Customer-First Philosophy Makes the Family-Owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare Stand Out from the Crowd
Not just another family business. That’s the case with a venerable Omaha pharmacy business that’s been in the Kohll family for generations and maintained its relevancy in an age of mega corporate pharmacy chains by having laser focus on customer needs and anticipating what the next big things are in the field. In the case of Kohll’s, the business has become a leader in delivering homecare services and products for a population of aging parents and adult caregivers. My story from a half dozen years ago or so originally appeared in the Jewish Press.
Customer-First Philosophy Makes the Family-Owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare Stand Out from the Crowd
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
A peek inside a family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare in Omaha soon reveals this is not the drug store of your mother’s or father’s nostalgia. Sure, pharmacists in white coats still dispense prescription medicines from behind a counter, but mostly gone are the sundry retail items associated with a traditional drug store — greeting cards, stationary, magazines, household goods, candy, alcohol and soft drinks. In their place is an array of home medical equipment and service stations dedicated to meeting the health care needs of clients, particularly seniors or anyone coping with chronic illnesses.
The biggest changes, however, can’t be seen on site, as they encompass a wide range of services that help Kohll’s respond more quickly and comprehensively to individual client needs. For example, health care professionals on staff, such as occupational and respiratory therapists and a dietitian, make home visits to do assessments and devise strategies that foster greater independence. A call/future-orders center tracks what medical supplies clients are low on and gets new shipments out to their homes before they run out. A pharmacy benefits division supplies discounted meds to employees of subscriber-employers. Homecare products may be ordered online or via mail-order. A compounding division prepares custom meds for human and animal patients. An age-management section provides hormone replacement therapy to participating seniors. A contracting unit installs stair glides in people’s homes and renovates residential bathrooms to enhance accessibility and safety.
The company’s come a long way since Louis and Leona Kohll opened the original store in 1948 at 29th and Leavenworth. Back then the store was open 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every single day of the year. The couple’s sons, Marvin and Jerry, followed them in the business. Founder Louis Kohll died at age 49 following a heart attack he suffered in the store. Marvin was his only partner at the time and Jerry later joined him. Marvin and Jerry later split the business, with Jerry building up a nursing home supply division. Jerry eventually sold his interests to a national company. What made the then-small company a success all those years ago is the same thing that keeps Kohll’s successful now as a much larger organization — customer service. Today, a pair of third generation pharmacist brothers, David and Justin Kohll, Marvin’s two surviving sons, maintain the customer-first policy.
“For me, the satisfaction is taking care of the patients. It’s working with our health care team to come up with a solution and to know that we made a difference. It also helps you to feel good. It’s the thing that gets you to work the next day,” said David, whose oldest brother, Louis, died recently, but not before making his own mark in the business as a pharmacist and manager.
Lessons learned have been passed down from one generation to the next. It all comes down to hard work, fair play and treating people right.
“Our father taught by example,” David said. “His example was the basics like beingpolite, honest, follow through, et cetera. He’s worked hard his whole life.”
Just as Louis Kohll taught his sons Marvin and Jerry the trade, Marvin taught his boys the ins-and-outs. Pharmacists all, they built the foundation for an enterprise that’s gone from a single mom-and-pop store to a multi-faceted, seven-location corporation. Kohll’s stays competitive in an era when national franchises dominate the market and drive most other family-owned independents out of business.
To survive, the family found what Justin calls “a niche” that separates what they do from the pack. With a nursing homes supplies division already in place and the senior health care market ever growing, they gradually hit upon senior homecare as their specialization. As David’s fond of saying, “There’s a lot of opportunities. There’s just so many things out there.”
It’s the one-stop-shopping model applied to health care. But saying you’re one-stop and doing it are two different things.
“Everybody tried to promote they were doing one-stop-shopping, but they really weren’t,” Justin said. “Some companies tried doing it and they quit…now they just do respiratory or they just do power chairs, where we can do it all. We really are truly one-stop. You can come here for everything.”
The store that best epitomizes the company’s one-stop health-orientation is at 127th and Q, where clients can: get prescriptions filled inside or via a drive-thru window; receive vaccinations and blood pressure/cholesterol screenings along with hormone replacement injections; get fitted for wheelchairs, mastectomy bras, compression socks or ostomy bags; select from many other personal care items, such as chairs, scooters, walking aids, raised toilets and bath/shower bars; and even have a lift installed on their van. The store has bays dedicated to not only installations but also repairs of lifts, power chairs, scooters and glides and has even opened a showroom selling vans that come equipped with lifts.
“You can go anywhere in the country and you will not see a facility that looks like this. I guarantee it,” David said. “You might see some who have some wheelchairs or this and that — kind of shoved in the corner, but without real experts doing it. None has anything to this (level of) commitment. Pharmacists generally own their pharmacy and if you’re trying to get everything done right there you’ve got to be really committed to this and you’ve got to like it. You can’t just do it for the business or it’s going to go away.”
