When it comes to homegrown Canadian retail success stories, you’re not going to find too many as endearing or inspiring as that of London Drugs. From its humble beginnings, opening a single store on Vancouver’s Main Street in 1945, to the brand’s status today as western Canada’s preeminent destination for pharmacy needs, electronics, appliances and more, the organization has witnessed just about every challenge and opportunity that the retail environment and evolving market conditions could present. Currently serving more than 35 major markets and an estimated 45 million customers a year throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, the brand and its offering contributes significantly to the health and wellbeing of the communities in which it operates. And, more than three quarters of a century after its founding, London Drugs continues to grow. It’s an incredible achievement for the iconic Canadian retailer, one that Clint Mahlman, the company’s President and Chief Operating Officer, says is rooted in its differentiated approach to retail.
“Part of what makes London Drugs so special is the fact that the company has spanned a number of different eras and customer needs,” he says. “And there are a few qualities about the brand that has allowed it to stand the test of time. We’ve always been unique in our offering. And, we’ve always developed strategies that are unique to our competition, focusing on our customers in everything that we’ve done. If you look back historically at London Drugs, whether it be the originator of the brand, Sam Bass, or his successors like Mark Nussbaum and Wynne Powell, the company has enjoyed the guidance of incredible leaders and true merchants who were not afraid to try things that were completely unique, different or off-the-wall. As a result, today we’re known as a uniquely eclectic, unconventional retailer that’s a little bit quirky. This approach has also let others throughout the organization understand that trying new things and failing often is a really positive sign that they’re pushing themselves. Supporting this philosophy has always been a culture of support, promoting innovation, creativity and continuous learning. And, perhaps most significant to the success that the brand has enjoyed over the years is the trust and integrity that it’s managed to build in its customers and employees, doing right by their needs and the experiences they seek.”
Serving to lead
Mahlman, who’s held leadership positions at London Drugs for an astounding 37 years, has been present for more than half of the company’s history, witnessing much of its growth and evolution. As a result, he possesses a deep and unmatched understanding of the brand’s values and approach to business and customer service. He appreciates the legacy that London Drugs has built over the years and is acutely aware of the role it continues to play. The profound recognition of the factors that have contributed most significantly to the company’s success and continued growth allows Mahlman to carry on its mission to remain differentiated and unique, leading with a style that seems very much influenced by his understanding of the brand and its customers.
“Leadership is about bringing out the very best in the people around you in order to help the organization do its very best work and live up to its potential,” he asserts. “I describe myself as more of a servant leader in the sense that I understand the needs of our owners, customers and staff and the importance of finding ways to help them fulfill those needs. During difficult times, much like those that we’ve experienced over the course of the past 20 months or so, leadership is also very much about stepping forward and being very bold and clear concerning the path and navigation through these challenges. When we were given the privilege in the early days of the pandemic to be designated as an essential retailer, we had to figure out a way to leverage the opportunity responsibly for the communities we serve and for our staff. There was so much fear and uncertainty, and people needed clarity and things to rally behind. This thinking was very much the catalyst behind our support of the community, small local businesses, and the creation of special hours for first responders and healthcare staff. Once this direction from a leadership perspective was set, our staff was really able to rally behind these initiatives, taking over with so many wonderful ways of helping the community and driving the organization forward.”
All perspectives count
With such an enduring tenure at London Drugs, it seems natural that Mahlman’s approach to business would be underpinned by a real sense of compassion and care. However, he cites his upbringing in Gibsons Landing on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast and experiences working in forestry camps, commercial fishing boats, pulp mills and logging operations as extremely influential and educational with respect to connecting with people. They are experiences and lessons, Mahlman says, that made an indelible impression on him, providing him with knowledge that will stay with him forever.
“During my time working in some of my earlier jobs as a kid, I quickly learned that some of the brightest, most articulate, trustworthy and intelligent people that I’d ever meet were working in those jobs. Many of whom had never received a formal education. And many of them did not have an easy time growing up. Those experiences and connections taught me at a very young age, as did my parents, the importance of looking at the person and to never confuse intelligence and smarts with education, the colour or creed of the person, or the letters following someone’s name. To this day, I recognize the importance of listening to the people doing the work on our behalf on the front line. All perspectives count at the end of the day and this remains very important to the continued growth of the company.”
