Wynne Powell, President and CEO, London Drugs Ltd.

Veteran London Drugs retailer Wynne Powell proves that the old maxim of putting the customer first can make a success of just about any business.

Wynne Powell, President and CEO, London Drugs
Wynne Powell, President and CEO of London Drugs, spends as much time on the shop floor as any stock boy.

Veteran London Drugs retailer Wynne Powell proves that the old maxim of putting the customer first can make a success of just about any business.

If you’re visiting Wynne Powell in his Richmond office, don’t expect to get down to business right away. When I visit him on a recent Thursday afternoon, before we take our seats across the glass-topped coffee table he commiserates about the traffic and gestures animatedly as he offers tips on how to bypass the gridlock on my way home. “You take Shell Road north,” he begins, pointing me in the appropriate direction, then proceeds to give me detailed instructions.

As I soon discover, it’s typical of Powell: as corny as it sounds, putting the needs of others first just might be the secret behind the success of the man many consider to be the king of retail in B.C.

Whether you’re looking for toothpicks or terabytes, Powell can probably point you to the appropriate aisle in any of London Drugs’ 75 stores. That’s because the 65-year-old president and CEO of London Drugs Ltd. spends as much time on the shop floor as any store manager or stock boy. “Retailing is about dealing with people,” says the affable CEO, and the only way to find out what customers want, he says, is to meet with the people who interact with them every day.

Powell describes a recent day: boarding a Lear jet owned by sister company London Air Services at 7:30 a.m., arriving in Prince George for that store’s 9 a.m. opening. At 10:30 he was in the Grande Prairie, Alberta, store, then in the Lethbridge location at 2, Red Deer at 4 and Calgary at 6. He was back home at 9:30 p.m. He says he plans to cut back on the travel and the 14-hour days “sometime over the next couple of years,” but has no plans to retire completely.

“President and CEO” of London Drugs is just one of Powell’s titles. He holds the same position at London Air Services Ltd., Sonora Resort and Conference Centre Ltd., and TLD Computers Inc., all of which are owned by H.Y. Louie Co. Ltd. Powell is also a director of the local chain of IGA supermarkets (another Louie enterprise) and BC Bearing Engineers Ltd. He also serves as chair of the B.C. Provincial Health Services Authority. Despite the multitude of roles, he explains that he’s no multi-tasker; he carves his time into distinct slices, with London Drugs by far the biggest one.

Powell joined London Drugs in 1982. A photography enthusiast, at the time he was part-owner of a number of local camera stores and was brought in part-time to put the drugstore chain’s photo departments in order. He worked his way up to COO in 1995 and president in 1998, then added CEO to his title in 2009.

To anyone who hasn’t grown up popping in to London Drugs for everything from toothpaste to the latest Apple gadget, the business plan would look crazy: selling computers, toasters, lawn chairs and baked beans under one roof. Yet somehow it not only works, but thrives: even as competitors scramble for survival in the face of online and cross-border shopping, London Drugs just keeps on growing, with revenue approaching $2 billion in 2011.

While Powell is quick to credit the Louie family and a talented management team, many pin the chain’s unlikely success on Powell himself. “They’re just very consistently good at what they do and it’s got to come from leadership; it doesn’t happen accidentally. The constant has been Wynne Powell,” notes David Ian Gray, owner and principal of retail consulting firm DIG360 Consulting Ltd. And the secret ingredient Powell infuses throughout the company, says Gray, is customer service. “They could probably sell used cars if they wanted to because they’ve done such a great job of building trust with customers.”

Other companies might offer empty platitudes about customer service, but Powell is sincere when he says his career in retail is motivated by a personal commitment. “My mission is that I really enjoy helping customers get more out of life.” That goal appears to define a company-wide culture that trickles down from the top. Gray points to the example of computer sales. “London Drugs has always been at or near the top of customer satisfaction ratings with computers,” he notes. “People trusted what the sales associate said, whereas with chains like Future Shop there was the cynicism that they’re getting sold something.”

As our interview winds down, I glance nervously at my watch. I had promised not to take more than 45 minutes of Powell’s time, but we’re now approaching the one-hour mark and, as his communications assistant reminds him, Powell has a 7:30 ribbon-cutting tomorrow morning.

But Powell can’t refrain from showing me some of his recent photos. When I admire a shot of a bird in flight, the advice flows freely: “The trick to bird shots is always watch your lighting – make sure the face gets lit up. And use a high shutter speed; you’re better off to crank the ISO up to get the shutter speed than you are to try to get the quality with a lower ISO.”

As we’re saying our goodbyes, he can’t refrain from offering one last helpful nugget, saying I should always shoot in RAW, a file format that captures incredible detail, but also requires huge data memory. “Don’t worry about memory cost,” he advises, and tells me about a 32-megabyte memory card that lists for $84, but that was recently on sale at London Drugs for $24.99. “I don’t know if we have any of those left, but if we do, pick one of those up,” he urges. Yes, he’s selling me something, but I can’t help feeling that the sale is incidental; he genuinely believes that buying one of those memory chips will make my life just a little bit better.