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Last month, in announcing a new corporate headquarters in Little Rock, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. touted the deep roots the company has in Arkansas.

Roots that run deep, of course, grow and prosper and bear fruit. That's the hope in central Arkansas for Express Rx, a retail pharmacy business with beginnings stretching to USA Drug, a successful drugstore operation that began in 1968 in Gibson's Department Store in Pine Bluff.

Express Rx's goal is to create pharmacies where everybody knows your name. Reaching that goal has required multiple levels of expertise, leveraging relationships that date back to kindergarten and smooth talking some New York investors and convincing them to buy into the company's vision.

Express Rx's foundation is built around three executives, all of whom forged relationships while working at USA Drug in key positions: pharmacy services, finance and real estate and business development.

Chief Executive Officer Galen Perkins (pharmacy services), Chief Financial Officer John Trainor Namir (finance) and business advisor Gain Robinson (real estate and business development) were colleagues at USA Drug's corporate headquarters in Little Rock. "USA Drug brought us all here and allowed us to put down roots and stay in this community," Namir noted.

Before selling to Walgreen Co. in September 2012 for $438 million, USA Drug founder Steve LaFrance built an operation with nearly 150 stores and a wholesale distribution company serving over 20,000 customers around the country.

Relationships forged at USA Drug nourished the sprouting of Express Rx.

Consolidation in the retail pharmacy industry, as evidenced by the Walgreen purchase, left customers dissatisfied, unhappy with the loss of a personal relationship with the local pharmacist. It's common now to rely on a pharmacy that is part of a big-box retailer or grocery chain, which stress convenience over service.

Former USA Drug pharmacists approached the executive team -- Perkins, Namir and Robinson -- about reinvigorating the individual retail pharmacy in rural areas where customers demand personal contact. Pharmacists were skilled in handling customer issues and the USA Drug executives delivered corporate expertise related to insurance contracting, real estate and leasing, accounting, inventory purchasing and lending: areas critical to building a successful business.

Together, they wanted to develop retail pharmacies -- the mom-and-pop drugstore model -- grounded in delivering full service to rural customers and home delivery when necessary.

"Particularly in small towns and communities, people are hungry to have that personal touch: to be able to walk into the store and have people greet you," Namir said. "People are willing to drive a few extra minutes to get that whole other level of service."

Pharmacists in Miami, Okla., and Carthage, Mo., contacted the executive team and asked them to help start new retail operations. The pharmacies opened in May 2013, just a few months after the closing of the USA Drug sale.

And so Express Rx began with an initial capital investment from the executive team and loans backed by the Small Business Administration. Express Rx soon expanded and added Arkansas stores in Cabot, Little Rock and Sherwood. The team reinvested money from operations and continued to use SBA lenders for financial support.

Expansion also meant the company grew beyond the reach of SBA funding regulations. To ramp up its growth, Express Rx needed capital and additional expertise. The idea was to accelerate growth with a smart and deliberate approach.

Personal relationships and trust are the core values that led to the start of Express Rx and that have fueled its growth. And it's the reason Franklin McLarty, an investor and business adviser raised in Little Rock, became involved. Robinson and McLarty are lifelong friends, and Robinson reached out to McLarty to provide seed capital to expand Little Rock operations with a store in the Otter Creek area in 2017.

The company, McLarty said, had a solid business plan and an experienced management team. Plus, he had absolute confidence in his friend. "It's hard to find good partners who you know and trust," McLarty said.

Continued growth was part of the plan, requiring more capital. McLarty has a strong relationship with a key player at MHR Fund Management in New York, and the Little Rock native called on his friend to take a look at Express Rx.

MHR delivered another level of capital and expert advice in growing early stage companies with potential to expand rapidly. "That allowed us to grow about as fast as we can dream it and fund the opportunity," Norman said.

MHR was the right capital partner to help execute the vision. Plus, the firm had bankruptcy experience and could help Express navigate the process of buying the Fred's pharmacy operations to the satisfaction of creditors. Express Rx joined with MHR in an enterprise in November to acquire 10 Fred's Pharmacies in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Now, Express Rx is building a Little Rock corporate headquarters that will be the base of future expansion. Express today operates 18 stores in eight states, with projections to continue acquiring rural pharmacies that the project could reach about 100 stores in 13 states across the southeast. Revenue today is at $55 million, with projections to double that over the next year.

McLarty was a key ambassador, providing a natural bridge to connect Express Rx executives with institutional investors who could turbo-charge growth. "In this case, with something involving Arkansas, it's very meaningful to me," he said.

In announcing the headquarters expansion, Express Rx cited Little Rock's convenient location, able workforce and strong community support. And, no doubt, the deep roots that are nourishing its growth helped ease the decision.

SAFETY FIRST

Federal agents are going to Rogers on Dec. 12 to help teach small businesses how to best prevent cybersecurity attacks. The seminar is open to the public -- cost is $25 per person -- and is scheduled from 1-5 p.m. at the Arkansas World Trade Center.

Statistics show that small and midsize businesses were most often the target of cyberattacks over the past year. A study by Cisco found that more than half (54%) of all cyberattacks result in financial damages of more than $500,000, including lost revenue, customers, business opportunities and out-of-pocket costs.

The FBI will join officials from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Arvest Bank and Citadel Systems for the seminar, which will highlight how companies can strengthen cyber-security protections and mitigate potential losses.

Four industry professionals will present on topics such as cyber-security fraud and liability, internet safety, financial risk mitigation, ransomware, safe banking procedures and use of social media at work. Registration and more information is available at arwtc.org.

Column ideas or recommendations? Thoughts or musings that need pursuing? Contact me at [email protected] or at 501-378-3567.

SundayMonday Business on 12/08/2019

Print Headline: Express Rx, with roots in Arkansas, puts foundation in Little Rock

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