice of community pharmacy in a chain drug setting.
Newcomers to the industry knew DeMino mostly from his days at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, where he chaired the Pharmacy Affairs Committee and represented the association on the Drug Enforcement Administration Pharmacy Working Committee while serving the association as vice president of pharmacy affairs and as a pharmacy consultant to the organization between 1989 and 2009.
Before joining NACDS, however, DeMino made his mark in chain drug retailing with Peoples Drug Stores, the Washington, D.C.-based drug chain that in its time epitomized what chain drug retailing in America was all about. Peoples, which was acquired by CVS in 1990, was legendary for many reasons, foremost among them because it is remembered as one of the industry’s first significant turnaround stories, one that brought the personality and abilities of Bud Fantle to the industry’s attention.
Fantle, an Ohio-born pharmacist who rose to head a small group of regional drug chains, attracted the industry’s attention when he came to Washington in the mid-1970s to try to revive a drug chain that time, circumstances and indifferent management had rendered largely obsolete in a market that claimed two other drug chains. Fantle became an industry icon by reviving the company and opening some distance between itself and its two closest competitors.
One of Fantle’s most significant personnel moves was installing DeMino as Peoples’ vice president of professional relations, a position he was to occupy until 1989. DeMino had begun his career with Peoples in 1956, rising from pharmacist to store manager, then moving to Peoples’ headquarters, where he became an industry figure of some considerable significance.
Times, and the industry, have changed since DeMino led Peoples’ pharmacy business. Though pharmacy has become a more important component of the chain drug merchandise mix — once upon a time pharmacy accounted for just one sales dollar in five at the typical chain drug store; today, that figure stands at 67% — the people who oversee pharmacy have not. This is not due to any failure of performance on the part of the individuals who are now responsible for prescription drug sales in a chain drug store setting. Rather, it is attributable, at least in part, to the fact that there are so many fewer drug chains than there were in DeMino’s day.
In larger part, however, the decline in importance of the professional relations director — that, in itself, a title from another era — is due to the fact that, once upon a time, this title connoted a special group of people, a group who operated and succeeded outside the conventional confines of chain drug management. It was a group who knew and respected each other, who genuinely cared for each other, who freely exchanged and shared ideas and opinions, even when the people they worked for had no such relationships with their competitors.
More significant, the pharmacy directors enjoyed this freedom because they had earned a degree of respect within their companies that emanated from their stature as pharmacists. As well, they were respected because they shared a different view of competition than the other senior executives within their companies. They were colleagues first, competitors second. They viewed their profession as more important, and more sacred, than the company that paid their salary. When they met at the annual NACDS pharmacy conference, they met as equals, regardless of the size of their companies. They met to talk things over, to evaluate events, not to hide things from each other.
Len DeMino was a charter member of that group. He was at once liked, admired and respected by his peers. His ideas were always listened to, if not always adopted. His opinions were always among the first his colleagues sought, especially when they concerned a new rule, law or event that threatened to change the profession. How the individual drug chains responded to this change was simply not the primary concern of DeMino or his colleagues. Rather, it was the profession’s response that was of primary concern.
DeMino always understood who he was and what his profession, industry and company each expected of him. But he was never overwhelmed by those expectations. His ego never got in the way of his job — and his company responsibilities were never allowed to interfere with the professional relationships he formed along the way.
DeMino’s passing is the industry’s loss, every bit as much as it is a loss for his wife, Delores; his daughter, Cristina; and his son, Joseph, who currently works for CVS. It is also, not incidentally, a loss for CVS CEO Larry Merlo, who was in many respects a DeMino protege during Merlo’s years at Peoples Drug Stores.
More disheartening, the loss of DeMino is not a loss in the traditional sense. About many people who have departed it is accurately said that they have been succeeded but can never be replaced. About DeMino it can as accurately be said that there is simply no one to replace him, no one who possesses the love, commitment, dedication and devotion to the profession of pharmacy — and is allowed the freedom to express those qualities — that DeMino and those professional relations people who worked with and competed against him brought to their professional calling.
And who, along the way, created the chain drug store business in America.