Finding personalized service is increasingly difficult today, but independent pharmacists are among the few remaining business owners determined to greet customers by name. If you enjoy people, creativity and pharmaceutical science and have a knack for running a business, you've got the potential to become a successful independent community pharmacist.
The nation's more than 24,000 independent pharmacies, which include some franchises and chains, represent an $84 billion marketplace, dispensing 42 percent of the nation's retail prescription medicines, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA).
If you're trying to decide whether to open your own pharmacy or buy out a retiring pharmacist, consider these insights from successful industry veterans:
Know Your Customers
"The main thing you have to do to be successful as an independent pharmacist is that you have to like people," says Marlin Weekley, RPh, president of the Illinois Pharmacists Association. "If that is your attitude, you will succeed, and you will enjoy it. Every time customers walk in the store, I make friends with them. I give them outstanding service, and I take a very personal interest in them."
Weekley, who owns four pharmacies in rural Illinois, tries to give his customers an in-depth understanding of their health issues. While they're waiting for prescriptions, he may suggest having their blood sugar or blood pressure tested. Such tests have helped some customers discover for the first time that they had diabetes. This kind of personalized service is one reason his drugstores have not struggled even as chains opened nearby, Weekley says.
Seize the Opportunity
Weekly also attributes his success to the creative approach he takes to the pharmacy business. Earlier in his career, for example, he started providing equipment and training caregivers when he noticed that many of his customers with lung disease needed oxygen at home.
More recently, Weekley has been tapping into the business opportunities associated with diabetes care. His pharmacy is in the process of becoming a certified diabetic training facility, which will allow him to teach diabetics how to use needles and medication.
"I enjoy being my own boss so much," Weekley says. "It's like being an author. Authors come up with their own ideas and write their own books. I can see a customer need and can choose to address it in my own time frame."
Weekley opened his own pharmacy in 1978 but says starting out that way now is much more difficult. It's more common today for established pharmacists to sell their businesses to budding pharmacists.
That's how John Tilley, RPh, president of the NCPA, began his career as an independent druggist in Downey, California. Tilley worked for a seasoned pharmacist for six years. When the owner decided to retire, Tilley bought the owner's three pharmacies. During the next two decades, Tilley opened 17 new pharmacies in a southern California grocery chain.
As a new business owner, Tilley worked long hours and assumed a certain amount of risk. To pay off the original owner, he took a lower salary than what he paid his staff pharmacists. After eight years, he was finally debt-free, and his salary doubled. His compensation continued to increase as his pharmacies thrived.
Independent pharmacy owners earned average annual pretax compensation of about $136,000 in 2004, says Douglas Hoey, RPh, the NCPA's chief operating officer. By comparison, staff pharmacists posted median cash compensation of $108,700 nationwide, according to the "2008 US Pharmacy Compensation Survey" from Mercer Human Resource Consulting.
High Risk, High Reward
Tilley's days of long hours are long gone. He now works just two to three days a week as he oversees his business.
"If I had it to do over again, I'd do it the same," Tilley says. "There is more risk as an independent, but there is more reward. You get to be your own boss and run the business the way you want to. You also learn through your mistakes, and you can't do those things if you are working for someone else."