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Buffalo store owner is voice of independent pharmacists

The day Bradley Arthur turned 16, he applied for a job at a gas station instead of starting work at his father’s pharmacies.

He wanted to get his first job instead of having it handed to him, even though his father, Don, had different plans for him. After six months of pumping gas, his father said, “Alright, you’ve made your point. Now come to work for the business.”

Bradley Arthur went to the University of Florida College of Pharmacy and began a 27-year career as a pharmacist. The Arthurs grew the family-owned chain to eight stores before selling six in the mid-1990s to Eckerd and Rite Aid.

Today, Bradley Arthur operates Black Rock Pharmacy, which his father started in 1959. His brother, Don Jr., operates Brighton-Eggert Pharmacy, and each is a minority partner in the other’s store.

The 51-year-old has spent 11 years in volunteer leadership posts with the National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents the interests of 23,000 independent pharmacies around the country.

Arthur recently was voted president-elect of the association, and he will begin a one-year term as president in October. He and his late father are the only father-son duo to serve as president of the group.

Q: Is there anything today your father would recognize from 1959?

A: I don’t know that he would be able to recognize the pace of change. There are some things that are still common and we hope will be common forever. And that’s a connection with a patient on a very personal level.

Q: How much of your revenue comes from the retail side compared to the pharmacy?

A: The reality of it is 98 percent of my revenues are from that little space back there. And only two percent from the stuff out front. My dad’s era, it was flipped around. Not to that degree – it was probably 70 percent front end, 30 percent pharmacy. He would probably say, What’s gone mad in the world? But the pace of change in this business is faster than it’s ever been.

Q: What are the main issues the association lobbies for in Washington?

A: There are 23,000 members. The overwhelming majority would tell you that they look to us for advocacy, not only in Washington but at state levels and local levels. And that’s to, quite simply, ensure access by patients. Meaning that you, as a patient, have a right to come to my pharmacy. And that right isn’t going to be usurped by an insurance company, or mail-order outfit or some other entity that wants to tell you where to get your prescriptions filled.

Q: Is Buffalo a good market for independent pharmacies?

A: I think it is. The Northeast as a whole has always been fertile ground for the independents. I don’t know the actual numbers, but what I’ve heard is that the number of independents has been very steady in the eight counties of Western New York. We have some additions and we have some losses. And the losses are in large part due to folks that reach an age where they’ve matured in their professional life and they simply sell out as opposed to closing.

Q: Who are your customers?

A: When Walmart came out with a pricing philosophy that was designed to bring more value – I think they had a $4 prescription drug plan – they peeled off those folks that were solely focused on price, that didn’t really put high value on Brad as a pharmacist or Tony as a pharmacist. To them, it became just a transaction, and where could they get it the cheapest? My customers, by comparison, have a high expectation of much more than that. We have home delivery service, which is still free. They feel they should be able to pick up the phone and talk to a pharmacist whenever they need it.

Q: You’ve got your CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid, not to mention pharmacies in Target, Walmart, Tops and Wegmans. How difficult is it for independent pharmacies to compete?

A: I had a friend who graduated from medical school, and he said, ‘Forgive me, but why would anybody chose you over someone else?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a relationship. Why would they choose you as a doctor over someone else? Because you’re choosing an important partner in your health care.’ If that wasn’t true, why not put medication in a vending machine? There’s value in that. And it’s harder to demonstrate that value to the younger generation. Because they want to order their pills on a smartphone and they want it delivered to the house.

Q: How worried are you about the growth of mail-order medications? And what other threats do you face?

A: It’s a big threat. We’ve been fighting mail order since its inception. Right now, we’ve been fighting this notion of preferred networks. If Insurance Company A goes to Walmart and says, we will give you all of our business, and you in turn are going to accept less reimbursement from us. We’ve gone as far as to say, whatever that reimbursement is, we’ll accept it. Just let us in. It’s called “any willing pharmacy” laws.

Q: Do you sell cigarettes and other tobacco products?

A: We stopped selling tobacco products about five years ago. I was approached by that group (the Erie-Niagara Tobacco-Free Coalition). My dad was an old-school retailer. He said, if it’s legal and people want it, we’ll sell it. And we needed to change that mindset. She convinced me that you’re a health-care-related business. So we were doing probably, amongst our eight stores, a quarter of a million dollars in sales in the tobacco category. Then we went to the two stores, and my brother and I decided collectively that we were done. We were going to put our money where our mouth was.

email: swatson@buffnews.com