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Industry mourns passing of Charles Walgreen III

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'Cork' was hailed as an unrivaled industry leader


Charles R. Walgreen III was the grandson of the founder of Walgreens

DEERFIELD, Ill. —  Charles R. (Cork) Walgreen III, former chairman, president and CEO of Walgreen Co., died Monday at his home in Lake Forest, Ill. He was 80.

Walgreen was the grandson of company founder Charles R. Walgreen Sr. Born in Chicago on Nov. 11, 1935, to Mary Ann Leslie and Charles R. Walgreen Jr., he became the third Walgreen to lead the company.

Last year, he attended the fall luncheon of the Walgreen Alumni Association as a special guest in recognition of his 80th birthday. Among the crowd of several hundred people was Alex Gourlay, co-chief operating officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.

“As I listened to the tributes and spoke with Mr. Walgreen, I was struck again by how he led our company — with a great singular focus on his customers, with humility and a very clear sense that Walgreens needed to stand for value and care in the community,” said Gourlay. “He made courageous decisions in that straightforward framework and built the Walgreens we know today as customers, employees and partners. I counted myself grateful whenever I was fortunate enough to spend time with him and his family.”

Walgreen is credited with significant strategic changes that powered the company’s growth for decades. When he became president in 1969, the company was not meeting its profitability goals and growth targets. And, in a sense, it was struggling with its identity. As he would put it, “We thought we could sell everything … suits, hammocks, carpets … . We were trying to please all people with all types of merchandise that didn’t belong in a drug store.”

In addition, Walgreens by that time had a number of varied businesses, including Wags (its chain of freestanding restaurants) and laboratories and manufacturing plants for private label products. Determining that it was time to get back to Walgreens’ core business, pharmacy, he initiated a turnaround for the company that was deemed by many to be unprecedented.

In 1976, he began divesting Walgreens of those peripheral businesses, selling its food services, closing the labs and manufacturing operations, and ending many of its joint interests in businesses as varied as optical services, grocers and even its Mexico-based Sanborn’s department store chain. The process culminated in 1988 with the sale of the Wag’s restaurants to Marriott Corp. Walgreen began a lasting focus on pharmacy services, customer convenience and investing wisely back into the business. He also committed to focusing on core product categories: health care items, beauty and photo.

As the chain expanded, he also changed the whole view of profitability, switching the focus from profit per store to profit per customer visit.

He was a strong proponent of innovation, converting Walgreens pharmacies in the early 1980s to Intercom, a computerized prescription processing system. It was the first network of its kind — linking all stores in the chain electronically and thereby enabling any Walgreens location to serve its pharmacy customers. This system revolutionized the company — and the industry.

He embraced technology in other areas as well, with a commitment to automating the company’s distribution centers as well as new technologies in point-of-sale scanning, photofinishing and other areas.

By the early 1990s, he led another transformation — to freestanding stores versus traditional drug store locations in strip malls — on what became known in the company as “Main & Main, the best corners in America.” These stores featured drive-through pharmacies, which Walgreens also pioneered in the industry.

When he retired as CEO in 1998, the company had enjoyed 23 consecutive years of record sales and earnings growth under his leadership, had six stock splits, and had grown to more than 2,400 stores (from 561 in 1971) generating $13 billion in sales (from $817 million).

Walgreen was hailed as an unrivaled industry leader who advocated the high value of his company’s team members. He reflected his grandfather’s hiring advice by selecting a strong management team. Unassuming but focused on business results, he shunned personal publicity, crediting instead his management team and employees with the company’s successes.

He had an early start on his 58-year Walgreens career — starting in 1952 as a stock boy after school and on vacations. He later entered the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, from which he earned his bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in 1958. He returned to Walgreens in his first professional capacity in 1959 as a pharmacist at Chicago’s 7510 N. Western Ave. store (still open today). In 1963, he was named administrative assistant to the vice president of operations and was elected that year to the company’s board of directors.

He gradually moved up in his career in a series of increasingly responsible positions that included district manager (1965 to 1966), Western regional director, and then Midwestern regional director (1966 to 1968) before being named vice president in 1968, president in 1969, president and CEO in 1971 and chairman and CEO in 1976.

He liked to recount what his father said to him when he retired: Walgreen Jr. called his son into his office saying, “Here’s your desk. Here are the keys. I’m going fishing.” More than a family anecdote, it demonstrates the trust his father had in him.

Walgreen served as CEO until his retirement in January 1998. He remained chairman until August 1999, then retired from the board as chairman emeritus in 2010.

In addition to his Walgreens responsibilities, he served a number of industry, civic and professional organizations, including as a member of the American Pharmaceutical Association, a director and chairman of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, a director of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and Junior Achievement of Chicago, and a member of many other charitable and civic organizations. He was a longtime member of the Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park, Ill.; the Sailfish Point Golf Club in Stuart, Fla.; and the Lake Winnipesaukee Golf Club in Wolfeboro, N.H. In 2004, he donated $2 million to his alma mater, the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy, to establish a professorship focusing on researching the socioeconomics of health care policies, regulations and ethics.

Services will be private. Donations may be directed to: Radiation Oncology Fund at the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola University Medical Center, Office of Development, 2160 South First Ave., Maywood, Ill., 60153.


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