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OWNING YOUR OWN PHARMACY: A PLAN AND PARTNERSHIP COME TOGETHER

Susan Farley
Published Online: Monday, October 1, 2007   [ Request Print ]

Rob and Stacie Wenzl had a plan. For 5 years, Rob was a respiratory therapist, but he knew that was not meant to be his lifetime career. He enrolled at the University of Kansas where he made the decision with his wife Stacie, a certified public accountant, that he would get his pharmacy degree, and together they would purchase and operate their own independent pharmacy. Rob is the first to admit that he is not a business manager, so Stacie?s accounting background became a key piece of the puzzle.

The Wenzls knew they were looking at either a buyout or getting a small business loan to start their own pharmacy. Knowing before entering pharmacy school that he would eventually own an independent pharmacy, however, made the necessary planning and preparation that much easier.

STEP ONE

With the goal of owning their own pharmacy within 3 to 5 years after Rob?s graduation from pharmacy school, the Wenzl?s plan was set in motion. Their first decision: location. They wanted to live and work in a small town, since both grew up in small rural communities and were looking to get back to that kind of lifestyle. They opened a map and chose north-central Kansas and the small town of Phillipsburg, population 2600; only 6000 people reside in all of Phillips County. ?That is where we wanted to be with our lives,? they agreed.

FAST FORWARD

Perhaps feeling a bit restless, the Wenzls made a significant adjustment to their master plan when they decided not to wait until Rob?s May 2005 graduation date before purchasing a pharmacy. Between his second and third year of pharmacy school, the Wenzls explored their options with the National Community Pharmacists Association?s junior partnership program.

After deciding where they wanted to live, the Wenzls began visiting independent pharmacies, introducing themselves to the owners, handing out their resumes, and inquiring if they were interested in selling. In their search, they met some owners who were advancing in age and looking to sell their businesses. Soon, the Wenzls were able to narrow down their choices to 2 pharmacies before making their final decision, and it turned out to be a good one. Rob advises, ?If you buy an existing store, make sure it is the right fit.?

In fact, Rob ended up signing a contract with one of the independent pharmacy owners almost 2 years before graduation. While still in school, he started working for the previous owner, which allowed for a vital transition period?not only for the 2 pharmacists, but for the patients as well.

REWARDS

The Wenzls set out to become their own bosses, and they made it happen. ?We love the autonomy of it.? Their decision to relocate to a small town turned out to be the right fit as well. ?It is easy to get to know the customers. There are no chains in the area; the closest one is 60 miles away. There are other independents in town, though,? explained Rob. In fact, even in 1907, there were 3 drug stores in the small Kansas town.

Rob says that the primary benefit of owning an independent pharmacy is the sheer autonomy of it, and any other benefits are simply an extension of that. ?You make your own hours, you do not have to practice pharmacy someone else?s way, and you can develop your own style of practice and management.?

Was there any trepidation in taking on a new business and pharmacy practice? ?I am not bragging, but I had already been in the real world and worked in health care and worked with patients, and I had developed my own style of practice,? says Rob. ?So I felt pretty comfortable dealing with the patients.?

PRACTICE STYLE

As for Rob?s style of pharmacy practice, he says he tends to be a little more laid back than most recent graduates, a trait developed through previous health care experience. ?I want to interact with the patients, and I want to hear about what they did Saturday night. I know their first names and think of them more as friends. I spend time with them outside the pharmacy. My customers are my friends.?

Beyond that friendly environment, as a pharmacy in a rural environment, Wenzl Drug ends up being a critical care access point for people in the community. ?That has come to be expected,? he continues. ?That is what sets the small town independents apart from the big stores.?

When asked if a particular type of business model works better for a rural location, he notes, ?A successful business model does depend on where you are.Many successful independents exist in urban areas, but the competition is pretty fierce. At my store, we have only had a handful of patients inquire about the Wal-Mart $4 [generic] prescription plan. I just explain to them that we cannot compete on that level.? In fact, an independent would have to eliminate many other services to offer such a prescription plan. ?Outstanding customer service is why we will win out,? says Wenzl. ?Customers desperately want that one-on-one and that access to their pharmacist.?

Like many pharmacies,Wenzl Drug also provides clinics and screenings for its patients covering a wide range of disease states. As Rob explains, ?Most pharmacies cannot be everything to everyone, but in a small town you kind of have to be. Being the critical care access point, we are all things to all people. We dabble in everything because we need to.?

RESPONSIBILITIES

With his previous experience in health care, Rob already felt comfortable with his style of team leadership and management. With Stacie managing the business aspect, it freed him up to focus on the many other responsibilities that come with owning a pharmacy.He explains that with a chain or hospital pharmacy, the responsibilities are often limited to just the pharmacy aspect. For an independent pharmacy, the owner/ pharmacist needs a basic understanding of all aspects of the business such as employment law, suppliers, thirdparty contracting, interpreting financial statements, etc.

While Rob says his pharmacy school had a pharmacy management class, he reiterates that it still required a lot of work and learning on his and his wife?s part to become successful. He says that about 90% to 95% of his business is prescriptions, while the other 5% is OTC medications, and his store also features a gift department and photo service. At Wenzl Drug, Rob, a pharmacy technician, 2 full-time clerks, and 2 part-time clerks run the business, and the previous owner fills in when needed.

A pharmacy team this small can be as challenging as it is manageable. Rob makes sure to seek guidance when needed, however, making a good working relationship with the previous owner/pharmacist that much more important.

As for any pharmacist interested in being his or her own boss, Rob advises that it is extremely important to build a team of trusted advisors. ?You need a mentor. Network now and make connections. They are valuable sources of information. An important key to developing a successful independent pharmacy is to become involved in your state pharmacy association. They provide an invaluable resource, especially for independents. You can just pick up the phone and call them with your questions. There have been countless pharmacists in Kansas who have been mentors to me.?

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