By Kevin Anthony
Randy Johnson is big on challenges.
It’s why the owner of RX Pharmacy on the Kadlec campus in Richland jumped right in as a pharmacist and store manager straight out of college.
It’s why he went from working behind the counter for one of the biggest chains in the nation to opening up his own shop.
And it’s a big part of why his independent pharmacy has grown into a thriving business in four-and-a-half years.
“Certainly you have those days where I wish that I could just clock out for the day and know I’m getting a full paycheck and not have to worry about that,” Johnson said. “But I think at the same time that’s not really in my nature. I’ve always been driven toward leadership and a challenge, and the business stuff interests me.
“Granted, I lose a lot of sleep over it and it’s not the easiest, but I don’t think I’d want it any other way.”
Competing in an industry dominated by big chains like Walgreens, Rite Aid, Walmart and CVS is not for the timid.
Johnson’s secret? Service.
RX Pharmacy is staffed up: three pharmacists in addition to Johnson, four technicians and three more assistants, plus three delivery drivers and another technician who also helps with deliveries.
The staff of 15 makes for a pretty crowded work space in the 1,300-square-foot pharmacy in the Corrado Building, but it also is why most prescriptions are filled in 10 minutes or less.
Delivery drivers are another key service. Johnson estimated RX Pharmacy makes 70 to 80 deliveries a day. The free service isn’t reserved just for the infirmed who can’t leave their homes. It’s for people who are stuck at work, or anyone who can’t carve out the time to get to the pharmacy.
“I’ve got a 4- and a 6-year-old,” he said, “and it’s not the easiest thing to go pack them in the car and just run to the store and grab something.”
Delivery is a growing trend with pharmacies, much like with restaurant or grocery services. However, most stores use courier services. RX Pharmacy has its own drivers and three delivery cars.
Other services — such as delivering outpatient prescriptions to Kadlec patients before they leave the hospital, or bubble packaging drugs for patients with multiple prescriptions (think pre-made pill boxes) — have helped the business grow from four employees when Johnson took over the location in July 2014.
“We try to do the exact opposite of the big guys,” he said. “Up to this point, we’ve done very well.”
Well enough that Johnson opened a second, non-retail store — RX Pharmacy LTC — last June to exclusively service long-term care facilities. Managed by Dawn Johnson, Randy’s wife, the business works with 29 agencies from Walla Walla to Yakima, up to Moses Lake, ranging in size from adult homes with three residents to assisted living facilities of 150.
The second location brings the total number of employees to 23, including the Johnsons. This means Randy has to spend more time in management and human resources than behind the counter.
It’s a tough balancing act.
“I never want to get away from being a pharmacist,” he said, “and I think also as an owner, it’s important for me to be up there filling prescriptions and in the workflow and seeing some issues that I’m not going to see if I’m sitting back here in the office.”
Johnson credits his staff for the pharmacy’s success, calling them the “cream of the crop” and pointing to their familiarity with customers as a key to growing RX Pharmacy to the point where it fills about 8,000 prescriptions a month, about twice what the previous pharmacy was doing at the location.
Johnson would know; he was the manager of that store — a Walgreens — before buying the operation in 2014.
It was the conclusion of managing stores for other owners that started at the 14th Avenue Pharmacy in Pasco immediately after he graduated from the Washington State University School of Pharmacy in 2004.
The 14th Avenue store was purchased by Walgreens in 2009, and Johnson continued working there for two more years before moving to the store as his current location, then owned by Walgreens.
“During that five-year period working and managing with Walgreens, I just saw a lot of things that Walgreens was doing from being such a large entity and corporately massive, that a lot of things were falling through the cracks,” he said. “And there was a lot of potential for different services and needs in the community and in the area”
“Nothing against people who work for Walgreens, they’re just as good of pharmacists as I am and technicians and whatnot. But sometimes they’re just not given the flexibility and the staffing and the tools to be able to do some of those (services). And I had even tried to implement some of those as Walgreens in this location, and it just wasn’t working.
“I just decided that I see a need in the area, and specifically out of this location.”
The site was dark for about a week before it was back up and running.
“Our initial focus was, ‘OK, let’s try to get those people back into the store, as well as start to unveil some new programs.’ ”
Johnson also implemented a few workplace policies to give the pharmacy a personal touch.
“As a pharmacist (at a chain), you wear the tie, you wear the white coat. Everyone answers the phone the same way. Everyone is supposed to follow the script and that type of thing,” he said. “I feel like our patients and our customers coming through that door feel more comfortable when me as the owner — I’m wearing jeans and a polo shirt and the staff are in scrubs or a ‘14th Avenue’ shirt and have more of that homey feel.
“And what I’ve found is people are more likely to open up to you, ask you the difficult questions. I think sometimes in that white-coat setting, people clam up a little bit, don’t feel as comfortable. We try to keep it certainly professional, but have a little more laid-back feel to how we operate here.
“And I think people love it.”
RX Pharmacy is one of a handful of independent pharmacies in the Tri-Cities. Others include Malley’s Compounding Pharmacy in Richland, Fiesta Pharmacy in Pasco, and Reliance Pharmacy and the Medicine Shoppe in Kennewick.
Independent pharmacies can remain competitive by taking part in national buying groups. RX Pharmacy is in a group with 2,000-plus other pharmacies.
Still, independent pharmacies are never going to beat the chains on the bottom line, which brings it all back to service.
“Certainly I’m sacrificing some from the bottom line to be able to do those services and employ those people,” Johnson said. “But to me it’s worth it. And that’s been a big part of why the business has grown.
“Taking care of people at the end of the day is why most of us got into the pharmacy world and the health care world.”
RX Pharmacy: 800 Swift Blvd., Suite 140, Richland; 509-713-7444; tricitiesrx.com.
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