A culture of care
Mahlman goes on to explain that there have obviously been an inordinate number of influences and inspirations that he could share concerning the experiences he’s enjoyed at London Drugs. He describes the people at the company as “special”, suggesting that exceptional qualities and characteristics have been present within the organization throughout its storied history, saying that it’s difficult to single out any one person or experience as singularly integral to his development as a person and professional. However, he recalls one meeting in particular that helped him realize almost immediately that he was working with the right company.
“I have had so many wonderful mentors and influences throughout my career at London Drugs,” he says. “But, one interview that I had with the legendary Tong Louie has really stood out for me. I was being interviewed for the human resources job with the company. It was my second interview with Mr. Louie. After the conversation, he looked me up and down with his famously unlit pipe to his mouth for what seemed like an eternity. And then he looked me in the eye and asked, ‘will you take care of my people?’. In that moment, I knew how important it was for Mr. Louie, as it’s also been for Brandt and his sons Greg and Stuart, to treat their employees with dignity and respect. It’s been a cornerstone to the way London Drugs has been run as an enterprise and incredibly influential for me concerning the way I lead and approach the business.”
It’s a leadership style and approach that continues to serve Mahlman extremely well, helping to position the company for further growth and success. And, it’s also proven to be instrumental in helping to guide London Drugs through the challenges and adversity that were brought about by impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic, allowing the brand to remain agile and to adapt to a changing retail environment. Mahlman points to the many pivots and shifts that were made by the company during the past 20 months or so as evidence of that agility and ability to adapt, adding, however, that its London Drugs’ unyielding penchant to innovate and experiment that had already shored up the brand’s offering in a way that secured its strength and resolve during these times of uncertainty and disruption.
“The situation around the pandemic drove trial by a large number of customers who may not have shopped with us in the past or may not have shopped with us online, testing our ability to be nimble and responsive to all of the significant challenges that were presented to the entire industry,” he says. “It forced us to find different suppliers and reassess how we actually retail in order to safely interact with customers and get them the product they need. In addition, something that’s really distinguished London Drugs from many of our competitors is our technology business. In the last few years, we’ve been focusing on the repairs and services side of our business. After the initial panic-buying phase of the pandemic had receded, our technology repair business went through the roof as people needed to stay connected. In fact, for a period of time, Apple told us that we were by volume the largest authorized Apple repair depot in North America. We were also very fortunate to develop our ecommerce business very early on and also introduced one of the first buy-online-pickup-in-store models of any chain in Canada, long before the pandemic. At the time of its introduction, our customers didn’t really see the value in it. But, as soon as restrictions and lockdowns were instituted across the country, it was obviously a service that became essential to meeting their needs. And we were ready with the experience and systems necessary to meet those needs instantly.”
Digitization of pharmacy
In addition, Mahlman explains that because the company had also amassed invaluable experience using their store locations as fulfillment hubs, it was able to quickly and effectively meet the surge in demand of online orders that occurred at the onset of the pandemic and throughout. He also credits the attitude of the London Drugs store staff for much of the brand’s successes, praising their commitment to serving the company’s community of customers and continuing to innovate in order to find greater efficiencies and service enhancements. Mahlman says that the collective sentiment within the company to achieve continual improvements is critical in maintaining its forward momentum and addressing the challenges of an ever-changing retail environment.
“The massive digitization of retail and the world around us, the increased use of artificial intelligence and robotics and continued rise of ecommerce are big forces that are shaping retail and the future of London Drugs at the moment,” he explains. “And, with respect to ecommerce, an underestimated challenge faced by Canadian retailers is the amount of international ecommerce players selling to Canadians, without the same cost and infrastructure that companies in Canada need to operate within. Convincing government of the importance of creating a level playing field is very difficult. They don’t seem to understand how challenging it is for Canadian retailers, who often feel as though they’re playing the retail game with one arm tied behind their back. In addition, the digitization of healthcare and expanding scope of practice for pharmacists presents exciting potential for customer access to healthcare and is very influential to our strategy going forward. However, this side of the business needs to be developed with a clear understanding of privacy-related issues. In order to address these significant influences, we’ve recently developed two initiatives named Galileo and DaVinci with several linking projects that are responses to these forces and meant to ensure our competitiveness for another 75 years.”
