Enters The Millennium
With a worker's cooperative approach Community Pharmacy, Madison
WI, survives and thrives marching to its own music
BY CAROL MILANO
It was 1972 and times were tumultuous on Madison's activist
campus when the Wisconsin Student Association started a collectively-run
nonprofit pharmacy off a downtown alleyway. Yet with $18,000
in cash and inventory, four pharmacists and 65 student volunteers,
WSA Community Pharmacy had a near sell-out on opening day.
That initial success provided a crystal hall into the future;
today, Community Pharmacy is still going strong, and is quite
possibly America's only worker cooperative pharmacy. Long out
of the alleyway, it occupies 4,000 square feet in a prime location
between the University and state capitol, with a staff of 25
and annual sales of $3.5 million.
Head Pharmacist Jane Greischar recalls the pharmacy's early
days. "Our main focus was on consumer education, rather
than retail. At first, we sold student items--soap, shampoo,
toothpaste--and provided birth control pills, antibiotics and
psychotherapeutic drugs. The prescription business was fairly
small and cash-paid--things students couldn't easily get at the
After its 1973 separation from WSA, the store sought nonprofit
status, but a retail business can't go that route. (Instead,
Community Pharmacy incorporated under Wisconsin's co-op law;
WSA remained part of the name until 1995.) At first, the pharmacists
ran the store. Staff turn-over was high until 1991, when Community
Pharmacy elected to own itself, as a workers' co-op. After one
year of employment, newcomers join one of seven management teams
(Pharmacy, Buyers, Merchandising, Planning, Business, Public
Relations, Personnel) which meet regularly to problem-solve and
The staff says it likes the cooperative approach, and apparently
it works for customers, too; some of them have patronized the
downtown drug store for a decade or more. In fact, University
alumni often come back to say they miss Community Pharmacy. "The
atmosphere's so friendly, with no dress code. I can ride my bike
to work, enjoy my workday--and it's nice not to have a boss,"
Pharmacist Michelle Melsby says she likes the sense of employees
building their own community. "We really see customers as
people," says Melsby, who joined the staff in 1998, after
seven years at University of Wisconsin Hospital. In that setting,
says Melsby, she felt pushed to the limits of safe practice,
working shifts of 10 hours or more, without overtime pay. "The
stress of constantly trying to make very important drug-related
decisions, not knowing if I'd make a mistake due to fatigue and
overwork, was too much responsibility."
So while Melsby says she took a substantial pay cut to join
Community Pharmacy, her true goal was to improve her quality-of-life.
"I still have stress as a pharmacist, but much less, in
a more supportive environment with co-workers very aware of a
pharmacist's needs," says Melsby, who now enjoys a 32-hour
work week (plus one Saturday a month).
The store averages 100 prescriptions a day; two to four pharmacists
are always on duty. Community Pharmacy publishes a free bi-monthly
newsletter, pamphlets and other educational material. To compete
with Madison's 12 Walgreen's and many smaller drugstores, Community
Pharmacy budgets $50,000 a year for local print advertising.
Of course, a lot has changed in Community Pharmacy's 28 years
of operation. When the store first opened, shelves of vitamins,
supplements and natural products occupied a mere 16 square feet.
Now, herbal and homeopathic remedies fill one-third of Community
Pharmacy's space. A sniffling customer has the choice of a traditional
OTC remedy or an herbal remedy such as Bi Yan Pian, a Chinese
formula to break up sinus congestion. Homeopathic purchases include
advice from a pharmacist, often Peter Kiesch, who spends 75 percent
of his time in the store's natural section.
In fact, Community Pharmacy has gained a reputation as a regional
information source for alternative as well as prescription drugs,
says Kiesch, who's been with the store since its opening day.
Phone calls may come from 250 miles away. Clients range from
well-educated members of the university community to seniors
from rural areas who buy alternative remedies their parents used,
Supplements and natural products account for nearly 50 percent
of Community Pharmacy's sales: these are "important for
dollar volume and better [profit] margins," says Kiesch.
"With high prices and expensive new drugs, prescription
revenue grows faster but margins keep shrinking; we have to make
it up elsewhere. We were a richer store in 1985. Sixty percent
of our business is through HMOs who don't want to pay for filling
prescriptions." Not surprisingly, the store barely breaks
even on prescription drugs, Greischar reports.
Alternative best-sellers include herbs (ginseng, gingko, kava
kava, St. Johns Wort) and anti-oxidants (vitamin C and E), says
Kiesch, who adds he is slow to recommend new natural products.
"With all the hype in the industry, you have to wait long
enough to see what works. If something does, we'll be selling
it 20 years from now." He says he waits for customer feedback
and reads a lot--some of it for his correspondence studies at
England's School of Homeopathy, leading to a national exam and
recognition by America's homeopathic community.
Local natural health professionals say they like having a
place to send their patients for a wide array of natural products.
Karen Kunkler, a doctor of naturopathy, says she is able to stock
a limited supply in her own office "partly because I can
send people to Community Pharmacy for their large selection,
from vitamins to natural cosmetics to a full pharmacy, which
is very unique. Their staff includes people who have a greater
knowledge base from which to guide a consumer." In turn,
the pharmacy sends referrals to Kunkler for problems such as
chronic fatigue or women's health issues.
As Community Pharmacy heads into the millennium, its employee-owners
say they're working in a setting that makes them truly happy.
"Instead of being behind a counter filling prescriptions,
I talk to people about injuries, sinus problems, arthritis, or
whether they can use St. Johns wort with an inhaler," says
Kiesch. "I'm here for them as both pharmacist and healthcare
professional. Alternative health care takes a long time to learn;
I knew nothing about it when I got out of pharmacy school. Every
week, I get mail from chain stores and hospitals, offering me
twice what I earn here. I decline them all. At Community Pharmacy,
we have a lot of control over our workplace--something most people
don't have today."
As Greischar puts it: "I keep thinking I may outgrow
this, but it hasn't happened yet. I just can't imagine working
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