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Sammons honored for life’s work

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CAMP HILL, Pa. — Thirty-seven years ago, a young woman in Portland, Ore., who couldn’t find a full-time job in the career she had chosen, that of a French teacher, decided to make a change.

Thirty-seven years ago, a young woman in Portland, Ore., who couldn’t find a full-time job in the career she had chosen, that of a French teacher, decided to make a change.

She signed on as a management trainee at Fred Meyer, the Portland-based food and general merchandise retailer. Today, in the twilight of a brilliant retailing career, one that took her from Portland to Harrisburg, Pa., from Fred Meyer to Rite Aid, Mary Sammons can look back on an unending series of accomplishments that helped transform one retailer, before helping to rescue another from the brink of extinction, while exerting an indelible and game-changing impact on retailers — and an entire industry.

For these very tangible accomplishments, and for the less-tangible but no less significant impact her presence exerted on the people, companies and industry she touched, influenced and changed, the editors of MMR are recognizing Mary Sammons with the publication’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

To those who know Sammons, no recapitulation of her career or accomplishments is necessary in this space. For those who do not, no recapitulation is possible.

In 26 years at Fred Meyer she rose steadily from store operations to buying and merchandising, ultimately leading that company after influencing and helping to shape its apparel and home fashion businesses, bringing sense and segmentation to its apparel offering, and heading the initiative to launch departmentalized “Splash” bath shops, an innovative approach to positioning the retailer’s private brand bath and body products, one long since copied by mass retailers in the United States.

At Rite Aid, a company she joined, along with Bob Miller, in 1999, Sammons found a retailer whose future was very much in doubt. Today, 11 years later, despite obstacles and unprecedented and unexpected setbacks, Rite Aid remains in business, due largely to the efforts, perseverance and will of Mary Sammons.

While running Rite Aid, a job she assumed when Miller passed the chief executive officer baton to her in 2003, Sammons was named chairman of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, the retail association of which Rite Aid was, and remains, an important member. Her contributions to that association, during an especially difficult period, are still remembered with fondness and approval. Among them was the transformation of the front-end supplier advisory board, a panel that gave the association a significant supplier voice. Beyond that, Sammons brought leadership, purpose and action to an association that had largely become irrelevant, inactive and incapable of moving its agenda or its industry forward. Her presence and performance as NACDS chairman encouraged the association to once again assume a proactive role, and bring together its diverse membership to work together to face the reality of the critical crossroads at which the pharmacy industry found itself.

Along the way Sammons emerged as one of the most admired leaders chain drug retailing has ever seen. She was respected for a work ethic that had her putting in untold hours and days of relentlessly productive labor. As well, she exhibited early on a sensitivity to associates at all levels throughout the Rite Aid organization, regularly visiting the retailer’s stores to discuss programs and solicit ideas for improving performance, increasing productivity or making the experience of store associates easier, more exciting and more engaging.

As her career winds down, what most pleases Sammons has been the ability to make a difference. “I honestly believe that I have had a positive influence on the companies, industries and communities I was part of,” she said recently. “It makes me feel good that I played an important role in ensuring Rite Aid is still here today. At NACDS I am proud to have helped get the association’s retailers, suppliers and staff on the same page, where they previously had different agendas. And the front-end supplier group we reenergized continues to make significant contributions today.

"My community involvement extended across a range of groups and activities, but I was particularly useful in encouraging our associates to get involved with such organizations as Children’s Miracle Network and United Way, two organizations we remain closely associated with today."

Along the way, both at Fred Meyer and Rite Aid, she has shown an ability to develop and nurture relationships, most impressively with store- and field-level associates in both organizations.

"Getting people to do what they needed to do — whether the people were retailers, suppliers, business partners or association executives — was important to me and to achieving the business goals we set. The best moments for me were when I was able to transform disagreements into consensus. People were willing to talk to me, even when we disagreed," she said.

But she saved her biggest contributions for Rite Aid, a drug chain that was about to hang out its going-out-of-business sign when Sammons arrived with Bob Miller in 1999. During her seven-year tenure as Rite Aid’s chief executive she was a mentor to countless associates, as Miller had mentored her. She routinely identified and promoted particularly talented people within the Rite Aid organization, while summoning up the strength to part ways with those executives whose talents did not match Rite Aid’s changing needs. The necessity of releasing capable associates still saddens, but Sammons fully grasps the need to do so. It remains part and parcel of her unique ability to lead.

That leadership was particularly evident at Rite Aid’s annual trade shows, where Sammons’ attendance, visibility and summary of her company’s achievements and challenges and the company’s strategy going forward transformed the exhibit into a happening that had store associates lobbying for invitations and suppliers lining up to attend.

Sammons’ contributions to Rite Aid went beyond initiatives to improve performance. She brought to the company a set of core values that in time became integral to its performance.

"We needed to show our associates that we valued them," says Sammons. "That started with sharing with them the mission, purpose and vision we created that they could believe in — with the result that our associates came to believe in themselves and in our company. Believing in themselves, they were able to communicate that sense of caring to our customers."

Among the contributions that survive her departure is the Rite Aid Foundation that helps people in the communities the drug chain serves and a Sammons-inspired Rite Aid store prototype, one that includes thinking and features that other drug chains have come to copy, with an emphasis on pharmacy and the pharmacist and a commitment to health and wellness that remains a core Rite Aid operating tenet.

None of this is to imply that Sammons’ career didn’t include its share of disappointments. She laments Rite Aid’s "difficult balance sheet," one that remains a challenge to the chain’s ongoing recovery plan. "Lots of work still needs to be done," she candidly admits. "Our financial situation makes it harder for us to do things as quickly as we would like, from relocating stores to building new ones. And there are still fewer tools in our toolkit to play as aggressive a role as we’d like to right now in the health and wellness space that we are committed to."

Then too, she laments the fragility of the turnaround she helped engineer.

"Just when you think you’ve done it, something new or unexpected comes up — the downturn in the economy, the consumer reluctance to spend money, the increase in unemployment, the states’ response to budget shortfalls," she says.

The timing of Rite Aid’s acquisition of Brooks/Eckerd particularly troubles her, coming as it did just ahead of the economic downturn and the freeze-up of the credit market. She remains convinced, however, that purchasing Brooks/Eckerd was the right move.

"That acquisition gave us a significant presence in the Northeast, where we remain an important drug chain today," she says.

Then too, Sammons laments the lack of control Rite Aid or indeed any pharmacy retailer can exert over its core category. "Outside forces — government, PBMs, third-party payers, mandatory mail — have an enormous impact on our prescription drug business," she says. "By contrast, we can’t influence it by using price, merchandising, assortment or promotional programs the way we can other categories. It’s frustrating."

In the end, however, none of this really mattered. What mattered was the impact Mary Sammons exerted on the companies she worked for, the people she worked with, the association she led, and the industry she influenced and was in turn influenced by. Over a lifetime she turned in a body of work, and a record of success, that will be long remembered, not easy to duplicate — and virtually impossible to surpass. And she has loved every minute of it.

As she said recently, "I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting and rewarding career — even with its challenges. Something is always happening. Retail is fun. If it wasn’t you couldn’t survive."

Mary Sammons has always been a survivor.


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