"I’m a head and a heart guy, but I’m primarily a heart guy."
DEERFIELD, Ill. — When Alex Gourlay came to the United States in October 2013 to join Walgreens in the wake of its merger with Alliance Boots Group, he brought with him a keen sense of purpose. After beginning his career as a pharmacist at Boots the Chemist, the leading drug store chain in Great Britain, and working his way up through the ranks to become chief executive of Alliance Boots’ health and beauty division, Gourlay had come to “love the company and its mission — this idea of being able to take care of others and also to build a long-term future. I learned that you can never do enough to get it right for the patient, for the customer, for the stores.”
Adherence to that principle continued to motivate Gourlay, who last year retired as co-chief operating officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), as he played a pivotal role in the transformation of the company and its flagship Walgreens drug chain. For his career-long success in augmenting the role of WBA in pharmacy, health care and retailing, the editors of Chain Drug Review are presenting Gourlay with the publication’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
The benefits of Gourlay’s approach to business were evident during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Walgreens responded immediately when the federal government asked the private sector for help, first with COVID tests and subsequently with immunizations. To date, the retailer has administered more than 50 million vaccinations and 20 million tests.
“When COVID arrived it was one of these moments when instinct takes over,” Gourlay recalls. “It was really the organizational instinct that took over, the DNA of this company and pharmacy in general. We set three critical goals — we have to make sure our stores are safe for people to go into; we have to stay open to serve the customers who need us; and we have to start to transform the model so we can do things like letting people shop online and pick up in store. There was no playbook for this.
“Once we had aligned on these goals, the organization and the people within it took over; there was never any question that we would do what our customers needed. We spent what we had to spend to make the stores safe. We did what we had to do to keep the supply chain running. And we started to really get after the new methods of delivery or pickup that had to be done to get people to be comfortable. It was a real moment of everyone coming together.”
Gourlay’s ability to bring people together in pursuit of a common objective became evident early in his career. While attending the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, his hometown, Gourlay joined Boots. Early on he came to understand the practical side of retail pharmacy and patient-centric care. As a 17-year-old Gourlay spent a lot of time working under the supervision of a pharmacist behind the chemist counter, a department in U.K. drug stores where over-the-counter medications require authorization from a pharmacist before they can be purchased.
“The NHS [National Health Service] encouraged people to go to the chemist counter for primary care before they saw a doctor,” he says. “That’s where I spent all my summers and had a great time, effectively working as a pharmacist’s assistant. I really loved the practice of being in a pharmacy. So, in conjunction with pharmacy school at Strathclyde, that really was my training and development. It was always a combination of education and hands-on experience, working with people in the shops and with real communities.”
At Boots that included training on how to work with people and think about profitability. “I loved the idea of running a shop and being in retail,” notes Gourlay. “At the same time, I was learning already how to run a business, in a small, but important way.”
Shortly after earning his credentials as a pharmacist, Gourlay had the opportunity to manage a series of stores across the U.K., including the second-largest one in the Boots chain, in the city of Leeds. After a decade or so, he moved into a management role, with responsibility for the Midlands — the area around Birmingham — making it Boots’ top-performing region.
“I got really frustrated at that time by the lack of understanding of store operations in the support office,” Gourlay says. “So I was motivated by the idea of helping all the stores by getting the processes from the support office right.
“In today’s world much has changed, but we will always have to remind people of the important connection between the store, pharmacy and the support office. Therefore, getting it right for the stores is hugely valuable to the company and the patient.”
The next big break in Gourlay’s career came in 2000 when he took an assignment as head of human resources, at Boots’ headquarters in Nottingham.
“That’s where I learned the most, to be honest,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any training in HR. It was all about change management. Because I knew how the store operated, I could quite easily start to see how you could join up the dots.
“So that was really a big moment of education, taking all I’d learned in stores and working hard across all of the things in the support office to make sure people understood there was a different way of doing things. We took a lot of cost and unnecessary complexity out of the business.”
Faced with intense competition, particularly from supermarkets, Boots in 2003 hired a new chief executive officer who put Gourlay in charge of pharmacy, health care and property, asking him to devise ways to improve the economics of the stores. Following Boots’ 2006 merger, Gourlay met his most important mentor, Stefano Pessina (who is now WBA’s executive chairman). Pessina had the confidence to put Gourlay in charge of the Boots drug store chain.
“From being general manager of a store, where I started, I became general manager of the company,” Gourlay says. “In the middle of this change I was learning every functional role. It was nothing fancy — everything started from the perspective of a pharmacist and a shopkeeper and how we could take better care of the communities and customers we served.”
