Industry bids farewell to retail giant Canning

6/29/2009

DEERFIELD, Ill. When Fred Canning last spoke to Walgreens shareholders as president and COO at the company’s annual meeting in January 1990, he was given not one but two standing ovations. It was a measure of the respect and gratitude that investors and company insiders had for this remarkable leader.

Canning, who joined Walgreens in 1946 and rose to become its top manager under chairman and CEO Charles R. Walgreen III, died peacefully at Lake Forest Hospital early Sunday of complications from cancer. He was 85.

Canning was part of a century-long line of highly skilled and charismatic executives who ran day-to-day operations at the nation’s premier drug chain – a list that includes Justin Dart, Alvin Borg, Bob Schmitt and Canning’s own successor, Dan Jorndt. But Canning ranks at or near the top of that list for leading Walgreens through a top-to-bottom turnaround at the company, and guiding it to a pre-eminent position as the nation’s premier drug store retailer.

Canning was the company’s president and COO from 1978 to 1990. Under his leadership, Walgreens shed such distracting sideline businesses as discount stores and restaurants, beefed up its store expansion strategy and refocused on its core drug store operations. Upon his retirement, Walgreens was a rejuvenated retail behemoth with an enviable track record for sales and earnings growth, a reputation for retail innovation and a firm hold as the nation’s top drug chain.

Canning encouraged flawless execution of headquarters strategy in the stores, brought in many of the highly skilled merchandising and operations executives who would lead the company into the next century, and insisted on adopting the best cutting-edge technology Walgreens could wield in its pharmacies, its forecasting and replenishment systems and its increasingly sophisticated supply-chain operations.

“Fred Canning was an industry visionary,” noted Steve Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. “Fred was known for tremendous instincts and experience in advancing the links between front-end and pharmacy, and maintaining a consumer focus.” In addition, Anderson told Drug Store News, “Fred’s use of innovation and technology were trend-setting, and his contributions to Walgreens and our industry as a whole will be remembered.”

Canning’s son Tim, who is president of McKesson Corp.’s Health Mart retail franchise, cited his father’s accomplishments. “He focused the company on its core competency of running drug stores, and conceived many of the strategies that catapulted Walgreens to its industry-leading position. The hallmark of his career was the management team that he assembled and the leadership that he provided to leverage its collective strengths,” added the younger Canning. “As Fred often stated, ‘I've been one of the team. No single person turns a company around ... you don't win the game if you don't have the players – and we have the players ... lots of them unsung heroes making big contributions.’”

Equally important, Canning insisted that Walgreens stay true to its Midwestern work ethic and strong business ethics. He was a tireless proponent of operational excellence, who demanded much from the people with whom he worked, but who never failed to motivate those around him, according to Laurie Meyer, former DVP corporate communications.

He encouraged tough but fair dealings with vendors and an expansion strategy that tapped the best possible retail sites in new and established markets as Walgreens accelerated its march throughout every corner of the U.S. retail landscape.

Canning’s start with Walgreens was an inauspicious one. He began his career as a stock clerk making 49 cents an hour, after serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. He became a registered pharmacist, and in 1955 was named store manager for the Champaign, Ill. location.

In the field, Canning soon gained a reputation for turning around stores’ performance and winning the loyalty of local customers. He rose rapidly through the ranks of district manager, regional director, director of marketing, DVP and SVP, culminating in his election as president in 1978.

Canning “never wanted fanfare or accolades,” according to his son. But the accolades poured in throughout his 12-year tenure as Walgreens’ president. Early in 1985, The Wall Street Transcript named Canning and Walgreens the best executives for retail/drug chains, an honor they received seven times over the decade. That same year, the firm was named one of the five best-managed companies in America by Dun's Business Month.

“He was really the right man at the right time for Walgreens,” said company spokesman Michael Polzin. “He brought real operational discipline at a time when there was a refocusing on the drug store business. That helped lay the foundation for the company’s expansion and success – not only in the 1980s, but through the ’90s and into the 2000s,” Polzin told Drug Store News.

Jay Forbes, president of The Forbes Connection LLC and former publisher of Drug Store News, was among Canning’s many admirers during his career. “Fred was a razor-sharp merchant with terrific retail instincts, and a great team builder,” said Forbes. “During his tenure, Walgreens emerged as an industry leader, introducing concepts that are still being used as building blocks throughout our industry. He will be missed.”

Canning is survived by his wife Margaret, with whom he shared 64 years of marriage, along with their eight children, 21 grandchildren and two great-grand children. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Church of St. Mary, 175 E. Illinois Road, Lake Forest, Ill.; or the American Cancer Society’s Lake County Regional Office at 100 Tri-State International, Ste. 125, Lincolnshire, Ill., 60069.

Funeral services will be held Wednesday, July 1, at the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest. Visitation will be held Tuesday, June 30, at Wenban Funeral Home, 320 E. Vine Ave. in Lake Forest.

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