Inside This Issue - News
Two from industry’s halcyon days remembered
February 4th, 2013
by David Pinto
Two members of the chain drug industry passed away on the same day in January. Each was very different from the other, yet they were tied together by virtue of their intimate participation in the halcyon years of chain drug retailing.
Glenn Kraiss died on January 18 at age 79. Kraiss spent 50 years in the chain drug industry, all of them with Walgreen Co. He began his Walgreens career as did many people of that era, working behind the soda fountain at a Chicago Walgreens while still in high school. He never left, working his way through college, then pharmacy school, successively being promoted to store manager, district manager, then regional manager.
In 1978 Kraiss was handed responsibility for all Walgreens drug stores when he was named head of operations for the drug chain, which at the time recorded sales of just over $1 billion. By the time he retired, in 1999, Walgreens had reached $15 billion in volume.
Perhaps more significant than the growth in sales was Kraiss’ participation in one of the more remarkable transformations in the annals of chain drug retailing. Along with Cork Walgreen, Fred Canning, Vern Brunner and a handful of senior executives, Kraiss infused new life into a drug chain that, observers agreed, had already seen its best days.
Founded at the turn of the 20th century, Walgreens had become, by the middle 1970s, a diversified retailer, operating restaurants, discount stores, and a drug store franchising business, in addition to sharing a discount store chain in Mexico with a Mexican partner. The problem was that none of these businesses was outperforming the competition.
So it was decided by Kraiss and Walgreens’ other senior managers to withdraw from the auxiliary business, retaining and concentrating only on the drug stores. That decision was among the most important ever undertaken by a drug chain.
At Kraiss’ retirement in 1999 Walgreens had once again regained industry leadership and, perhaps more significantly, the Walgreens drug store, under Kraiss’ leadership, had become the prototypical American promotional drug store. For those industry people with whom he worked and whom he led, there is little need to explain Kraiss’ accomplishments or legacy. For those who did not get the opportunity to know him, no explanation is possible.
Much the same can be said of Sharon Plomgren, who passed away on January 18 at age 76. For 53 years Sharon was married to Ron Plomgren, one of a handful of Longs Drug Stores executives who collectively built Longs into the superstore retailer that all other chain drug people admired, though few were successful in duplicating or even emulating.
In a business sense, Sharon Plomgren could not claim much direct credit for Longs’ success, though she lived an impressively diverse and rich life of her own. In a larger sense, however, her contributions to the success of her husband and the drug chain he helped lead can never be measured — or exaggerated.
One sad truth about chain drug retailing is that people tend to be forgotten once their active participation comes to an end. So it is with Ron Plomgren, as it was with Glenn Kraiss. In his day, however, Plomgren was as instrumental to Longs’ success as any executive who preceded or followed him at the company. Whatever job he was asked to do over his Longs career, he did it with distinction and accomplishment, improving Longs fortunes and prospects.
Sharon’s contribution to that career is that she was always there, a background figure who was not really in the background at all. She loved her husband, her close and loving family — and the retailer her husband worked for. She was invariably supporting, encouraging, enthusiastic — and critical when she needed to be. If she thought her husband was wrong, she said so. If she thought the company was wrong, she said so. And when she spoke, people listened.
Telling personal stories about industry people is probably not a smart idea. But one needs to be told. Sharon was raised in the Mormon faith, though by the time she met Ron she had come to question that body of beliefs. Once she and Ron began to get serious, Sharon approached an official of the Mormon church. “I think I could be serious about this man,” she told the official, “but he’s not a Mormon. What should I do?”
The official’s answer was a simple one, though not necessarily one in keeping with Mormon precepts: “Go for it.”
“That restored my faith in my religion,” Sharon said years later, “at least for a while.”
At her passing, much the same could be said about Sharon Plomgren as is being said about Glenn Kraiss: To those who knew her, no explanation is necessary; to those who did not, no explanation is possible.