The changing dynamics of health care and retailing in the U.K. prompted Gourlay and his colleagues to rethink many aspects of the Boots offer. “That differentiation of having a professional health care person in your community, giving you free advice and making sure your medication’s right, along with everything else you need, was very powerful,” he explains. “But what had to change was what was in the store. The customer proposition had to change. It had to modernize, as the specialists came in, as the grocers developed. This period was slightly before e-commerce really started to change the marketplace.
“The marketplace was changing, and we saw ourselves as having to change as well. So we focused on pharmacy, health care and beauty care. And we extended our health care offerings.”
The experience equipped Gourlay to contribute to the analogous transformation of U.S. pharmacies. The partnership and subsequent merger of Alliance Boots and Walgreens — another deal engineered by Pessina — paved the way for Gourlay’s arrival in Deerfield, where he assumed the role of president of customer experience and daily living in October 2013.
Gourlay wasted little time in bringing the practical, commonsense approach to the retail pharmacy business that he honed in the U.K. to bear at Walgreens. His style is illustrated by his intervention in regard to the chain’s sale of bottled water. At the time he joined Walgreens, it was offering a 24 count for $2.49.
“We were in a trading meeting and I asked the question, ‘How much do we make in that then?’ And the supply chain director said, ‘We lose a dollar out every time we sell one,’ ” Gourlay recalls. “It was all driven by the paper circular, it was all about footfall. And, of course, the data was telling us that people were buying water, lots of it, because they were making the money from us, but we weren’t actually driving them to put all that much more in the basket.
“So we did this bigger analysis and effectively changed how we went to market. We laid out a new vision. One thing I did say is, ‘We have to get rid of this paper circular because it’s killing our business. I know customers use it today, but they won’t in 10 years’ time. They’ll use something different. April 2020 was the last time we printed a paper circular and replaced it with a personalized, digitalized approach.”
After becoming Walgreens president in December 2014 and then co-chief operating officer of WBA, Gourlay helped lay the foundation for the ongoing metamorphosis of the drug chain. Leveraging Pessina’s partnership strategy — “he was the architect, I was one of the builders” — Gourlay oversaw the introduction of services provided by LabCorp and FedEx, and, in a limited number of locations, groceries curated by Kroger Co. In addition, during Gourlay’s tenure, Walgreens set about modernizing the technology it uses to operate its business — moving to new pharmacy and front-end systems, enhancing its digital and omnichannel capabilities, launching a new loyalty program, and sharpening its front-end presentation and assortment, including the incorporation of No7 and other beauty brands made by WBA into the merchandise mix.
Of all the initiatives undertaken during Gourlay’s years at WBA, the most consequential may prove to be its partnership with VillageMD. In October, Roz Brewer, WBA’s current CEO, announced that the company was investing $5.2 billion in the value-based primary care provider, raising its stake from 30% to 63%. The deal will facilitate the opening of 600 or more Village Medical at Walgreens locations by 2025, and 1,000 by 2027.
Gourlay is bullish about what the combination of Walgreens pharmacies and the clinics will mean for patients and WBA.
“We believed in VillageMD for two reasons,” he says. “One, they’ve got an amazing team led by Tim Barry that is highly motivated to change health care. Two, it was a model for everyone. So it wasn’t just for seniors or for the commercial insurance business. Everyone is welcome at VillageMD.”
The presence of VillageMD practices in Walgreens stores will increase the retailer’s health care equity, according to Gourlay, and buttress the elevation of pharmacists’ role in health care.
“This is going to be a transformational time for pharmacists,” he says, “and they’ve absolutely earned the right to do more through this extraordinary period of the pandemic. They have to do it in partnership with other professions, doctors and nurses, but they can play a bigger role. In America there is a huge opportunity in prevention and detection. The reason there is such an unacceptable life expectancy gap in this country is that your postcode is more important than your genetic code. In many areas there is a lack of access to basic services. Pharmacists can help deliver these basic services and raise awareness and close gaps in care.
“For patients and customers, it’s about awareness and then being able to access what you need in a way that is convenient. That’s what retail pharmacy can do. For example, right now vaccines and testing are clear examples of the power of pharmacy.”
The steady focus on what more WBA can do for patients and customers is the thread that runs through Gourlay’s career. Asked what he’s most proud of having done, he says, “That’s easy. I’m a head and a heart guy, but I’m primarily a heart guy. So all the charitable stuff we’ve done — Red Nose Day, Vitamin Angels, Get a Shot. Give a Shot — and the changes we’ve made through the pandemic, often life-saving changes, are what really matter to me.”