Greg Wheeler is a BC Pharmacy Association Board Director and the owner of three pharmacies under the Remedy’s Rx banner, Oliver Pharmacy, City Centre Pharmacy and Rose Valley Pharmacy located in Oliver, Penticton and West Kelowna, respectively.
Sarah Pelka / Pelka Photography
How did you get into pharmacy?
Greg: I didn’t get into pharmacy school until I was 27-years-old. By then, I had already graduated from McMaster University with a biochemistry degree and had been working in the laboratory business as a phlebotomist for a few years. But I was looking for another career choice, one that would allow me to work directly with patients, run my own business, while remaining involved in science.
I decided to apply to the University of B.C., which was a challenging yet rewarding experience: I had just gotten married and by the third year of pharmacy school, had our first child. It was quite the journey.
During my fourth year of pharmacy school when we had our practicum rotations, I wanted to explore communities outside the Lower Mainland. I loved the Interior and completed a rotation in the Kootenays and another in the Okanagan, after which, I was recruited at a pharmacy in Oliver.
Did you always want to own your own pharmacy?
Greg: Well, even before going to pharmacy school I had a bit of a drive to be a business owner and that desire just kept on increasing with time. I wanted a challenge and an opportunity to build a pharmacy model that suited high-end services for patients. I also wanted freedom. By building my own opportunities, the risk would be my own and so would the path, and I’d know that when I made a decision, it would be my decision, my risk and my reward.
Immediately after graduation, I started networking. I travelled to every single pharmacy in the Okanagan, from Osoyoos to Kamloops, shaking hands and meeting all the pharmacy owners to get a feel for who they were. I also did my market research. I wanted to learn about each pharmacy, what they offered, the communities they served and how they were operated.
With all this in mind, when I met with pharmacy owners, I always knew: I was interviewing them as future mentors as much as they were interviewing me.
What were the factors you considered before picking a particular pharmacy or location to own?
Greg: They didn’t teach you how to run a business in pharmacy school so, for me, the key to successful ownership was to find people who already had that success and learn from them.
In 2000, my family and I moved to Penticton. By then, I had worked at the pharmacy in Oliver for two years when I came across Skaha Pharmacy in Penticton. It was owned by a husband and wife team, who were great mentors, excellent business owners, and had exceptional people skills. Meeting them, along with my mentors from Laurel Prescriptions and Oliver Pharmacy, so early in my career was a real blessing.
Due diligence is also very important to perform and understand. Skaha Pharmacy had been in the community for a long time and had a successful model. Their revenues were bolstered by contract work with some of the seniors centres nearby and these contracts were an area of business that was growing for the pharmacy.
I worked at Skaha for the next four years, all the while developing a close relationship with the owners while proving to them my own capabilities. When they decided to sell the pharmacy, they came to me first. I owned and operated Skaha Pharmacy for the next 10 years.
How did you meet the financial challenges of owning a pharmacy?
Greg: For a young pharmacist, unless you have financial backing it can be a significant challenge to move into ownership.
I didn’t come into this with financial support and I also had substantial student debt. I recall approaching six different banks, trying to build relationships with the bankers, but initially I couldn’t find any success.
Luckily, after much determination and perseverance, I made a connection through the banner, who in turn had a connection with the Bank of Montreal who specialized in pharmacy acquisitions. I was able to secure about 40% of the funds I needed. I also located a second financial organization that specialized in health-care lending for an additional 40%, they’re still around today as CWB Maxium Financial Services. The remainder came from private lending through a connection with my accountant.
The risk level was enormous. The interest rates were high. But I knew it was the only way for myself and my business partner at the time to purchase the pharmacy. Even though it carried substantial risk, I knew the pharmacy’s model, I knew its business and I saw the potential for growth, so much potential that I knew if I played my cards right, we would be able to pay off one of our loans relatively quickly. It ended up being the right call.
How did you pick the right people to work with?
Greg: I was fortunate in that I had inherited a truly A+ team of staff at Skaha pharmacy. By then, I also had a lawyer, an accountant, and a commercial banker, and I saw the advantages of surrounding myself with experts in fields where I lacked the expertise.
A business partner can also be extremely important, when owning and operating a pharmacy. First, it can help financially. Secondly, it’s the security. When there’s someone who has the same vested interest as you do, they’re going to keep the business running if I am sick or away. Thirdly, this should be someone who shares your ideas of how to run the business, but ideally brings a skillset that is complementary to your own skills. You want someone to be good at handling something you’re not, that can include human resources, finances or operations.
At what point in your career did you decide it was time to expand to multiple pharmacies?
Greg: To go from one pharmacy to two pharmacies is a huge step. A big part of it is how you have built all these deep relationships with the customers as the owner, and now you’re stepping away to try and run another pharmacy.
You can’t be in both places at the same time, so the key was to find someone who could manage my pharmacy in a manner that paralleled my own approach. I pivoted my hiring process to find someone who had the same professional goals and the potential to become invested in the pharmacies and understand the business side of things.
Even after finding that person it can take years for patients to start building that same relationship that you shared with them and it’s very difficult to step back from that role. Only after I got to that point did it become easier to look at expanding to another pharmacy.
Lastly, what would you say is the essential attitude that every pharmacy owner should have?
Greg: You must be comfortable with a certain level of risk in order to be a business owner. I’ve seen this over and over again, many pharmacists have the work ethic, they have the drive, they want to own a business, but they back out when they see the risk involved.
Back when I bought my first pharmacy, losing everything was a very real risk and I accepted the fact that if I didn’t make it, I might have had to start over. Not everyone has that same risk tolerance.
You have to find the right opportunity, learn from your mentors, surround yourself with an excellent team, and also have confidence in your ability, your planning and the steps you have taken to minimize the risk to reap the professional and financial benefits.