In March 2020, Neighbourly Pharmacy CEO Chris Gardner was in Port Coquitlam, B.C., painting the inside of a pharmacy blue. That’s because when a new store is added to the Neighbourly family, it’s all hands on deck. Gardner goes to every newly acquired pharmacy personally to meet staff and help with the transition from independent business to being a part of a larger company.
Gardner joined Neighbourly as VP of national operations in 2017, when it had just 19 stores — far fewer than he previously oversaw as a Shoppers Drug Mart executive. But Neighbourly, which was founded in 2015 as Rx Drug Mart (it changed its name just this year), presented a unique opportunity: a rapidly growing chain of small pharmacies with a strong focus on respecting the legacy of each store while also ensuring it’s meeting the needs of the community it’s in.
Today, Neighbourly owns more than 130 pharmacies across Canada, and its support centre in Toronto has about 55 employees, with an additional 15 who work in the field supporting pharmacies across the country. While many people assume that Shoppers and Rexall own the lion’s share of drugstores in Canada, in reality their market share is just over 19 per cent, says Gardner. “The balance is independent owners who are really struggling with what to do with their pharmacies, their legacy and their staff when they want to retire,” he says. That’s where Neighbourly comes in. When it buys a store, it doesn’t overhaul it to be a cookie-cutter pharmacy. Instead, the team looks at what each pharmacy needs to make it a success. A pharmacy inside a doctor’s office in Toronto has very different needs from one serving a remote northern community, for example. “Rather than lean away from that, we lean into it,” says Gardner.
Despite the fact that Neighbourly’s pharmacies are located all over the country — including in Inuvik, which has the northernmost pharmacy in all of Canada — Gardner has found a way to keep the team connected. An in-house social-media platform allows pharmacists from Sturgeon Falls, Alta., to Deep River, Ont., to Saint John, N.B., to connect with each other. And this intimacy has helped the company weather the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, a pharmacy manager in Calgary developed a program where he went to an area wholesaler and administered COVID tests on-site. He was able to share his idea rapidly. “Sharing best practices and helping each other is so valuable,” says Gardner. “It actually takes some of the work away from our support centres.”
Neighbourly is on track to acquire hundreds more pharmacies across the country within the next five years. “We’ve got an amazing team,” says Gardner. “And we have the capacity to be able to grow to that level.”