Leap of faith—pharmacist returns to family roots
A card-carrying, board-certified pharmacist can find a job just about anywhere. Their services are in need wherever humans are known to congregate, increasingly so as life expectancy increases and medical science pushes the boundaries with new miracle drugs and procedures. In metropolitan areas big pharmaceutical retailers such as Walgreens and CVS Caremark are expanding at unprecedented rates. Such is the demand that pharmacists are often hired while still in school.
Rural areas are the one exception to the rule. The problem isn’t a lack of pharmacists as much as a lack of population—think customer base—and opportunity. Small towns are in some ways closed societies, inclusive, self-sustaining, dynastic. For an established professional service provider, there’s no room for competition; for an outsider trying to come in, there’s little chance of success.
It’s all about timing, and for Jamie and Allen Yungeberg, the timing was perfect.
The lone Blue Rapids pharmacist was nearing retirement with no successor in sight. Allen’s job at Ballard’s Sporting Goods in Topeka was downsizing, leaving his future career uncertain. Jamie’s career as a pharmacist at Walgreens was going strong but the stress and impersonal nature of the job were beginning to wear on her. And then Blue Rapids residents started asking if she’d consider moving back.
Blue Rapids, a small town of 1,100 in south-central Marshall County, was Jamie and Allen’s homeground. (Allen was raised in Waterville, a mere four miles to the west.) Both still had family living there. Perhaps most important, the fact that they were actively recruited said something about the welcome they would receive were they to make the move.
Not that it was an easy decision, even with the timing.
“It was a real leap of faith,” Jamie says. “It was scary. But I felt honored that so many people trusted me enough to ask us to relocate. I definitely had an advantage over anyone else who might have wanted the position.”
There was another big plus: Allen, as a former business manager for the Ballard’s location, would provide experience in retail management, something needed since her position at Walgreens focused on the pharmaceutical rather than administration. What was immediately obvious was that Allen would play a large role in the business. Also obvious was an immense learning curve they would have to overcome. They hesitated, but not for long.
“We went the expensive route,” Jamie says. Meaning that rather than share the former pharmacy with a newly formed church congregation and pastoral office they looked for their own place, not always easy in a small town. Their luck held, however, when one of the original limestone buildings on the town square went vacant. It was the ideal location and provided room to grow.
Now, four and a half years later, they’re comfortably settled in. Remodeling added a small gift shop in the front room bordering on a retail area for over-the-counter medications and supplies. The gift shop was Allen’s idea, partly because of his former ties to retail sporting goods. Most items consist of college-branded merchandise of the K-State and KU flavor. Prominently displayed in the center was a single decorative glass bearing a big red N.
“That’s been there for a while,” Allen says. “I don’t sell a lot of it but I still like doing it. It’s what I knew.”
Now he’s something of an expert on insurance benefits, insurance forms, insurance headaches and pharmaceutical software, which was one of the most costly startup expenses. Ninety per cent of their business is paid through insurance of one kind or another, and keeping up with the ever-shifting tides of regulations and benefits is almost a full-time job in itself. For Allen, selling sports curios is as much a self-defense measure as it is added income.
Moving back has mostly been beneficial, they both agree, though small-town life has a few disadvantages, notably the absence of fine dining establishments. Still, their boys—Will, 11, and Jake, 8—can ride their bikes to school, something impossible in Topeka. (The grade school is two blocks from their house.) They can close for lunch, something unheard of at Walgreens, though they stagger the break to give customers time to shop during the standard noon hour. If necessary they can even leave for a while, one or both, to attend school functions. “We have a little freedom we never had before,” Jamie says.
Dress code is, to put it mildly, relaxed, at least for Allen, who rarely wears long pants unless outside temperatures are Siberian. He’s known for his comic relief, a trait established as a semi-official job function that’s often in stark contrast to Jamie’s professionalism. Though she dresses stylishly, Jamie eschews the traditional white jacket of the corporate pharmacist in favor of small town sensibility. After all, the corporate world is something she purposefully walked away from.
The dissimilarities between then and now are another way she measures success. The corporate world of big box retailers was based on efficient time management and slavish output. At the Topeka Walgreens branch she filled about 300 prescriptions per day. In Blue Rapids, the average runs closer to 80 per day. But the numbers don’t tell the true story. Corporate America in its greed for speed has forgotten the number one principal of successful businesses: personal interaction.
Put simply, there was none. Now that Jamie has the freedom to run her business as she likes, customer service and interaction are prevailing business precepts. For in rural Kansas the customer isn’t always right, the customer is usually family or friends.
“You really get to know people here,” she says. “They tell you about their lives and bring you into theirs. We’re on a first-name basis with most customers. Customers want to come here and do business with us. They want to see us successful. That’s refreshing.”
In exchange, Jamie and Allen provide exemplary customer service. Their hours are such that people can often take care of business during lunch or after work, plus they’re open half-days on Saturday. They’re also available on off-hours if customers need prescriptions filled. They also call insurance companies to try to resolve issues, something most pharmacies won’t do. “It’s not a primary pharmacy function, but we do it every day,” Jamie says. “We go the extra mile. Allen even changes watch batteries when needed. We do it all.”
There are challenges, however. Wal-Mart, located 15 miles to the north, poses a threat with its enormous buying power and an increasing availability of $4 generic drugs. “We can’t buy that cheaply,” she says. “We have a buying group but it doesn’t have that kind of clout.” A declining population base limits growth, though increasingly customers transfer from other nearby towns, some as far as 25 miles away. Keeping current with insurance programs is a continual battle and takes a tremendous amount of their time. And there’s a new kind of challenge with spouses being in almost constant contact. Not everyone can handle it, they admit.
“I recommend it to everybody,” Allen says with a wry smile.
For all that, the relocation was a good move, they say. They have no regrets for leaving and certainly not for coming back.
In a way it’s like any person who graduates from school and wants to move away and never come back,” Allen says. “We were away long enough to know the outside world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and home isn’t all that bad. It’s a nice place to raise a family.”
“We’re part of something here,” Jamie says. “We have a purpose. We were young enough to take a gamble on moving. I’d say we came out ahead.”