Charles Walgreen, Drugstore CEO Who Led Growth, Dies at 80

Updated on
  • Repsonsible for expanding his grandfather’s drugstore chain
  • He died Sept. 26 at his home in Lake Forest, Illinois

Charles Walgreen III, who expanded his grandfather’s drugstore chain into an $18 billion-a-year company by 1999 when he stepped down as chairman, has died. He was 80.

He died Sept. 26 at his home in Lake Forest, Illinois, according to a statement from Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. No cause was given.

He led Walgreen Co. as chief executive officer starting in 1971, adding the post of chairman in 1976. He stepped down as CEO in 1998 and retired as chairman the following year. During his tenure, the retailer reported 23 straight years of sales and earnings increases and quadrupled the number of stores to more than 2,400.

It was a big turnaround from 1970 when, according to trade publication Chain Store Age, Walgreen had “assumed many of the characteristics of the moribund A&P chain.”

The company was involved in so many unrelated activities -- including Wag restaurants and department stores in Mexico -- that drugstore managers “were sort of fighting for attention,” Charles Walgreen said, according to a 2000 story in Drug Store News.

Modernizes Company

Walgreen’s strategy was to refocus the chain on the drugstore business and modernize it, focusing on pharmaceuticals, health and beauty aids as well as photo service. He reconfigured the supply chain and upgraded the stores. Gone were the in-store optical centers and grocery aisles along with the company’s restaurants and south-of-the-border retailers.

By the 1980s, Walgreens stores were appearing in urban areas around the country, often concentrated with several stores in a relatively small area. The 1,000th store opened in 1984 and sales passed $10 billion in 1995.

Walgreen in 2012 bought a 45 percent stake in Bern, Switzerland-based Alliance Boots Holdings Ltd. for $6.7 billion and in 2014 paid about $15.3 billion for the remainder of the European pharmacy chain.

Charles Rudolph Walgreen III was born Nov. 11, 1935, in Chicago. His parents were Charles Walgreen Jr. and the former Mary Ann Leslie. His grandfather, who founded the company in 1901, gave him the nickname “Cork,” short for his description of the child as “a corker,” a singular individual.

Career Path

He grew up stocking shelves in the family’s store in Evanston, Illinois, but told John U. Bacon, author of 2004’s “America’s Corner Store: Walgreens’ Prescription For Success,” that he intended to become a veterinarian. He soon changed his mind and attended pharmacy school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1958.

After college, Walgreen joined the family business and worked in a number of positions before serving as president in 1969. His innovations included a computerized prescription management system.

“From the 100-year perspective, no other drug chain can compare to Walgreens’ outstanding record of leadership and performance,” according to a 1999 article in Drug Store News.

Walgreen married the former Donna Lenore Parr in 1966. He married the former Kathleen Bonsignore Allen in 1977. He had six sons: Charles Walgreen, Kevin Walgreen, Leslie Walgreen, Chris Walgreen, Carl Allen Jr., and Tad Walgreen, who died in 1996; and daughters Brooke Walgreen and Jorie Allen Grassie, according to the company’s statement.

(Updates with biographial history starting in ninth paragraph.)
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