Remembering an Arkansas drug store icon

I couldn’t let this week go by without noting the passing of another of the hugely talented, but low-profile retail innovators who made the chain drug store industry the powerhouse it is today.

As Drug Store News reported June 5, Stephen LaFrance died unexpectedly last Wednesday at the age of 71. LaFrance’s passing came less than nine months after he sold his powerhouse regional pharmacy business, USA Drug, to rival Walgreens for $438 million. So, sadly, he didn’t get much chance to relax and enjoy the harvest of a lifetime of hard work in the drug store industry.

LaFrance never sought the limelight as a business leader or health professional, preferring to toil quietly but successfully in the shadow of Walmart and other national retailers. So he may be unknown to many pharmacists and pharmacy students.

To LaFrance, that lack of renown never mattered much. His is a remarkable, rags-to-riches success story in pharmacy, retailing and wholesaling, and it would make a good case study in any pharmacy school business curriculum.

With very limited resources but a shrewd grasp of business principles, local customer needs and community pharmacy’s potential, LaFrance opened his first store in Pine Bluff, Ark., Stephen L. LaFrance Pharmacy, in 1968, reportedly with 26 bucks in seed money. Over the past 45 years, that modest beginning mushroomed into a sprawling network of regional chains operating 144 drug stores in the Midwest and South, along with a full-service and highly automated wholesale distribution business that serviced more than 1,000 customers from a 255,000-square-foot distribution center in Pine Bluff.

What made USA Drug’s success all the more remarkable was the company’s proximity to the Goliath of American retailing, Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart. Based less than 200 miles from each other, the two chains grew up side-by-side, and rather than being knocked off the Arkansas map like a tenacious and annoying little pest, USA Drug thrived on Walmart’s home turf. And it did so without shying away from offering a big front end in its drug stores, with many of the same product categories low-balled by its giant rival, and while snatching up other regional chains like Super D Drugs, Med-X Drugs and May’s Drug Stores.

How? With a deft blend of hometown-style, folksy customer service and sophisticated technology in the pharmacy and front end, including advanced dispensing automation and data-driven forecasting and replenishment systems. And LaFrance’s insistence on ethical business practices and honest dealings with suppliers and customers – his motto, according to former USA Drug president and CEO Joe Courtright, was “Do the right thing” – drove the company’s staying power.

Years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon with LaFrance and other company leaders at USA Drug’s headquarters. What I remember from this and subsequent meetings with Stephen was his sly, self-deprecating humor, his intelligence and his small-town charm. He didn’t go out of his way to cozy up to the press, and it took some small effort to get him to meet with me in his office. But despite his natural reserve, he quickly warmed to the interview process, and I found him immensely likeable.

He was also very funny. I remember the first thing he said that day in his office after we made our introductions. “Bet you didn’t know we wore shoes down here, did you?” he asked, smiling.

That’s one of my favorite memories of this quiet but brilliant Arkansas pharmacist and entrepreneur. You can share your memory by clicking on the link below.


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