Two of the chain drug industry’s First Ladies were briefly in the news last month.

Faye Panasci, Henry Panasci, chain drug retailer, Fay’s Drug, regional drug chains, University of Buffalo School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Gerry Fantle, Bud Fantle, Peoples Drug Stores, David Pinto, NACDS, NACDS Annual Meeting,

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Inside This Issue - Opinion

Events bring to mind industry’s halcyon days

March 16th, 2009
by David Pinto

Two of the chain drug industry’s First Ladies were briefly in the news last month.

On February 19, Faye Panasci, widow of Henry Panasci Jr., the legendary chain drug retailer who cofounded Fay’s Drug in upstate New York in 1958 and built it into one of America’s great regional drug chains, announced a family donation of $1 million to the University of Buffalo School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Eight days later, on February 27, Gerry Fantle, widow of Bud Fantle, the chain drug retailer who, among numerous other accomplishments, revived the moribund Washington, D.C.-based Peoples Drug Stores chain in the 1970s, passed away.

Students of chain drug retailing are sharply aware of the ties that have bound the Fantle and Panasci families for over 40 years, dating to the days when Panasci was building Fay’s into New York State’s dominant chain drug retailer and Fantle, outgrowing his Ohio roots, was preparing to move to Washington to take control of the ailing Peoples chain.

Through the years no two chain drug executives were closer than Panasci and Fantle, who enjoyed a personal relationship that transcended business and exemplified the personal alliances that galvanized chain drug retailing in the halcyon days of the 1970s and ’80s. It was a time when rivals were friends and business secrets were routinely shared, a time when new chain drug stores succeeded simply by opening their doors and new markets automatically stretched coverage, added sales and increased leverage.

Faye and Gerry were as close as their husbands, another relic of an industry that has largely disappeared, replaced by a more professional and less personal approach to business. Once upon a time an NACDS Annual Meeting, in addition to its other advantages, was anticipated as a time when friends could get together. Today, the Annual Meeting is little more than an extended business session. The relationships that energized and propelled the industry are no longer evident. And chain drug retailing is no longer recognized for the character and content of the personal interaction among its senior managers — or their wives.

Bud Fantle died in 1996 and Henry Panasci nearly nine years later. But Faye Panasci and Gerry Fantle continued to share an enduring friendship. Indeed, the two often traveled together, memorably sharing a holiday on the French Riviera one summer shortly after Bud Fantle’s death, a vacation assembled by Henry Panasci in part to encourage Gerry to begin moving her life forward.

In truth, Faye Panasci was to prove more resilient after her husband’s death than Gerry Fantle. She travels easily, spends time with her children and grandchildren, sees friends and relatives. Her recent gift to the University of Buffalo, alma mater of both her husband and her father-in-law, confirms anew both her understanding of the impact Henry had on pharmacy retailing in New York state and her sense of what that contribution continues to mean for new generations of pharmacists.

It would have been easy for Faye to keep the money. But as anyone who knows her can attest, that’s not who she is or what she stands for. Her gift is as much about the golden years of chain drug retailing in America as it is about the Panasci family. It speaks to the continued intensity of Faye’s regard for a time that long ago ended. And the Panasci Atrium that this gift will finance and support is, fittingly, not the legacy of one man but of one family, a chain drug family.

Gerry Fantle had a more difficult time recovering from her husband’s death. To her, Bud remained a vital presence, the key component of her life, in the years following his death. If she couldn’t forget, the Washington community her husband embraced, and which in turn embraced him, wouldn’t let her forget. It is fair to say that Bud Fantle exerted a greater impact on Washington, D.C., than any retailer before or since. The city he left in 1990 was a far different place, economically, culturally, even spiritually, from the one he entered some 15 years earlier. He made a difference. And his widow was never allowed to forget it.

Now, at last, Faye Panasci and Gerry Fantle will go their separate ways. But each was immeasurably enriched by their relationship. And because of that relationship and those like it, chain drug retailing became, in its best years, the retailing segment that outshone all others.