If you’ve noticed a certain flair at Walgreens’ new urban stores — full-length glass windows, a stylized “W” logo on modern, mini-balloon displays, a selection of cosmetics from overseas — that’s just the start of a reinvention of the company. Alex Gourlay, the new president of Walgreen Co., who is also an executive vice president of Walgreens Boots Alliance — the new tie-up between the Deerfield-based drugstore giant and the Swiss owner of U.K. drugstore king Boots — has had a blue-collar upbringing and up-by-the-bootstraps career that would make any Chicagoan proud. Gourlay, 55, is the son of a coal miner who started out at 16 as an assistant clerk at a Boots drugstore near his hometown of Kirkintilloch, Scotland, before earning a pharmacy degree and beginning his climb up the corporate ranks. Gourlay’s second-in-command, Richard Ashworth, 40, president of pharmacy and retail operations, is a 23-year Walgreen veteran whose father, uncle and aunt worked for the drugstore chain for decades and who met his wife, Jennifer, at pharmacy school. Ashworth, a Hawthorn Woods resident, is focused on simplifying how employees get their jobs done so they can concentrate on customer service —never one of the company’s strong points. The two men talked with Sun-Times reporter Sandra Guy about Walgreens’ future. An edited transcript follows.
Question: How does your experience inform your plans for Walgreens?
Answer (Gourlay): I spent most of my career in store management and, as a pharmacist, primarily in the north of Scotland. I got a unique insight into change and restructuring [from 2000 to 2003] because Boots was under challenge from grocers — Tesco in particular. I had to restructure and be more focused on getting things done quickly for the customer.
A: (Ashworth): I started as a stock boy in a mall store next to the Daytona International Speedway. I was going to be a lawyer, but, over time, I came to admire the pharmacist. The pharmacy was a confident place you could go, with no judgment being made about your health care. For everyday health needs, it was free. You could go talk to the pharmacist.
I also found that I liked running the store and having a profit-and-loss statement.
Q (to Gourlay): You feel a kinship with Chicago already, just 18 months after moving to the United States. Why?
A: I am from a family that was very much working-class. My father was a miner. He went on to lead a community college.
I spent half my life and most of my working career in the north of England. One of the places I lived was in Birmingham, U.K., which is very similar to Chicago — very friendly, very warm.
Q: What would a typical Walgreen shopper notice as a difference with the reorganization?
A (Gourlay): We know that the chief medical officers of the household are usually women. Once they take care of the family — sometimes even picking up prescriptions for extended family, like aunts and uncles — they like to feel good and look at beauty items.
We believe we have enough knowledge and capability coming from Europe to make the beauty selection one that people believe they can trust for the right product and still get the convenience they want.
Q: Walgreen has become known for its programs to help people with disabilities. Where does that stand?
A (Gourlay): It is still an initiative. Our Anderson, South Carolina, distribution center was the first we built with the idea of employing people with disabilities. More than 40 percent of the employees have a mental or physical disability. The second site where we did this, in Windsor, Connecticut, counts about 50 percent of its employees with a disability. We also have a program called Retail Employees with Disabilities Initiative. We’ve trained more than 500 externs for jobs in retail, and more than 150 of them have joined Walgreens in store positions.
Q (to Gourlay): What was your biggest surprise about moving to the United States?
A: We bought a house here and discovered that we had to get a credit rating to switch on the gas and electricity. We had none. I had to scramble to secure a Social Security number, especially since this was in November and we needed heat. I sat in the office for five hours before finally securing what I needed.
Q (to Ashworth): What was surprising about living in the U.K. for a year, overseeing the company’s health care operations, when your children were 4 and 9?
A: The family came to appreciate the differences between England and the United States. My son still talks about beans on toast as his favorite breakfast.