Walgreens circles back to Greg Wasson for chief executive spot

Pick an outside turnaround artist/corporate hotshot to lead the nation’s most storied drug store retailer? Forget it.

The decision by Walgreens’ search committee to circle back to Greg Wasson as the company’s newest chief executive probably came as something of a relief, both to company insiders familiar with Wasson’s breezy, competent management style and to Wall Street investors looking for the right combination of leadership continuity and fresh, forward-looking vision. With his deep background in both the nuts-and-bolts of Walgreens’ store operations and its more recent PBM and health care initiatives, Wasson is the logical choice to lead the company through a turbulent economy and a fundamental transformation.

He’ll have his hands full. To cope with an economy in crisis, falling profits, a health care system in dire need of reform and the growing challenge posed by the integrated CVS Caremark pharmacy/PBM market model, Walgreens has had to scrap the aggressive market expansion and store-development strategy – and move beyond the “hedgehog” strategy of basic drug store convenience merchandising – that brought it so much success over the past three decades.

The goal: to draw “more from the core” of Walgreens’ assets, rein in costs, regenerate store sales and earnings with new merchandising ideas, get a better handle on needs of both consumers and corporate health plan payers, and reassert Walgreens’ industry leadership to thrive in a new era of integrated, cost-conscious health care.

Wasson, a vigorous 50-year-old with a 29-year history at Walgreens, appears to have the vision and management skills needed to reinvent the 108-year-old retail powerhouse. Before his promotion to president and COO in 2007, he served for five years as head of Walgreens Health Services, the company’s fast-growing pharmacy benefit management and specialty pharmacy operation, following a long career in Walgreens field operations and regional management. Wasson brought his expertise in PBM operations and the needs of employers and other health plan payers to his role as Walgreens’ second in command.

That expertise will be critical to the new CEO. Wasson’s job will be to lead the rapid evolution of Walgreens beyond its comfort zone as a market-saturating, convenience-oriented drug store retailer, and into a new role as a more customer-focused and fully integrated pharmacy, convenience merchandising and health services giant. 

As president, Wasson had a big hand in pushing Walgreens to adopt a more integrated retail pharmacy and clinical-care strategy, to grow its specialty pharmacy division in line with the explosive growth of specialty and bio-engineered medicines, and to move its pharmacy and clinical service capabilities beyond the drug stores and into corporate campuses.

Wasson also helped spearhead big changes in management to help the company realign along the new paradigm. Walgreens promoted talented veterans like George Riedl to executive vice president of both marketing and merchandising and divisional VP Chong Bang, who now heads a major new initiative called “customer-centric retailing.” Wasson is also credited by Walgreens’ board with promising new hires from outside the company like Kim Feil as chief marketing officer. He was also instrumental in the “more from the core” transformation strategy.

Wasson’s job will be to lead the rapid evolution of Walgreens beyond its comfort zone as a market-saturating, convenience-oriented drug store retailer, and into a new role as a more customer-focused and fully integrated pharmacy, convenience merchandising and health services giant.

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