Walgreens visionary Vern Brunner loses cancer battle

It was easy to like Vern Brunner.


As Walgreens’ top merchant, and leader of a whole team of talented merchandising strategists and category managers, Brunner was a driving force behind the giant company’s surge to retail excellence in the 1980s and 1990s. For two decades, it was his job to weave together all the suppliers, product display ideas, planogram and section designs, inventory cost considerations, forecasting tools, advertising campaigns and creative ideas that propelled Walgreens’ incredible long-term success at the front end of the store.



Given that success, it was inevitable that Brunner would also emerge as one of retail pharmacy’s most powerful behind-the-scenes decision-makers. Like Jim Mastrian of Rite Aid and Revco, he was perhaps one of the last of a talented breed of high-profile merchandising giants – leaders whose intuitive ability to anticipate consumers’ wants and needs led them to single-handedly put a personal stamp on the way a big retailer presented itself to America.



Brunner came to his job after decades of paying his dues, and he was well prepared to become Walgreens’ executive VP marketing. He was smart – Evans Scholar at the University of Wisconsin, savvy contract negotiator with suppliers – and understood the professional side of drug store retailing as well, having begun his career as a Walgreens pharmacist in 1963. Brunner also knew the store operations side of the business inside and out after serving as a store and district manager.



Despite his outsized impact on drug store retailing, however, the man’s ego never grew to the same proportions. He remained a down-to-earth, plain-spoken Midwesterner with a friendly nature, an easy sense of humor and a self-deprecating wit.



It was easy to like Vern Brunner.


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