Unsung Heroes 2023: VP of supply chain Jeff Starnaman is steering London Drugs out of choppy waters

The role comes with its challenges, but Starnaman keeps things moving.

The role comes with its challenges, but Starnaman keeps things moving

Vice president of supply chain management and merchandising systems Jeff Starnaman calls London Drugs a “family company,” as both an inspiration and a warning. Run by the Louie family since the late ’90s, the Richmond-based retailer has 79 physical stores across Western Canada—a majority of which are in B.C.—and 9,500 staff on board. Starnaman has been with the company since 2014, and in his experience, everyone there “really cares about one another, but they’re also maybe a little nosy with one another.” Which means that, as an executive, the high expectations that come from the job also come with the assurance that if his car broke down, leaving him stranded on the side of the highway at 3 a.m., his coworkers would show up in a heartbeat. “And that’s the way we operate as a company,” he adds.

Born in Guelph, Ontario, Starnaman grew up in North Delta. He used to live behind a London Drugs store that he remembers being his go-to for hockey cards, prescriptions and computers. He chuckles while noting that although he’s purchased all his computers from London Drugs, he only recently bought his first one as an employee. And referring to our annual ranking of B.C.’s Most Loved Brands, Starnaman says that, had he been surveyed before being employed by the company, he would’ve certainly voted for it as one of his favourites in the province. “And we did jump back up to number one after the pandemic,” he correctly notes of the 2022 list.

The pandemic posed a number of challenges for retailers like London Drugs, and especially for someone in Starnaman’s position. He originally came on board as the head of human resources, and continued in that role until last year when he was offered to lead the supply chain department. Considering product shortages, highway washouts, rising container prices for shipping and many other moving parts of the puzzle affected by COVID-19, when Starnaman broke the news of his new designation to someone working on B.C.’s emergency response team, they asked, “Don’t they like you over there?”

This new opportunity was Starnaman’s reward for helping to keep the doors open and the stores safe during the pandemic. But now he suddenly had to figure out things like how to ship goods through the Rocky Mountains to get to stores in Alberta, or how to work with the government to get drugs to remote parts of B.C.

And he did. “I really like the fact that I’m in a position that allows me to connect groups that historically haven’t been very well-connected and are often generally unhappy with each other,” says Starnaman. He found that this unhappiness usually stemmed from miscommunication and a lack of understanding between, for example, the warehouse group and the people placing the orders. “I’m now in a role that allows me to bring them together and say, Hey, we’ve got an impasse here, can I help bridge this?” he adds.

It may sound straightforward, but it gets a little dicier when you’re managing over 450 people in the supply chain. Starnaman’s time in HR seems to inform his approach in his new role, because even though he’s aware of his veto power in the office, he prefers not to use it. Instead he asks, “How do we resolve this with the facts of the situation?” to try to get on the same page by the time the conversation is over.

Retail can be an “accidental” career for most (and it was for Starnaman), but he always had a knack for managing people and systems. In fact, while studying commerce at UBC in the late ’90s, Starnaman thought he was eventually going to run a Boeing plant or a Ford factory. But he started working at Safeway to help pay for school. From there, he became assistant manager, and ended up with stints at Loblaws (with Real Canadian Superstore and Shoppers Drug Mart) and multinational building solutions company Lafarge.

“During my time [as HR director] for Loblaws, they were opening and closing, at times, close to 100 stores a year,” he says of the volatile big-box store business. So even though a number of underperforming London Drugs stores closed in Alberta during the pandemic, he points out that others opened elsewhere, with one moving to a more fruitful location in Edmonton.

He recalls having to move to Saskatoon in 2009 for that job at Loblaws, and the only thing that reminded him of home was visiting a local London Drugs store.

Thirteen years later, with his wife and a five-month-old shih tzu named Gizmo, plus his new role in the company’s executive function, Starnaman thinks his family feels quite complete. “I kind of hope that this is the last place I work,” he says.

Q&A with Jeff Starnaman

What are your hobbies outside of work?

My wife and I golf together fairly regularly. I travel a few times a year. I also coach minor football—the North Delta junior bantam boys’ football (so, 12- and 13-year-olds).

We won the Lower Mainland championship last year.

How do you think your colleagues see you?

From a distance, I think sometimes people can see me as intense—potentially, at times, aloof. But I’d like to believe (and I’ve been told by those who report to me) that as you get closer, you’ll find me very supportive, understanding and inquisitive.

What makes a good leader?

I think good leaders need to own what their teams do—good and bad.