PITTSFIELD — Thomas and Lillian Flynn met in Boston, when they attended the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. They married, then opened their own pharmacy in Pittsfield, Thomas Flynn Jr.'s hometown. That was 70 years ago.
Seventy years is a long time to operate any business, but it's especially significant in pharmacy, because the number of independently owned ones are dwindling.
The rise of national pharmacy chains, and online and mail-order prescription services, combined with declines in the amount that owners of these establishments receive in Medicare Part D reimbursements, have put a lot of independently owned pharmacies out of business. This trend has been particularly acute in Berkshire County.
There were 38 independently owned pharmacies that operated in the Berkshires in 1984. Now, there are only two, and one of them is Flynn's Pharmacy and Home Medical Equipment in Pittsfield. North Adams lost its last independently owned pharmacy two years ago, when Little's HSC Pharmacy was sold to CVS Health Corp.
Chris Flynn, Thomas and Lillian Flynn's son, and his nephew, Thomas Flynn IV, are the current owners of Flynn's. We spoke with both men recently about how they have kept the business going when their colleagues have struggled.
Q: You've been operating since 1951 in a business where others like you are struggling. What's the secret?
Chris: We learned a long time ago certain things from my parents, of just taking care of people [Thomas Flynn IV's father, Thomas Flynn III, co-owned the pharmacy with Chris until he retired three years ago]. It's just treating people the way that you want to be treated. Even to this day.
We deal with elderly people. I try to stick it in the back of my mind, "What if that was my mother or my father?" — that type of thing. We lived in the community and we used to take care of people in the community.
Even to this day, I still hear stories, "Oh, I remember when your father. ..." Those stories are becoming less, but there are still people who come in who dealt with my father years ago [the Flynn brothers bought the pharmacy from their father in 1986]. They had good, positive things to say, and you always try and keep that in the back of your mind.
Q: It sounds like your parents were a big influence on you.
Chris: They were honest, very religious. ... They lived their lives very truthfully.
Tom: There's a lot of trust between the customer and the pharmacy, and that plays a large role in why customers continue to come back. They truly know that we have their best interests in mind, whether we are filling prescriptions or taking care of a loved one; it may even be as simple as the medication may or may not help them. ...
Businesswise, sure, you want the sale. But, if you give them your honest opinion about if they should take the medicine or not or if they should take an over-the-counter product, I think that goes a long way and builds that level of trust.
Q: But, not only have you stayed in business, you've been able to thrive in this environment.
Chris: We do have a good volume [of sales]. You can't be a low-volume store. You have to have a good amount of volume.
Tom: The diverse volume of services has certainly helped, even before I got involved.
Chris: We branched out into home medical supplies [in the mid-1980s]. We diversified, and that helped us.
Q: Why did your father originally decide to diversify?
Chris: It was actually just as we [Chris and his brother] were buying the store, when my father investigated getting into home care. And we kind of took it and ran with it. ... It's been great for me to have a partner in this business. It's tough.
Q: Why did you both decide to become pharmacists?
Tom: I grew up in the business, either visiting my parents there or working the counter or doing deliveries. It's been a comfort for me to be able to go back and work as a pharmacist there and talk to the people that started coming to the store when my grandparents owned the place and I continued to come, and those relationships have been pretty important to me.
Chris: I'm one of nine kids. Only two of us went into pharmacy. I wasn't sure at first. I did a lot of other jobs. I pumped gas. I helped to build a house one summer. Then, in my senior year [in high school], I decided that this is what I wanted to do. I went back to the pharmacy and I decided to go to college for pharmacy.
Q: What was the deciding factor?
Chris: After doing all those other jobs, pharmacy seemed real appealing. It was clean. ... It came with a license where you could go anywhere. I'd always have a job, and that was a comfort to me. ...
When I went to pharmacy school [also the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy], I wasn't going to come back. I was going to work in the hospitals in Boston. I worked for a couple of them, and that was at the time that my father said, "I'm going to retire; do you want to go into business with your brother?" Tom [Tom Flynn III] is eight years older than I am. ... It appealed to me to come back here and do the same.
Q: What's the difference between running an independent pharmacy in the mid-1980s and now?
Chris: Computerization of the records, billing the PBMs [pharmacy benefit managers, who set the pay rates for prescription drugs].
Q: Do you have to be more of a businessman now than a pharmacist to deal with all these health care changes?
Chris: I think so, so that you can understand the whole PBM scenario.
Speaking off the cuff, I don't think a lot of politicians understand it. ... They [PBMs] can steer patients to their own mail-order pharmacies either by cutting them breaks with co-pays, or by providing them with a 90-day supply [of medication] and limit us to, say, a 30-day supply. ... They're the middleman between the insurance company and the patient, so, they can really dictate and steer a patient or pharmacy to the place they want to.
Q: So, how do you work around that?
Tom: To touch back on what we were talking about earlier, what's thriving for us is our customer service, having that trust with a patient, when a customer comes in or has been coming to the store for years and they fully trust the information that they were given. And diversifying the services. There are a few things that we do in pharmacy that most chains and mail-order pharmacies don't want to do. Medication on time is a big one. It's very labor-intensive.
Q: Medication on time?
Tom: We will take someone who wants their own program, and we will oversee their whole medication therapy. We will package medications so all their morning medications are packed together and their evening medications are put together. They're time-stamped and dated when they should take the medication in multiple bottles. ...
We do pickup and delivery. Providing services like that is what keeps us in the game. Not every pharmacy wants to tackle that.
Q: If someone was interested in starting an independent pharmacy now, what would you tell them?
Tom: The people who are getting into owning an independent pharmacy at this point, from what I've seen, are either buying into an independent pharmacy or buying an independent pharmacy, rather than just starting from scratch. I think it's just due to it being a very volume-driven industry. To start off with low volume and without those relationships would be a very difficult task.
Chris: I think it would be very hard to just pick a building and stock it with the amount of inventory that you would need and put up a sign and say, "OK, I'm ready to go." It's going to take awhile to ramp up.
And, just to touch back, before I forget, one of the questions you asked was about why we exist and why we're doing so well. ... I think it's partly because of our staff.
Q: What do you mean?
Chris: We've got five pharmacists. No one chain is going to have five pharmacists. We have technicians who have been with us 30-plus years. ... We've got good employee retention.
Tom: They [the employees] treat the place as if it's their own. That's rare to find. We understand how lucky and fortunate we are to have that personnel.