Brian Unmacht, new CEO of Bartell Drugs, says he’ll serve as ‘a bridge between the third and the fourth generation’ of the family-owned, 125-year-old company.
A former REI executive has been appointed CEO of Bartell Drugs, the first time in the company’s 125-year history that the top job goes to someone who’s not a member of the founding family.
The anointed executive is Brian Unmacht, a member of Bartell’s board of directors who in January was named president, a move that hinted at the succession announced Wednesday.
The appointment comes amid stiffening competition from supermarket chains, big-box stores such as Costco and national chains such as CVS, which last year entered the Pacific Northwest turf where Bartell operates 62 drugstores.
The move doesn’t mean the Bartells are giving up the reins.
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George Bartell, the grandson of the founder and CEO since 1990, will continue at the helm of the board, as chairman. His sister Jean Bartell Barber is vice chairman and treasurer. Meanwhile, a fourth generation of the family is being groomed to perhaps one day lead the firm.
“I say jokingly that I serve as a bridge between the third and the fourth generation,” Unmacht said in an interview. “It’s an honor to be entrusted with that role.”
Barber’s 28-year old daughter Evelyn will rejoin the company after finishing her MBA at Babson College in Boston. Her brother Hugh Barber and other members of the family are “spending time learning about the company’s operations,” according to a company statement.
Unmacht, 54, said part of his role is to take those next-generation family members under his wing and transmit the operational knowledge they need if they are to assume leadership one day.
Unmacht, a retail veteran, will be the fourth CEO in Bartell’s history. A Seattle native and former chief operating officer at REI, he also served as REI’s interim CEO between March and September 2013.
He said Bartell’s strategy isn’t going to change dramatically under his leadership. “The whole plan is not to have a big disruption to the business,” he said.
He added that the chain will stay local to the Puget Sound area, where it nevertheless faces strong challenges, ranging from deep-pocketed national drugstore chains to online competitors to a big influx of newcomers unfamiliar with the Bartell brand.
But Bartell has certain advantages that outsiders don’t, Unmacht said. Foremost, “a lot of great locations,” a number that may rise as the region keeps growing and becoming more congested, which makes neighborhood drugstores more convenient.
Bartell can also develop services with a unique Seattle twist that may enhance its relevance to local customers. For example, its South Lake Union location offers beer growlers, which have proved popular with Amazon workers on Friday afternoons.
Unmacht also cited the success of a beer it co-branded with Fremont Brewing — dubbed “Spring Elixir” and released in March, for the 125th anniversary of the drugstore chain. “I couldn’t believe the sales results,” he said, adding that they’re working on a second release.
“That’s something you’re not going to get at Walgreens,” he said.