By Anne Bokma
It’s a David and Goliath-style scenario: a modestly-sized independent specialty pharmacy that’s thriving within a stone’s throw of almost a dozen chain drugstores on one of the country’s busiest downtown thoroughfares. Pace Pharmacy, the brainchild of Adam Silvertown, has only been in business just over 10 years but it has gained a reputation as the city’s leading destination for specialty compounded products. It’s even on friendly terms with a lot of those neighbouring chains that operate close to its location near Toronto’s Yonge Street—many of them refer patients with complex compounding prescriptions to his pharmacy.
“I literally have five Shoppers Drug Marts within one kilometre of my store,” says Silvertown. “They send me a lot business—I’m doing the stuff they can’t or won’t do.” That “stuff” includes customized dosage forms that aren’t commercially available—including suppositories, lollipops, transdermal gels/ointments, suspensions and lozenges—as well as medications without lactose, sugar, dyes or alcohol. His client base includes midlife women seeking bio-identical hormone replacement therapy, patients with HIV, AIDS and hepatitis, as well as vegetarians and vegans looking for animal-free products such as gelatin-free capsules. And being situated near the heart of one of Toronto’s largest LGBT communities, a recent unanticipated area of new growth is supplying hormone therapies for the emerging transgender population.
Investing in his specialty
Although Silvertown launched PACE (an acronym for Pharmacy and Compounding Experts) with the plan to offer specialty compounding services, after five years in operation it became clear that those services were actually driving the business. That’s when Silvertown decided to make a major (almost six-figure) investment to build a second compounding lab, including a separate, full sterile clean room. It was the culmination of a long-held dream; what he describes as a “well-calculated choice,” toward becoming a major destination for compounded prescriptions. “In order to provide high quality and safe products, I needed a higher-tech facility. A lot of pharmacies can call themselves a compounding pharmacy but you need specially trained people and you need special equipment. Now we can compound products we couldn’t do before—we’ve upped our quality and we can also accommodate a higher volume.”
A case of the frontshop blues
The compounding lab is where he’d rather be—and Silvertown admits managing the frontshop isn’t his forte. That’s why he’s reduced the space he devotes to over-the-counter products to less than 300 sq. ft. of his 1,300 sq. ft. pharmacy, carrying only a limited supply of skin care products, supplements, cough/cold/allergy remedies and pain relievers. “Of all the things that come with running a pharmacy, managing the frontshop is my least favourite task,” he admits, blaming an early drugstore internship experience when he got yelled at by a manager for not knowing exactly where the advertised laundry detergent was located. “It scared me for life,” he laughs. “That just isn’t for me. I didn’t spend all that time and energy in pharmacy school for that.”
Instead, compounding became his passion. Concocting custom meds was “way cooler than counting pills.” He compares his job to that of a chef who seeks to perfect a dish for a customer—or a detective who figures out the clue to solving a medication mystery. “Our job is to figure out what our customers’ specific needs are and then try to accommodate them—so we spend a lot of time talking with our customers, getting to know them, and they are very appreciative of that.”
He credits his staff—there are three pharmacists in addition to himself as well as six pharmacy assistants and one pharmacy technician—with providing the kind of personalized service that keeps customers coming back. Compounding is exacting work—one complicated script could take a pharmacist hours to prepare. While a busy chain pharmacy might churn out 200 scripts a day, he says his staff “would pass out” if they tried to prepare that many orders. A typical day has the pharmacy preparing 70-100 scripts, about two-thirds of which are compounded medications. “It’s been gratifying to see our staff take such ownership and pride in the growth of the pharmacy—they feel this is their pharmacy too. I know that means I’ve hired the right people.”
Silvertown has been invited to give talks to pharmacy students and says he always tells them “the same old story: make sure you love what you do, otherwise you will be stuck in a rut and be miserable at your job for 40 years.”
It’s wisdom he gained while doing locums and relief work in the early years after graduating from the University of Toronto. “I didn’t start my own pharmacy for the money—if I worked for someone else I’d have way less stress, more money and probably a lot more hair on my head. But I didn’t find the right place where I was really happy doing what I was doing.”
Instead, he created his own “right place.” And the hard work is paying off—he continues to experience sales growth year over year and is currently mulling over the prospect of opening a second location.
“I could have chosen a different path, but I wanted independence. As a result, I definitely have a lot of professional fulfillment,” he says. “The best thing has been seeing the business grow and knowing how many customers have come to appreciate what we are able to offer.”
Marketing snapshot: 7 sure ways to get noticed
Here are seven marketing initiatives that help Pace stand out from the crowd:
- Bill yourself as the best: Pace promotes itself as “Toronto’s best compounding pharmacy” and the only fully equipped compounding pharmacy that offers free delivery anywhere in the city.
- Leverage the power of social media: Expand your reach beyond your brick-and-mortar pharmacy by ensuring you have an online presence. An early adopter of Twitter, Pace has 3,600 followers and Silvertown regularly tweets on everything from new clinical studies to general healthcare advice.
- Offer support to patient groups: To show support to his LGBT client base, Silvertown sponsors monthly meetings of a local AIDS support group and has put together a Pace Pharmacy team to participate in a local AIDS walk. He’s also donated wall space to a local shelter for clients to display their artwork.
- Align with other pharmacies: Area pharmacies often refer patients to Pace for complicated compounding prescriptions that they might find challenging to fill. In turn, Silvertown has referred patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, to local pharmacies with expertise in specific areas of disease management.
- Meet face to face with physicians: Silvertown takes advantage of every opportunity he can to meet in person with area physicians to ensure he’s more than just a voice on the other end of the phone. When doctors call the pharmacy he asks for a meeting, and often invites them for a tour of his compounding facility. “That way they can be assured of the quality of our work and our high standards,” he says.
- Keep advertising local and targeted: Pace doesn’t spend a lot on traditional advertising. Instead, he participates in neighbourhood campaigns such as running digital ads in the elevator of a neighbouring condo building and offering a 10% discount on frontshop products to employees at a nearby office building.
- Nothing beats word-of-mouth: A happy customer inevitably brings in more customers. “A lot of our customers refer their friends and neighbours to us because they like our patient-focused approach—that’s still the best form of marketing,” says Silvertown.
The 4 best decisions he’s made
- Investing in high-tech compounding: “I spent a lot of time and money getting properly educated and trained at my own expense in the art and science of compounding.”
- Hiring based on personality, not just skills: “I’m picky about who I hire and I’ve made some mistakes. I’d rather have a conversation than do an interview. If I get a good feeling about someone and think they’d be a good fit with the other staff, that’s the most important thing.”
- Never stop learning: “I can attend more than 10 conferences/seminars/symposiums every year. This represents a significant amount of money—running well over five-figures—every year. Pri-Med [Canada’s largest annual family medicine education conference and medical exposition held annually in Toronto] is a great opportunity to talk to family doctors and specialists.”
- Ensuring work-life balance: “I used to be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Then one summer I started closing the pharmacy at 6 p.m. so I could make it to my recreational softball games. I never looked back. I also stay closed on Sundays and long weekends.”
Anne Bokma is an award-winning Hamilton writer and former editor of Pharmacy Practice.
This article was originally published in the November issue of Pharmacy Practice+Business.