Walmart Award: Pharmacy Manager of the Year Combines Innovation and Compassion

Jen Whartenby, Senior Managing Editor
Published Online: Thursday, August 16, 2012
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Based on Joseph Michael’s incredible and infectious enthusiasm for his profession, you would think being a pharmacist was his lifelong dream. Amazingly, pharmacy wasn’t his first choice.

“Truth be told, I’d argue pharmacy chose me,” Michael says. “I never dreamt about being a pharmacist. I actually wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Long story short, I’m glad it chose me. It has opened many doors of opportunity far beyond my imagination.”

Seizing these opportunities, Michael has accomplished some amazing things since officially starting his career with Walmart in 2004. In recognition of his work, Walmart recently honored Michael with the Pharmacy Manager of the Year Award.

A History of Service

Michael’s history with Walmart began with an internship during pharmacy school. After graduating from Rutgers University’s Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, Michael was offered a pharmacy manager position at the Walmart Pharmacy in Hamilton, New Jersey, and was quickly promoted to pharmacy manager at the Toms River, New Jersey, store.

In Toms River, he had an opportunity to work on innovative projects, including remote order review. The first of its kind, the project involved data entry of prescription images from a busy store at slower-paced stores to help busier stores be more efficient. Michael helped develop technology that would roll out across the company nationwide.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Walmart started an initiative to get medical care and prescription access to the hardest-hit areas. When the company asked for volunteer pharmacists to help, Michael immediately signed up for a 1-week pharmacy shift.

“It was the most ambitious set of projects any company could have ever conceived,” Michael said. “The company literally built and opened a pharmacy overnight. We had some medications to start off with and 1 goal: take care of our people. It wasn’t about money; it was about doing the right thing. For weeks at the Waveland, Mississippi, site you had FEMA and Walmart operating. That was it.”

Michael recalls that people came from all over to get medications for chronic conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. “It was the most extensive pharmacotherapeutics I had ever practiced,” he says. “Everything Rutgers taught me I practiced while I was down there. That was the proudest I have ever been of my company.”

After Katrina, Michael managed the pharmacy in Howell, New Jersey, where he developed in-store presentations on topics such as asthma control, diabetes, and foot disorders. He also worked in the Burlington, New Jersey store, helping increase its business almost 30% in 3 months by focusing on customer service.

Michael has been the manager of store 2090 in Franklin, New Jersey, since 2009. He also served as an interim market director for Market 340 twice in the past year. Reflecting on what his Walmart career has taught him, Michael cites a focus on community and the importance of compassion as 2 of the guiding principles of his practice.

“Serve your people with compassion, and if you manage to get them to leave with a smile, you did something special,” he says.

A Team Effort

Michael is quick to point out that his success would not have been possible without the help of many Walmart colleagues. He says that Michele Sullivan, his market director in Northern New Jersey, has been an invaluable mentor. Kevin Chandler, his regional director, provides unrelenting focus and direction.

Michael also acknowledges the important daily contributions of the team at store 2090. “From Store Manager Kellilyn Auryansen, the entire management and personnel staff, my superstar partner Stephanie Gvoth, PharmD, RPh, to my all-star techs, Rosie, Kelly, Krista, Brenda, Lorilee, and Cathy, these are the people I serve,” Michael says. “Because of them, because of their success, I am successful. All these amazing people, who are ordinary in their own ways, have come together to do extraordinary things.”

Looking Ahead

When asked about the future of pharmacy, Michael suggests that the current model of retail pharmacy is unsustainable. “The perfect storm is brewing,” he notes. “You have dwindling reimbursement rates and rising salaries. Profits can only be realized by cutting more into costs, or selling at a higher volume. The fact is both those goals are met through automation.”

What does this mean for retail pharmacists? Michael envisions a future in which pharmacists will choose 1 of 2 paths: compounding specialist or medication therapy management clinician.

“Walmart has given me an opportunity to prepare and succeed in this paradigm shift by continually focusing on counseling, pushing to develop patient care on a higher level, and examining the pharmacist’s role in managing our patients’ medical therapy,” he says.

Whatever the future of the profession holds, it is clear that Michael will be ready, and likely leading the way. “Walmart has given me an opportunity to be the best I can be,” he says. “The rest is on me.”

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