Brian Unmacht spent six years working at his father’s drugstore company and, after college, 27 years at REI, before becoming only the fourth CEO in Bartell Drugs’ 126-year history. Now he’s intent on using local partnerships to make Bartell a strong competitor to the national drugstore chains.
FAMILY: My father had been an executive at the Bon Marché. In the 1970s, he formed his own chain of small drugstores in rural areas. I spent six years in high school and college working for my dad and eventually managed one of his stores. We were a $20 million business and I computerized the record keeping and did the finances and everything. It was a sort of love/hate thing because you could never separate the business from the family. But I appreciate having had a chance to work with my dad. In 1980, 19 percent interest rates and the recession did us in. We had loyal customers, but customers still went for price and selection when grocery stores started competing with us.
TRAVEL: After college, I spent a year backpacking in Nepal and Pakistan and skiing in Europe. When I returned, I had no money, so I went to work for REI. They had seven stores and a catalog and were beginning to expand beyond the Northwest. I managed the Tempe store in Arizona, opened the Chicago store and then worked on the store in Japan as vice president of international. That was an exciting time.
RETAIL: In the ’80s, it was Walmart that dramatically changed retail as it sourced overseas. In the last 15 years, it’s been Amazon. You’re always going to have disrupters. It comes down to how do you keep yourself relevant? In the recession of 2009, the number of paddling and canoe shops in the country dropped to 1,500 from 2,500. With fewer distribution points, vendors like North Face were trying to increase web sales. At REI, our value proposition was to provide expertise and credibility. North Face would give REI an exclusive for a certain time because of that. It was a win-win.
BARTELL DRUGS: I’ve come full circle. Now I am back in the drugstore space. We are up against $120 billion retailers like Walgreens and CVS. How do we find unique products and services that they can’t carry in their 8,000 stores? We offer assortments of local candy like Theo or Seattle Chocolates. We partnered with Snoqualmie Ice Cream to sell our own brand. At our Bellevue store, we offer scooped ice cream. If you go to Fourth and Madison downtown, we have a partnership with Caffé Vita for the espresso, and with other local vendors for sandwiches and other food offerings.
BEER: Bartell always sold beer but it tended to be Budweiser and Heineken. We put in a beverage buyer who had a passion around craft beer and empowered him to form partnerships. Now we have a partnership with Two Beers Brewing Co. to do a Tangerine IPA limited run. Last year, we did Bartell Spring Elixir with Fremont Brewing. We have 150 partnerships with other locally owned firms.
FAMILY BUSINESS: There have only been three top executives [before me] at Bartell’s over 126 years and they were all named George Bartell. Being family owned, we’re part of the community and take the long view. I tell employees that’s not enough to be relevant. There are a lot of family-owned businesses that fail.
OUTSIDER: The family put together an outside board five years ago to get a wider point of view and I was put on the board. The family recognized there was going to be a gap before the five cousins in the fourth generation were ready to manage the company. That’s why they brought me in as the first outside manager. With revenues of $500 million and growing, management was also getting more challenging. Evelyn Merrill, the oldest of the cousins, is senior marketing manager. She has a lot of good ideas and is challenging the third generation in terms of her view of the brand.
STORES: We have 62 stores. We are talking about adding two to three stores a year. Today, we’re primarily in King and Snohomish counties, but I want to look at Whatcom [County], Bellingham, Poulsbo, Bainbridge Island and potentially farther south. With the Walgreen/Rite Aid merger, some Rite Aid stores will probably be divested. If the right stores came on the market, we would be interested. The Greater Seattle area is still booming, and with more density there is room to put a lot more drugstores in convenient places.
HEALTH CARE: We do flu shots now, but we are looking at providing other immunizations as well as testing for strep throat or flu so that you don’t need to go to your primary care doctor every time. Because of our concentration of stores in Greater Seattle, our share of the pharmacy business is right up there with Walgreens. It’s important that we have that scale to work with the insurance plans. We had a pilot program to have Group Health clinics in 25 of our locations, and Kaiser [which is acquiring Group Health] seems interested in continuing the concept.
COST OF DOING BUSINESS: I worry that in five years, if Seattle’s not booming anymore, what does it mean if you’ve raised the fixed cost [by raising the minimum wage]? But I worry less about the minimum wage than the growing congestion issue. I have 2,000 employees who live all over the Puget Sound region. We have to move freight around. Congestion is a bigger and bigger issue.
EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.