A nearly five-decade career in retail pharmacy
BOISE, Idaho — Since going to work at an Osco Drug store in Chicago as a 15-year-old high school student in early 1972, Mark Panzer has been a force in retail pharmacy. With hard work and the inspiration of role models, Panzer carved out a career in retailing that the editors at Mass Market Retailers are honoring with the publication’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Career highlights include a rescue of Rite Aid Corp., the launch of an e-commerce platform at Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy Inc., and the mentoring of many colleagues, some of whom went on to fill prominent positions in retail and other business sectors.
“I’ve had a blessed career,” Panzer said in an interview. “It’s all been a very positive experience — the friends, the contacts made and the lesson learned. It’s been outstanding, and I wouldn’t change a thing. No regrets having picked a career in the food and drug industry.”
Outside of newspaper routes he began as a second grader and working as a laborer for his family’s plumbing business, Panzer has worked exclusively in retail. His first employer was Jewel Cos./Osco Drug, which was purchased by American Stores Co., owner of supermarket and drug store chains operating under such banners as Jewel Osco, Acme, Star Markets, Skaggs, Osco and Sav-on Drugs. “I had a lot of great mentors who pushed me along when I was a kid coming out of college, through early corporate positions, store manager, district manager and into senior level executive roles in operations, merchandising, marketing and real estate.” he said. “American Stores had superior training programs, particularly the food/drug store and general merchandise business. Everything from P+L training to how to treat and train employees, how to mentor people, and all the basics of retail. Across the organization we all had one common goal — to be the best in the food and drug store industry.”
The Osco Drug corporate team assembled at Oak Brook, Ill., in the shadow of Walgreens, was “the best team in retail that I ever worked with,” Panzer said. “Walgreens was much bigger, but our goal was not only to compete with them but to be better than Walgreens.”
Panzer joined Albertsons in the late 1990s, when Albertsons acquired American Stores. He left Albertsons in 2001 and joined longtime Albertsons executive Bob Miller at Rite Aid, where they teamed up with Mary Sammons, Jim Mastrian, John Standley and others in the first Rite Aid turnaround campaign. “The leadership team and associates ended up basically taking the company from being bankrupt to keeping it on the map, keeping it as one of the Big Three in the retail drug store industry,” Panzer said. “We had a great team with a great plan, and we executed well against that plan. We had the benefit of having a group of dedicated associates and a lot of support from our great vendor partners.”
Panzer left Rite Aid in 2008 to become chief operating officer at Boulder, Colo.-based Pharmaca. Within six months he was promoted to president and chief executive officer at the company, which operated retail pharmacies and health centers in five Western states as well as an e-commerce site.
A milestone at Pharmaca was the development and launch of Pharmaca.com, a do-it-yourself project started in the back room of a store by the Pharmaca team, none of whom had much experience in digital retail. It was so successful that we had to move to a warehouse location within months. “We did everything from scratch — laying out and installing the used warehouse racking to designing and setting up the flow for picking, sorting, packing and shipping lines. We’d receive and restock the DC slots as a team — executives, office personnel and the DC team. After 18 months the DC was also supporting and replenishing our stores, so we had to expand the facility,” said Panzer. “With startups you have limited resources, so you have to work harder and smarter. We made mistakes, but how quickly you recover and learn from mistakes is the key to success. Starting and succeeding in setting up an e-commerce business and a self-distribution DC with the Pharmaca Team was very rewarding.”
Panzer’s grandmother and mother were role models. “Both were super-intelligent, but it was their work ethic and belief that there’s nothing you can’t do if you’re willing to put in the time and effort,” he said. “I also had many mentors throughout my career that enabled me to move into increasing roles and responsibilities. I will forever be grateful to those mentors — Maher, Mannschreck, Young, Tripp, Miller, Miles and Schoenbeck.”
Growing up in the inner city on Chicago’s North Side, and attending public schools provided the “street knowledge” that Panzer credits for his ability to work with all kinds of people. “Say what you will about Chicago public schools, but you get out of it what you put into it. Lane Tech High School afforded me an excellent education. I qualified to get into Lane Tech, a magnet high school and graduated from Loyola University with an MBA in Finance. Growing up in the inner city provided me with a lot of life experiences,” he said. “I grew up just outside of the Lathrop housing projects and spent a lot time at the Lathrop Boys Club and Hamlin Park playing baseball, football and basketball. You interact with a lot more people in an urban environment. I think one of the problems with society today is that there’s not as much time to interact on a personal level with people and neighbors as I had growing up in Chicago. It was a great town to grow up in, in a neighborhood that was ethnically diverse. It’s that Midwest work ethic, respect for your neighbors and others that I believe has guided me throughout my career.”
Looking ahead at the drug store industry, Panzer sees the continued development and adoption of the vertically integrated health care models such as Kaiser and CVS/Aetna. Retail Pharmacies and retail clinic locations will be incorporated into these vertically integrated health ecosystems.
“It’s the only model that will work long term, given the current reimbursement models that are detrimental to the retail pharmacy industry. Pharmacists and pharmacies — whether independent or chains — have to continue to look for new revenues,” he said. “I’ve been in retail for 48 years now, and the landscape is continually evolving. We’ve gone through the big box and category killers and the continued acceleration of e-commerce, which reduced and narrowed the drug stores’ and grocery stores’ focus on selling front-end merchandise. Pharmacies and drug stores must be more focused on providing community health care services.
“Drug stores and pharmacies need to focus on adding products and health care services that can be provided by qualified pharmacists and technicians in an easily accessible neighborhood location. Drug stores and their pharmacy teams can provide this and will be part of the evolving health care ecosystem.”