Galileo and DaVinci represent the largest capital and systems investments in the company’s history, empowering it with a platform from which the brand can maintain the breakneck speed of retail digitization. It helps to position the company well to evolve with future advancements and innovations impacting the success and growth of players across the industry. However, as Mahlman points out, the most significant benefit that the investment will reap is the fact that it will allow London Drugs to further enhance the excellent experience that it already provides for its customers, leveraging state-of-the-art tools as we head into a new digital age of pharmacy and healthcare retail.
“There’s an intersection of three forces that will impact all business, particularly those that deal with personal health data, going forward,” he asserts. “There’s been a massive change in computational power through very sophisticated neural-based quantum computing which are generating an inordinate amount of data collected from a multitude of sources, fuelling massive artificial intelligence engines that can inform based on customer shopping data, or data related to personal health, presenting immense potential around their use. However, it’s all for nought if the new privacy laws that we’ve seen instituted across Europe, laws that will be introduced soon in Canada, are not fully thought through when implementing these systems. In order for companies to fulfill this wonderful potential for customers, they’ll need to ensure that customer data is robustly protected and secured so customers have confidence in the retail and healthcare industries. If executed properly, a more intuitive shopping experience and enhanced healthcare outcomes are possible to achieve, dramatically improving the customer experience.”
With respect to opportunities for London Drugs to achieve further growth, Mahlman’s approach is extremely pragmatic. He admits that the company has never felt that it’s needed a store location on every corner in the provinces it serves, adding that it doesn’t have any plans to announce any massive store buildouts. Instead, he says that it will continue to focus on developing unique services that fill a need and are local with respect to the need state of the customers in the surrounding area. He goes on to explain that the range of services that the company already provides allows it to add value to the retail shopping experience, engendering and strengthening trust among its customers.
“In highly regulated fields like pharmacy, convenience and trust are the things that customers look for,” he asserts. “You literally cannot, by law, differentiate yourself too much in your actual service offering. It’s similar within the insurance services business that we’re in, where it’s highly regulated and traditional retail offerings or incentives are not permitted. In those regulated businesses, establishing a degree of differentiation is difficult. But what permeates across all businesses is trust and reliability. So, those unique businesses that we operate provide us with an opportunity to support that differentiation. You might be able to get your prescription filled with a competitor. But there are very few that can repair your iPhone while you’re waiting, and help you connect your blood pressure and glucose monitor readings from pharmacy so that on your next doctor visit, he or she has all of the data that they need at their disposal. And, we also offer a wonderful post office experience. These types of services generate foot traffic to London Drugs, increases engagement with our valued customers and allows us to build relationships and trust with them.”
Considering all of the innovations and unique service offering that the company has developed and introduced through the years, London Drugs serves as an excellent example of the positive outcomes that are often yielded from continuous experimentation and a willingness to listen to the customer. And, after more than 75 years of business, there doesn’t seem to be a chance that the company’s going to let up under Mahlman’s leadership. He says that it’s not in his or the brand’s character to do so, adding that it’s their collective commitment to forging ahead, consistently improving and maximizing the potential of the homegrown Canadian community pharmacy.
“Retail is such an interesting industry. Very few other industries have their customers in their workspace every day. A lot of other industries have long sales cycles and are involved in a product or service that marries them to their customers for long periods of time, regardless of their customer satisfaction rate. But retail is a theatre performance presenting tests every day. You’ve got to be on at all times or the customer will take their business elsewhere. That environment, though brutal, provides retailers with the type of immediate feedback that players in other industries crave and spend millions of dollars every year to obtain. It’s something that keeps us on the edge of performance every day. It’s what makes retail fun and exciting – that pursuit of excellence. And, at London Drugs, we’re all extremely fortunate to be able to rely on the support of our frontline people, as well as the significant and steadfast guidance of the Louie family ownership. We’ve always been very truly blessed to enjoy their support, allowing us to take a long-term approach to enhancing the business and the services that we provide for the London Drugs customer.”