ALEXANDRIA, Va. In life and in business there are essentially two kinds of people: people who work hard behind the scenes, who leverage relationships and pull people and resources together to make things happen; and there are people who take credit for it. Robert J. Bolger was the kind of guy that made things happen, friends and colleagues of the former National Association of Chain Drug Stores president and chief executive officer told Drug Store News in the wake of his passing, early Monday morning. Bolger was 85 years old.
Bolger, who joined NACDS in 1962, was elected the organization’s first president and chief executive in 1967, a post he served with distinction for some 20 years, and spanning a critical period in drug store retailing. At a time when powerful regional chains were morphing into national players, Bolger convened office when NACDS’ board of advisors was made up of executives named for the companies they led—it was a different era. Bolger is routinely credited as the man that brought the industry into the modern era.
“Bob was involved in the direction of NACDS for 25 years—that says a lot right there,” noted NACDS senior vice president of member programs and services Jim Whitman. Bolger played an integral role not just in the evolution of the industry but also in the evolution of the trade association business, Whitman told Drug Store News.
“Bob understood that the role of a trade association was to serve its members—first and foremost,” Whitman explained. “He understood that the members are the No. 1 priority.”
Bolger also understood some other key fundamentals as it relates to the trade association management business in general, and drug store retailing, in particular. It was under Bolger that NACDS held its first-ever Marketplace meeting in 1987; 20 years later, it remains, arguably, the single-most important event on the industry’s calendar.
Bolger is also responsible for relocating NACDS to Alexandria in 1980, purchasing the first of the buildings that comprise its current office campus along the banks of the Potomac. “Bob understood the importance to NACDS members of having a centrally located headquarters based in the Capitol,” Whitman added. It wasn’t long before other trade associations figured it out, too, but NACDS, under Bolger’s leadership was the first.
Bolger also understood the importance of legislative and government affairs; under Bolger NACDS expanded government affairs activities to focus on challenges at the state level.
More than anything else, perhaps, Bolger is remembered as a visionary and a consensus builder, who truly understood how to balance the needs of NACDS members—all of them; big and small, retailer and supplier.
“His keen recognition of the importance of bringing chains and suppliers together manifested itself, among other ways, in the creation of NACDS Marketplace,” noted NACDS president and chief executive officer Steve Anderson. “He also appreciated the changing composition of regional and national chain members, as well as the increasing implications to the membership of government programs. He saw the changes, foresaw their implications and knew how to work with other leaders through [NACDS] to address them.”
For Bolger—who began his career on the vendor side of the business, working for companies such as Kraft Foods, Smith Kline and French Laboratories—people came first; family, friends and colleagues. The decorated WWII veteran is survived by his wife of 53 years, Helen, as well as six children and eight grandchildren.
“It’s hard to mention Bob without Helen—in their time, they put a warm, human face on NACDS,” recalled Drug Store News vice president of customer development Jay Forbes, who was Drug Store News publisher during the Bolger years. “Bob was beloved by both the chain and supplier community and, in particular, we here at Drug Store News. He had an endearing personality and a gentle kindness. He was a man who, long after stepping down from his position of influence, was still sought out and warmly welcomed by virtually all in our industry. He will be missed.”
“NACDS remembers Bob as a committed family man, as the consummate trade association leader, and as an effective advocate for the members whom NACDS represents,” Anderson noted. “Bob’s leadership forged both the philosophical identity and physical home of NACDS. He understood and sought to address the needs of a diverse membership in an evolving business and public policy environment.
“He is remembered as a leader who inspired excellence in association management, and who equipped his team with the professional development and resources necessary to do their jobs and advance their careers,” said Anderson.
A funeral mass will be held Thursday, Oct. 11, at 10:30 a.m., at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, in Alexandria, Va.; an internment ceremony will follow at St. Mary’s Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in the name of Bob Bolger, to:Office of University DevelopmentVillanova University800 Lancaster AvenueVillanova, PA 19085
Or, alternatively, to:LaSalle College High School
8605 Cheltenham AvenueWyndmoor, PA 19038