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Lewis Drug named Regional Chain of the Year

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Since 1942, family-owned Lewis Drug has been providing shoppers in South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota with quality prescription and over-the-counter drugs complemented by sophisticated and comprehensive front-end ­offerings.

Through the years, despite challenges from big-box chains that have staked claims in Lewis territory — as well as the adversity the company has faced by massive fluctuations in the chain drug industry — Lewis has shown a resiliency that has allowed the chain to not only survive but thrive. These are just some of the reasons why Chain Drug Review has chosen Lewis as its regional drug chain of the year.

With 58 locations across these three states, shoppers have been able to find needed medications, speciality items and gifts as well as an assortment of products ranging from beauty, grocery, wines and spirits to items for their pets — all at affordable prices.

A characteristic that has been central to the company’s success, according to Mark Griffin, president and chief executive officer, is its size — which falls between being big enough to offer customers everything they need in a convenient, accessible space and being too big and thus overwhelming.

This delicate balance allows for “speed of convenience,” says Griffin, while the company remains focused on the customer and providing service that’s personal. “It’s all about the customer and what the customer is going through,” he says.

But Lewis, as Griffin will be quick to affirm, isn’t the type of company to rest on its laurels and rely solely on its reputation. It continues to grow and expand.

Earlier this year, Lewis Drug purchased pharmacy assets, including prescription files and records, from Shopko Stores in the South Dakota communities of Madison, Mitchell and Sisseton; the Minnesota communities of Luverne and St. James; and Ida Grove in Iowa.

Lewis Drug also opened a new location in Aberdeen, S.D., where Shopko Stores ceased its pharmacy operations in January 2019.

“These transactions demonstrate our continued commitment to serving our patients in the tri-state area,” says Griffin, noting that pharmacy is still the cornerstone for Lewis. Griffin also describes the Shopko acquisitions as a “win, win deal all around” because it allowed Lewis to grow while picking up some great people in the process, as Lewis makes an effort to retain staff from stores it ­acquires.

Lewis executive vice president and chief financial officer Scott Cross says the Shopko opportunity was an unexpected one, but one that “was too good to pass up” because the deal meant buying into existing markets without too much additional ­expense.

Cross says Lewis is contacted on a weekly basis about potential acquisitions, which require thoughtful consideration, because while Lewis wants to continue to grow, it wants to do so in a way that allows it to keep its identity as essentially the hometown corner store.

One such opportunity that was also too good for Lewis to pass up was opening a store in the revitalized Sioux Falls downtown, which, with its location only a couple of blocks from the original Lewis store on Phillips Avenue, symbolizing the company’s journey coming full circle, back to its roots.

“The timing was such that we had to take advantage of the opportunity,” says Cross. “If we didn’t move into that location somebody else would have.” Cross adds, however, that after a spurt of rapid growth and multiple acquisitions the company plans to slow its pace — at least for a little while. “We have to digest all that we’ve added,” he says.

The downtown store, constructed with reclaimed materials such as barn wood and corrugated chicken wire glass, features a Sanford Acute Care Clinic in the 6,006-square-foot building that was built atop the former site of Copper Lounge. The building’s rooftop is home to an indoor/outdoor patio expansion of the PAve nightclub next door.

Griffin takes pride in the downtown store not just because of its proximity to the first location, but because it was designed by his daughter, Nikki Griffin, who is Lewis’ corporate vice ­president.

“We wanted to maintain some of the old character of the building, and I think you’ll see that in Nikki’s design,” Griffin says, adding that his daughter’s involvement further solidifies Lewis as a family company. “It’s ironic that she could do that downtown where her dad started,” Griffin says. “So that’s a third-generation deal.”

The new downtown store features a pharmacy, over-the-counter medicines and a wide range of household and health and beauty items, while the Sanford clinic provides care for walk-in patients with nonemergency medical needs, including a lab for blood work, X-ray services, a care provider and a nursing staff.

Since its inception, the hallmark of Lewis has been its Midwest values — and that is the trait Griffin and the Lewis team plan to never lose. Those values center on family, and family is the operating structure the company most reflects.

In 1986, Griffin followed in the footsteps of his father, John Griffin, when he assumed the role of president and CEO of the company. At the time, there were only five Lewis stores in existence. Since taking the helm, Griffin grew the company to the 58 stores Lewis now operates. And Lewis, under Griffin’s stewardship, continues to excel.

Earlier this year, Griffin was recognized for his leadership when he was named the 2019 South Dakota Sales and Marketing Executive of the Year.

Nikki Griffin credits her father’s leadership style. “He has a great perspective,” she says. “He always says surround yourself with the smartest and brightest people, and then you empower them to make the ­decisions.”

Senior vice president and merchandise and marketing manager Bob Meyer describes Griffin as a “visionary” who is always looking forward. “He always tells the staff to look long. Don’t just look at today, but look at what tomorrow will bring,” Meyer says.

Griffin was born and raised in Sioux Falls and attended both the University of South Dakota and Arizona State University Business School. Before joining Lewis, Griffin worked for W.R. Vanderschueet in Atlanta and for A.G. Edwards in Sioux Falls. He began his career at Lewis in 1978 when he took on the role of vice president of inventory control. Along with his duties as CEO, Griffin remains an important and engaged executive within the retail industry serving on the executive committee of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. He was the association’s chair from 2002 to 2003.

Though regional in scope, Lewis — as well as Griffin — is respected across the industry. “He’s created a retail environment that is unprecedented in the United States of America,” says Steve Kirby, Sioux Falls business leader and founding partner of Bluestem Capital.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the success and durability of Lewis more than its ability to not only withstand the incursions of the big-box chains into Lewis’ communities, but to thrive despite them.

Griffin, however, doesn’t credit himself for Lewis’ endurance, but rather the extended Lewis family that consists not only of the company’s many associates, but its loyal customer base that has sustained Lewis all these years, as well as the extended Lewis family. “We have great people here at Lewis,” Griffin says. “They make the ­difference.”

But his leadership style aside, Griffin’s involvement in the industry and his networking have proved a major ingredient in keeping Lewis thriving. As Meyer notes, Griffin is a skilled communicator and knows what his company needs and has the ability and confidence to go and get it.

One of the main pillars for Lewis’ success has been the close relationship it has developed with Sanford Health, South Dakota’s leading medical group and one of the largest medical providers in the Upper Midwest.

Through this partnership Lewis, with clinics available adjacent to store sites and some within stores, is able to provide Sanford patients prescription drugs and other drug store-delivered health care services.

Working together, Lewis and Sanford develop real estate and share common sites for pharmacies and clinics. Through the partnership, patients have convenient access to affordable care, while the presence of the clinics brings more customers into Lewis stores.

“We’re always looking for and finding more ways to do more together,” Griffin says, “whether it be charitable or business. It’s been a great partnership for us and for the community.”

Like other Lewis programs and partnerships, its alliance with Sanford was born out of the recognition of an unmet need in the community and the commitment from Lewis to fill it.

Chain Drug Review
Brian Bossetta

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