Alex Gourlay, Co-Chief Operating Officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance, is one of three 2020 selections for the Path to Purchase Institute Hall of Fame. We interviewed him in March at Walgreens headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois
In recognition of his efforts in helping Walgreens respond to industry disruption and become a customer-centric, omnichannel retailer that is ready and able to address the ever-evolving healthcare needs of consumers, Alex Gourlay has been selected as a 2020 inductee into the Path to Purchase Institute’s Hall of Fame.
Walgreens Boots Alliance’s co-chief operating officer since 2016, Gourlay is responsible for the execution and transformation of both the Walgreens and Boots businesses, as well as for overseeing global operations. From 2014 until February 2020, he also served as president of the Walgreens chain, guiding one of the nation’s largest drugstore retailers through a period of massive change. Before joining Walgreens in October 2013, Gourlay was chief executive for the health & beauty division of Alliance Boots, the UK-based pharmacy with which U.S.-based Walgreens began merging one year earlier.
The Institute was first introduced to Gourlay in March 2014 when, as the retailer’s president of customer experience and daily living, he participated in a keynote “fireside chat” at the Shopper Marketing Summit in Chicago.
In March, Bill Schober, Peter Breen and Tim Binder interviewed Gourlay at Walgreens Boots Alliance’s headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois.
Title: Co-Chief Operating Officer
Company: Walgreens Boots Alliance
Education: Pharmacy degree from University of Strathclyde
• Pharmacy student, part-time store associate, Boots the Chemists: 1976-1981
• Pharmacist / Regional Store Manager, Boots the Chemists: 1981-2000
• Head of Stores Human Resources, Boots the Chemists: January 2000-2003
• Healthcare and Property Director, Boots the Chemists: 2003-2006
• Managing Director, Boots UK Ltd / Alliance Group Operating Committee: 2006-2009
• Chief Executive, Health & Beauty division, Alliance Boots, January 2009-October 2013
• President, Customer Experience /Executive VP, Walgreen Co.: October 2013-September 2014
• President-Elect Walgreen Co.: September 2014-December 2014
• President Walgreen Co.: December 2014-February 2020
• Co-Chief Operating Officer Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.: June 2016-present
• Fellow, Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain
• Past Chairman, National Association of Chain Drug Stores
• Director, Retail Industry Leaders Association
• Director, World Business Chicago
Judging by your accent, you didn’t grow up in Deerfield. Could you tell us about your background?
Gourlay: I grew up on the north side of Glasgow, Scotland, which is really similar to Chicago because it is a very working-class city. My mum was a housewife, and I had a pretty ordinary, working-class background, going to comprehensive schools and learning how to work hard to make a living. My father was a coal miner, originally, but then he got into further education – which in the UK was around community centers – so he progressed through life and did very well for himself. I learned the value of hard work and always having another ambition from him.
Did you have any jobs as a kid?
Gourlay: My first job was collecting divots from a local golf course after school, and putting the sand and the seed back. But I joined Boots as a 16-year-old on the “chemist counter,” serving people with over-the-counter medicines. I also helped in the warehouse, doing what’s called “porter work,” which is basically cleaning up when people spill things or someone is not so well – I’d be called to go clean it up.
Was there something special about Boots for you?
Gourlay: Boots was always a place I remember going to with my mum and, in particular, whenever there was someone ill in the family. I can recall on these visits how intense the conversation was, and occasionally it was about me: I’d be feeling off color or something. We’d always get solutions, so I had a positive, warm feeling about being in that local Boots store.
You went to University of Strathclyde for a pharmacy degree and qualified in 1981. Was it Boots that made you want to be a pharmacist?
Gourlay: I think so. It was more intuitive than thought through. I also quite enjoyed the thought of a career in retail, and Boots was and is very well-respected as an employer in the UK. For me, it was an obvious choice. It was never really in doubt, to be honest.
Did Boots have any kind of scholarship for you?
Gourlay: Yes. I worked throughout school part time, Saturdays, every holiday – whenever I could. Then, in the summer months, there was placement where pharmacy students could come in for their 8-10 weeks of vacation and learn over-the-counter medicine, which is a big deal in the UK. You begin to understand the practicalities of working in a community pharmacy as a pharmacist.
We’ve learned over the years that, in Walgreens’ culture, the pharmacist runs the entire store, which is different from mainstream retail. Was it the same way in the UK?
Gourlay: If you go back to the 1980s, almost every senior role in Boots would have been a pharmacist, all the way up to my generation. All models evolve, but you are right when you say that Boots and Walgreens have the mindset of a pharmacy company: Pharmacists build trust and relationships, and at the end of the day, we’re always on the patient’s side. The mindset is: Is it right? Is it safe? Is it quality? Can we help the patient understand what they’re taking and feel better about it?
I’ve signed many, many letters for people who have worked even longer [for Boots/Walgreens] than I have. People stay because they like the culture, they like what the company stands for and, most importantly, how it puts the patient before profit.
After college, you joined Boots full time in 1976. How would you describe your climb through the company?
Gourlay: Random. Never deliberate, to be honest – I just enjoyed what I did. I loved running shops, and we moved probably a dozen times. I am grateful to my wife Margaret and our children Nicola and Natalie, who are all fantastic and were so supportive in pulling up stakes and moving homes with me, from Scotland to the North of England, to the Midlands.
It wasn’t like Walgreens where most stores are the same size. Boots had all types of sizes, and generally speaking, you’d get more and more responsibility with each bigger shop: small pharmacies, then middle-sized pharmacies and, eventually, large drugstores or health & beauty stores. In my mid-30s, I ended up running one of the biggest shops in Leeds.
I enjoyed solving problems with other people and never worried much about who got the credit. Eventually you start to get noticed and people want to have you on their teams. That’s how careers happen inside a company.
When did you become part of Boots corporate?
Gourlay: I’d been an area manager for two years when the company restructured. Grocery was becoming very big in the UK, Tesco in particular, and the business was under a bit of pressure. Because I was the youngest area manager and thought to have strong people skills, in 2000 they asked me to become part of Human Resources. I led stores’ HR and personnel, and it was an incredibly important couple of years for my personal development, because that’s where I learned how the business model worked and built stronger people skills.
In HR, I got a chance to understand how the organization came together. Since I knew a lot about store operations and the customer-facing side as well, I was given a lot of big problems to solve. I wasn’t trained in formal HR policies and procedures, so I think I was a little bit freer to become a problem-solver and a change guy. It was a very important couple of years for me.
I also did property, health, and commercial pharmacy because I was good at transforming costs. Then, in 2007, the business was taken private by [investment firm] KKR and [Alliance Boots executive deputy chairman] Stefano Pessina. Stefano asked me to first take on the role of head of Boots’ operations. Then, about a year and a half later, he asked me to become the CEO of the health and beauty division, which was Boots and all the brands and some other operations.
Were there any mentors along the way?
Gourlay: For sure, my current boss Stefano Pessina has been the most important. I was always very curious about what I didn’t know, so I could name another five or six people who were fundamental in my development. I’d argue with them for months and then finally realize: they were right. For me, it was all about the dialogue and so they would challenge me, push me, debate with me – and then I’d see the light.