Interview conducted and condensed by Jeff Bailey
Looking at your career—a pharmacy degree from Purdue and ever-more-responsible jobs at Walgreens—it seems you wanted to be CEO. But you had to endure the board looking outside before finally turning to you, the number two, in February 2009.
It wasn’t the job I wanted from day one. It just so happened I ended up in the position. I just stuck to what I’d done, doing my job as COO. If I was the right guy, they’d choose me, and if not, so be it.
I’m told there used to be an odd custom at Walgreens that people above a certain level were addressed formally—Mr. Smith, Ms. Doe—while lower-level workers were called by their first names.
It started in the stores. Our store managers were referred to by their surnames. Everyone was, all the way up. As a district manager, I was 27. There were store managers working for me who’d been managing longer than I had been alive. The store managers respected me, but it was the title, not me. It takes longer to earn respect personally. Five years ago, we relaxed that—wanted to be on a first-name basis. People call me Greg.
Prescription and over-the-counter drugs account for 75 percent of your sales, and all that weird stuff at the front of the store, just 25 percent. It’s an odd mix, like an old-time variety store: shoelaces, some hardware, Russell Stover candies. How do you come up with it?
We’ve always been a convenience store as well as a pharmacy. We are in the midst of transforming from a traditional drugstore to a retail health and daily living destination.
Recent product winner? Ones you 86ed?
More fresh food. On the South Side, in food desert locations, we’ve dramatically expanded our fresh food. [We carry] fewer photo albums. We had seven or eight kinds of flashlights, four or five kinds of hammers. We cut back.
I’m a student of customer service and a frequent Walgreens shopper. You’re not the worst—a certain supermarket chain that rhymes with “cruel” may be—but eye contact from your clerks is rare, and they hurry away from me more often than they ask if I need help.
One of our major initiatives is to enhance customer experience. We are starting from a pretty good base.
What’s hard about improving?
Understanding what gets in the way of employees delivering the kind of service they want to. How do we get to be less task oriented [e.g., stocking shelves] and more customer-service oriented?
You visit lots of stores. Tell me the routine.
It can be me in a baseball cap and sweatshirt on a Sunday. Or it’s planned. I’ll compliment on the spot. I want a clean, neat drugstore. I’ll check the restrooms and closets. When I see something that needs to be corrected, I may talk to a store manager. I don’t want to demoralize people when it’s beyond their control. The minute you humiliate people, you’ve lost them for life.
You’re 53, and Walgreens is at the top of the heap in the drugstore industry, so unless you want to switch industries, you’ve made it. Could you do this job for another 12 years?
We’ve got 250,000 employees and their dependents counting on us. I enjoy what I’m doing.
Photograph: Bob Stefko