For those who know Dean Miller well, it came as little surprise when he decided to launch his own independent pharmacy banner.
By Jane Auster
Photos by John Packman
After years as a corporate executive with Remedy’s Rx, Loblaw Companies Limited and Shoppers Drug Mart, among others, as well as service on a number of pharmacy association boards, he was ready to take a plunge with his own banner. In fact, many, including Dean, wondered what took him so long. He sat down with us to share his vision for Whole Health Pharmacy Partners, which launched in April with seven pharmacy locations, and by the time we talked had already grown to 10.
You obviously believe strongly in the power of independent pharmacy, yet you come from a corporate background.
I was never an unbeliever. The profession comes first. If you ask pharmacists, they would say I am a supporter of the pharmacy profession, not just any one entity. So it’s not waving the flag of any organization I happen to represent. Many of my activities have been to be a booster of the profession as a whole, whether independents, corporates or hospital pharmacies.
Why independent pharmacy now?
Independents have always been of interest to me. All of these innovative things are happening now in our profession. Many people think it is the corporates driving that, but I believe it’s the thousands and thousands of independents in their communities coming up with creative things every day. Independents are the ones who are driven to provide great patient care in their communities, on their own and in collaborative care models with doctors and other healthcare professionals.
I have been a big fan of independents!
What do you bring to the table?
People can look to me to bring all my experience to our group to create a different model for independents. Part of it I learned from other models. I had the great fortune of having a bunch of different employers who allowed me to work in the profession, on committees and on boards – to do everything from health design to be on consultation boards to decide whether we need a second pharmacy school in Ontario, and now we have one: the University of Waterloo. I was involved in the exercise to craft the perfect pharmacy school. I’m pretty proud of that.
There are other independent banners in the marketplace. Why do you think there’s room for another?
I do think there’s room for another, otherwise I would not be doing this. What we are trying to do here is create more of a “premium” offer, appealing to pharmacists who want to be involved in a true pharmacy banner, to mould something that all of the members in the banner can be proud of. (I say to pharmacists), we are going to make you work a bit; we want your advice on how to make something quite unique and premium. We want more involvement in communication between head office and individual owners. We encourage owners to participate in that, and I ensure my team are really good listeners to allow that uniqueness.
This banner is not for everybody, but it is there for those pharmacists who are evolving as our expanded scope of practice evolves…and they are everywhere. It’s those pharmacists who are doing great things out there in their community. You might be doing 20 prescriptions a day and being the best in your community, or doing 200 prescriptions and being the best in your community. We just want great practitioners.
What’s your independent model?
We get a lot of mileage out of something we established early: the whole concept of likeminded pharmacists, people who really think about patient care in similar ways, whose pharmacy is a health hub in the community, where you, your pharmacy staff, your Registered Technicians give the best patient care possible. And you probably have great relationships with other professionals, like physicians and nurse practitioners. Our model is not defined by the number of prescriptions, but it is defined by the way you practise pharmacy. Our vision is of a collective group of people who make the pharmacy quite unique in Canada, who believe in the evolution of the practice model in Canada. Our goal is to build expanded scope into something pretty terrific.
Why did you launch when you did? Was the timing deliberate? What made this the right time?
I would not go so far as to say the timing was deliberate, but the timing was when we really saw professional scope develop over the last five years. We’re capitalizing on the evolving profession of pharmacy, doing something different, innovating and introducing the model at the right time.
You launched in Ontario only (with seven locations). Will you be rolling out your concept to other parts of Canada? What’s your growth strategy?
We’re already up to 10 locations now. I don’t really have an (optimum) number for you, but I don’t predict we will be 500 or 1,000 stores. I would love to be at a couple of hundred stores five years from now. We have a growth strategy we believe in – it’s moderate. I will be sadly disappointed if the hypothesis on this banner won’t work because I believe there are a lot of great people out there.
We launched in Ontario basically out of convenience, and when you’re building a startup organization, it’s great to start in your own back yard. It’s not a coincidence that the majority of stores are here, but we have had some enquiries from outside the province, and over the next month and years will develop a growth strategy depending on the location. We have our team crafted around a vision.
Of the 10 locations, one of them will be outside of Ontario, and we’ve had lots of enquiries, especially in the west and in the Atlantic provinces. Certain provinces have more strength in independent pharmacy than others. Right now there is a curiosity factor, but our primary job is to increase our awareness. Not a lot of people know who we are, so we want to increase our awareness over time, using social media to spread the word.
Do you think independent pharmacy is under threat in Canada? Are we becoming a country dominated by large corporates?
When you look at the market share numbers in the business of pharmacy in this country, people immediately think Loblaws and Shoppers Drug Mart. But the strength of independents is growing in Canada, with almost a market share of 50 per cent. So it’s still a very viable opportunity for pharmacists who have dreamed of opening their own business and operating without a corporate umbrella over them.
We have a lot of enquiries from pharmacists wanting to open their first pharmacies. For students, those big corporate jobs are not as available as they used to be. A lot of those people are heading back to their homes and saying I want to open a pharmacy in my hometown. There are a lot of different reasons that people are looking at independent pharmacies.
Why your banner versus the competition?
Every one of the other independent banners has its own set of unique qualities. Each of them has a whole lot of great things to recommend them. We usually tell interested pharmacists to do your due diligence, check everyone out, but our model is different enough, so if it appeals to you, let’s keep talking. It’s quite an active market out there. As the word spreads, we hope pharmacists will find us attractive.
It’s a big leap to go from being an executive in someone else’s operation to running your own business. Have there been any surprises?
The biggest surprise as a startup is that you do everything from develop and talk to legal counsel about complex legal arrangements to deciding what colour the toilet should be in your office. You are a jack of all trades, so it’s fun. Every day is different for sure; that is the biggest surprise. When I went into it, I thought I would just be involved in all the pharmacy stuff.
The other thing I learned, which I sort of knew, is that when I started to talk to all the independent pharmacists, there are a lot of people doing really innovative things. I find myself thinking, hey, wouldn’t that be a really cool national program? That’s something you don’t often get in corporate pharmacy, where everything is pretty top down, while this is ground up.
When customers and patients talk about Whole Health’s pharmacy partners, what do you hope they’ll say?
The patient experience is what you try to create in pharmacy, and you have a great opportunity to do that here. If patients in the community can say, I just walked into this pharmacy, and that’s going to be my pharmacy, we will have succeeded. That’s why pharmacists are seeing Whole Health Pharmacy as their place.
What are your next steps?
We are moving into our new home in Markham (in June). We’ve got our team created, we’re ready to move into more of the funner things, like the development of programs and working directly with pharmacy owners to build the banner.
What keeps you up at night?
Certainly nothing work-related. Whether the Edmonton Oilers are going to win again.