As a highschooler, he needed to get to the only ice rink in Des Moines, Iowa, for 6 a.m. hockey practice, and his mom would not drive him.
“She refused to drive in winter,” Gates says, although the time of day probably didn’t help his case.
His dad worked as a police officer and couldn’t give him a ride, so the solution was to drive himself. The catch? His mom said he had to chip in for car insurance.
So he looked for a job close to home, and the two nearest options were the local grocery store or the independent neighborhood pharmacy. He picked the pharmacy.
“I knew the pharmacist because I grew up going there. I explained to him the situation, he gave me a cashier job and that’s how I got started,” Gates says. “The best part of the story is that my illustrious hockey career ended when I graduated high school.”
Gates went to pharmacy school at the University of Iowa—the first in his family to go to college—and got his start at Walgreens with a pharmacy internship in 1995. Fast forward almost three decades later and Gates is the company’s first-ever chief pharmacy officer.
“If you’d asked me when I was a pharmacist in the store, would I be a chief pharmacy officer of Walgreens? I didn’t think it was even possible,” Gates says, laughing. But as opportunities came up, Gates kept saying yes, and then he’d say yes to the next challenge, and then the next one after that.
“I’ve always been a practitioner at heart, and I’ve wanted to impact where pharmacy’s going,” Gates says. And that’s exactly what he’s planning to do as chief pharmacy officer.
What gets Gates going: Enabling pharmacists to give patients their best
In his new role, Gates is leading the strategy to create an ecosystem across all Walgreens pharmacies that best benefits pharmacists and their patients. His time working with health plans, pharmacy benefits managers, biopharmaceutical partners and health systems has highlighted the opportunities Walgreens has to support our partners and patients in more ways.
Gates is also working with Walgreens Boots Alliance’s U.S. Healthcare segment, to fully enable the role pharmacists will play as Walgreens transforms into a healthcare company.
“Dispensing is always going to be part of what we do, but where pharmacy needs to go is focusing more on patient health outcomes,” Gates says. “And so what WBA CEO Roz Brewer has charged me with is creating an operational ecosystem that enhances our practitioners’ and our technicians’ time in stores to deliver services and not be so focused on transactional dispensing.”
He talked about the importance of giving pharmacists more time for patient care by utilizing micro-fulfillment centers, which are dedicated exclusively to filling prescriptions, as well as centralized services centers, which support pharmacies’ inbound phone calls, data entry and data review.
“You have to take tasks off our team members’ plates so they can deliver high quality-care,” Gates says. “We’re innovating in our infrastructure differently than anybody, which is going to set us apart from competitors. How we enable our pharmacists is going to be critical for us moving forward.”
Why Walgreens for 28 years
Gates has spent his entire career at Walgreens, officially 28 years in May. His first job after college was with Walgreens, working as a pharmacist in Phoenix, Arizona—certainly a bit warmer than the ice rink in Iowa. He spent 12 years working in the area including 8 years working in different pharmacies in various pharmacist roles.
“What I loved about Walgreens is I got to practice in varied settings to really understand the nuances of each community and to learn what got me most excited,” he says. “From the pharmacy to the corporate office, they’ve always given me opportunities to grow.”
But the most important reason why he’s stayed with the company for so long: the people.
“The people I’ve worked with have just been amazing, not only in the stores but in the support center, too,” Gates says. “The people are what make this company special.”
He talked about some of his colleagues who have been with Walgreens for as long as he has. One is Mike Umbleby, who is now the vice president of integration for U.S. Healthcare, but Gates says both worked as pharmacy managers at different Walgreens pharmacies in Phoenix at the same time.
“We’ve gone through this career journey together,” Gates says. “It’s been great to grow in your career with people you can inherently trust that will do the right thing for the profession, for Walgreens and for you individually.”
Giving back, giving time
At this point in his career, Gates says Walgreens has given him so much, he is driven to give back by supporting others, especially team members, who are looking for career advice or simply a listening ear.
“I want to try to help others as they’re figuring out their career path, or working through issues and challenges,” he says.
One way he gives time is by being an active member and executive lead of WBA’s Latino Professional Network business resource group. Working directly with the board chair Jacquie Meza, Gates says the group has grown over 50% in the past two years, and they are launching a second regional field chapter this year. Being Latino himself, Gates says he feels this work can help others like him have a stronger voice and feel even more support.
While he’s giving more time to others these days, it’s something he first learned the value of from the pharmacist who hired him at the pharmacy in Des Moines. Gates says that pharmacist, who everyone called “Doc” Kiburz, really took the time to show him all the different aspects of the job, including the importance of empathy—not just the clinical side of things, but truly how to take care of people.
“There was something about how he cared for everybody that just resonated with me,” Gates says.
He eventually learned that initially, when he went to that pharmacy looking for work, Kiburz didn’t even have an opening, but took him on anyway.
Given his career, Gates says his mother has no regrets making him drive himself to early morning hockey practice and pony up for car insurance.
“To this day, my mom still says it was the right choice,” he says.
It turned out to be a great choice for Walgreens, too.
Based in New York, Stephen Freeman is a Senior Editor at Trending Insurance News. Previously he has worked for Forbes and The Huffington Post. Steven is a graduate of Risk Management at the University of New York.