Hats off to Ryan, Sammons

WHAT IT MEANS AND WHY IT'S IMPORTANT — Neither one of the co-recipients of this year’s Fantle Award would want you to call it the end of an era. They would both tell you that’s an overstatement.

(THE NEWS: NACDS honors Tom Ryan, Mary Sammons with lifetime achievement awards. For the full story, click here)

To be sure, to be the kind of leaders Tom Ryan and Mary Sammons are, you need to have a strong personality — almost larger than life. The people on The Street and the shareholders need to believe what you tell them; and the people you lead have to want to follow you. It pays to be a straight shooter; it pays more if you prove you can follow through. Ryan and Sammons did both.

Tom Ryan only ever had one employer. From a staff pharmacist fresh out of the University of Rhode Island in 1974, to head of the company — 1-of-4 people, including current president and CEO Larry Merlo, ever to lead CVS. Ryan’s story is somewhat unique, and not just because he was a CVS “lifer,” but because of the indelible stamp his leadership has left on the company. As Ryan grew in his career, CVS grew from a feisty New England-based regional to a national drug store powerhouse, to a multiheaded healthcare colossus that actively is engaged in the reinvention of American health care, and is helping to redefine the role of the community pharmacist in patient care.

For Sammons, the path that led her to become the top boss at Rite Aid was very different. She joined the company at a time of immense turmoil in its storied history, following a highly successful run at Fred Meyer, where she had risen through the leadership ranks to become president and CEO. But DSN has long believed that when the final story is written on Rite Aid, Sammons will be remembered as a valiant hero who helped bring the company back through the darkness to a new renaissance that continues to unfold, led by the team that she helped assemble. Rite Aid’s most recent numbers are showing signs of organic growth as a couple of its most important strategic commitments begin to bear fruit — most notably its new Wellness+ loyalty program, which is gaining traction fast.

And all of this says nothing about the important leadership Ryan and Sammons have provided for the entire industry, not only during their respective tenures as chairman of NACDS, but as two of the industry’s most important everyday ambassadors. As Washington continues to address health reform, it is clear that whatever the future holds for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — whether it’s re-spin, repeal or reform — community pharmacy will play a larger role in the delivery of health care in America. Ryan and Sammons have played an indispensible role in this.

But this also is why neither one of them would want you to refer to this as the end of an era. For one thing, the good work continues for both of the companies they once led — Sammons, in fact, remains acting chairman; Ryan gives up the gavel once and for all this Wednesday at the annual CVS Caremark shareholder meeting — led today by the teams they helped assemble. At CVS, where the change perhaps seems more dramatic given Ryan’s long career at the company, including almost 20 years in the captain’s seat, Ryan’s successor practically is a “lifer” himself, having been with the company for more than 20 years, coming over in the 1990 acquisition of Peoples Drug, and only having worked for one other company prior to that in his entire career.

And like Ryan, Merlo already has left an indelible stamp on the chain, which is comprised to a large extent of the assorted retail banners CVS has acquired through the years — many of which Merlo led the integration of.

Ryan and Sammons are both proud to tell you that the beat goes on at each of their respective companies. That’s the mark of a successful leader. Not only do they leave their companies in much better shape than when they found them, they leave their companies as each continues to grow, led by strong, capable new leaders that will continue the story.

It takes a big, strong personality to be the kind of leaders Tom Ryan and Mary Sammons are. But Ryan and Sammons are proof that you don’t need to have a big, stuffy ego to be an effective leader. That’s another reason why neither of them would want you to call it the “end of an era;” why, they practically cringe when you refer to it that way.

That it is not the “end of an era” for either company is as much a tribute to the lifetime of achievement these two important executives have had as any trophy ever could be.