Pharmacists leave retail chains to forge new careers as independent Pharmacy owners
The long, busy days were getting to Frances Schneider, PharmD. As a pharmacist at a busy retail chain that sometimes did 900 prescriptions a day, she wasn’t able to help patients the way she always wanted.
“I felt like I was working an assembly line and I just hated it, that’s just not what I went to school to do,” she says.
She decided she wanted something different and made the decision with her husband Bryan Schneider, PharmD, to open their own independent pharmacy from scratch in the small town of Smithton, Illinois, just outside of St. Louis.
Bryan Smithton would keep his retail pharmacy manager job to offer the couple stability while they opened the new venture.
It was a risk, and a scary one at that, but it was a risk they were willing to take after consulting with industry experts.
Schneider and her husband aren’t alone. According to data from the National Community Pharmacists Association, there are 22,478 small business community pharmacies in the U.S..
Amanda Kennedy, PharmD, says she and her business partner De Andrea Hogg, PharmD, took a “huge risk” leaving behind their retail chain jobs to form Well Lake Specialty Pharmacy in Humble, Texas just outside of Houston.
Their goal is to provide customers with a higher level of customer service than what the surrounding retail chain pharmacies provide.
“We are real passionate about treating people like people and not like dollar signs or numbers and that’s why we both became pharmacists, so that we can help people in the community,” Kennedy says.
The pharmacy opened its doors in November of 2015. The biggest challenge to-date for the duo has been getting the word out about their pharmacy.
While initial marketing efforts such as direct mailers and speaking with area physicians yielded modest results, Hogg says the pharmacy has been most successful by getting out in the community itself.
“Since a lot of our neighbors have small children, they really love community-based events like school carnivals and Fourth of July celebrations, so for us, it’s really key to get out in the community and show our faces at those community events to let them know we are here,” she says.
Turning to Outside Assistance
Kennedy and Hogg also sought help from RxOwnership, a division of McKesson designed to give independent pharmacists the tools and assistance they need to succeed.
According to Chris Cella, RPh, national vice president of McKesson’s RxOwnership division, the company helped 446 start-ups throughout the country last fiscal year.
The company helps pharmacists buy, sell, or start-up a pharmacy and offers consultative or advisory services at no charge.
“Our main focus at the RxOwnership division is to help keep independent pharmacies independent,” Cella says.
Even veteran independent pharmacy owners, like Chris Cornelison, BS, turn to others for help when starting new pharmacies. Cornelison bought his grandfather’s pharmacy, Iuka Discount Drugs, in 2000 just a few years after graduating from pharmacy school. But when he wanted to open his own pharmacy from scratch in 2012, he turned to Pharmacy Development Services.
The company provides coaching for independent pharmacy owners about all aspects of pharmacy ownership—whether it’s determining the difference between cash flow and profit, writing a business plan that addresses specific needs in the community, or when to start marketing the business.
“As a pharmacist, you get taught a lot in school about drug interactions, disease states and all that. As a pharmacy owner, you don’t get as much business background, so it’s really helpful to get that background through some type of business coaching,” Cornelison says, who has always worked in an independent setting.
Now, with two successful stores—Iuka Discount Drugs and Saltillo Pharmacy and Solutions—up and running in Mississippi, Cornelison has also created his own supplement company, Solutions RX, that focuses on drug nutrient depletion and replacement.
“It’s going great,” he says. “I absolutely love what I do, I love every day of it.”
Finding the Customers
One of the biggest challenges for any start-up is finding its customer base.
“Start-ups are inherently much more risky than buying an already established successful pharmacy that’s been in the community for perhaps 30 years or greater,” says Jimmy Neil, general manager of pharmacy lending at Live Oak Bank.
It’s riskier because customers in any town are all receiving their prescriptions from somewhere else—whether it’s from a retail chain, mail order pharmacy, or another independent, before the new independent pharmacy arrives.
“When you build a brand new pharmacy, to get people to come in the door you have to change the buying behavior,” Neil says. “People inherently don’t like change.”
Frances and Bryan Schneider have worked hard to get people in their community to change their buying behavior.
Frances Schneider says in addition to a Facebook page, newspaper ads, and website, the pair has worked closely with the physician in town and physicians in the surrounding area to get their name out and make sure they are stocking the drugs most commonly used by doctors in the area. They’ve also gone to community events and passed out merchandise with the store’s name and logo on it.
“Even though we are on the main drag, we still have people walk in everyday and say, oh I just realized there’s a pharmacy in town,” she says.
One way Cornelison says he got people into his Saltillo Pharmacy and Solutions store was by offering regular classes on diabetes care, Medicare, and overall wellness.
“When you have those days, obviously you have a lot of people who are already using your pharmacy, but 40 to 50 percent of those people will be new patients a lot of times,” he says.
Having a partnership served as an advantage for Well Lake Specialty Pharmacy. Kennedy says in the early days when business was slow, she and Hogg could divide their time. One stayed at the pharmacy to help customers and the other went out into the community, whether it was to speak with doctors or attend community events.
“Sometimes people don’t realize how much work it is,” she says of the constant efforts needed to continue to market the business.
A Welcome Change
Well Lake Specialty Pharmacy and Smithton Pharmacy are still new to the market, with less than a year in business under their belts.
Schneider says she’s so happy she took the leap and enjoys more job satisfaction than ever before. As an independent owner, she has the opportunity to get to know her patients and provide a higher level of care.
The pharmacy is still growing, and Schneider says she may soon add gifts and cards to the front end, but she’s able to pay her bills every month. Her biggest struggles have been convincing the community that independent doesn’t mean more expensive as well as competing with mail order pharmacies.
Schneider says she draws support from her husband, family and other local pharmacy owners, with whom she meets with every two months.
“They give me the drive to keep going when I get frustrated,” she says. “This was and still is at times a nerve wracking experience but many of the patients are so grateful that we are in the community, which reminds me that what I am doing is serving a community that needed a pharmacy.”