It’s about the Kohll family being smart and passionate about what they do.
“We try to pick and choose what we do,” Justin said. “I mean, we could do a lot of things, but we usually pick something we like to do also. You’re going to do a better job if you like it.”
Each Kohll’s pharmacy offers the basics when it comes to prescriptions, vaccinations and screenings, along with a general selection of health care items, but each store also specializes in something. For example, the 127th and Q store specializes in mobility products. It’s also the company’s headquarters, housing the administrative offices, marketing department, call center and future orders center. The Leavenworth store features respiratory/oxygen supplies. The 50th and Dodge site specializes in mastectomy fittings and compression stockings. The 114th and Dodge location handles the compounding side and veterinary needs. And so on.
Instead of extra inventory taking up space at each location, one central supply site contains medical supplies, which makes it easier to track what’s in stock and to send supplies out as needed. Being able to respond to many different needs is what Kohll’s does best, Justin and David say. “Knowing you have something for the patient, knowing that you’ll do a good job, knowing that you’ll get it there in a timely fashion,” said Justin, adding that in most cases patients only think about health care aids when a crisis occurs. “You don’t know unless you need it,” he said. “If you need something, hopefully the physician will send it through here because normally we’ll have it. And, right up front as customers come in they see all the products and maybe that gets them to thinking, ‘Hey, I saw walkers at Kohll’s. My mom needs a walker.’ That’s what we try to do.”
“We try to educate people,” David said. Part of that education, he explained, is providing timely, state-of-the-art answers for people as their health care needs progress. A wheelchair patient may be upgraded to a power chair. If a patient can’t move his or her arms any longer, a lift may be in order. Kohll’s visiting homecare professionals are trained to recognize when a client’s declining health dictates action in the absence of a regular caregiver or adult children. Its future orders callers and delivery drivers are trained to ask questions that reveal the kinds of changes that indicate problems. This way, unhappy outcomes can be avoided.
“A person may be doing pretty good but they may get to the point where they can’t walk very well and instead of somebody recognizing that they just stay in their apartment more and then they can’t walk at all and instead of being in a wheelchair they’re just in bed all the time. And the next thing you know the senior develops a bed sore. It causes the progressive deterioration to go faster,” David said. “What we try to do is ask questions every month, like — Do you have trouble getting up from a chair? If they answer yes to that we ask more questions and begin coming up with solutions. It might be a raised toilet seat or bath bars or a lift.”
It’s also about anticipating future needs.
“Somebody getting their prescriptions and adult diapers from us now are more than likely within a year going to need a walker. We try to be aware of that,” David said.
The goal is helping patients maintain independence in their own homes.
“It could be something as simple as a reacher. Maybe it’s become hard for somebody to bend over and stand up. It can be just basic things to keep people doing what they were doing for as long as possible. To make it so they don’t go into that nursing home or that assisted living facility. To keep them in their own home with their regular neighbors. That’s what we want to do,” David said.
The ongoing education Kohll’s does with clients includes getting folks to see that a homecare product like a stair glide is not a step back but a step forward.
“A lot of times seniors have the mind set — ‘I don’t want a glider to help me get up the stairs because I want my independence.’ They don’t understand that by risking a fall where they fracture a pelvis or an ankle, they’re actually saying, Make me dependent,” David said. “We’re trying to do all we can to show that you can have a much better life if you get one of these things. But don’t get the hospital-looking one, get the red one so people don’t feel sorry for you.”
He said the public should shop around when buying home medical equipment, such as power chairs. It pays to go where there’s good selection and price as well as proven expertise. A Kohll’s advantage is that it knows and stands behind the items, even doing repairs. He said too many people just go where it’s convenient.
“If you all of a sudden end up in the hospital after a fall, you’ve got to get a chair now. You’re more reliant on professionals to get you through it. You don’t have time to do any preparation. The sad part about that is that you might make a mistake and go to a place that doesn’t really know anything about it and get something wrong for you,” David said.
All the emphasis on home health supports doesn’t mean Kohll’s has left behind the core or traditional pharmacy service of filling prescriptions.
“We’d like o be filling prescriptions for everybody in Omaha or anywhere around,” David said. “We don’t want them to go elsewhere because if they get their prescriptions from us then they’ll have more of an awareness of the other things that might benefit them. I don’t want to get away from our base of prescriptions. All three of us (himself, Justin and their father Marvin) were trained as pharmacists. We think it all starts with prescriptions because we’re trusted more than any other profession. The patients know us or they see us or they talk to us the most often. It all starts there and then we can bring them into all these other things.”
The family’s arrived at a democratic way of setting policy and managing operations.
“My father has a say in things if he chooses, but there isn’t and hasn’t been a dictatorship or hierarchy or veto power by any of us,” David said. “Each of us would explore an idea and if it looked successful, it would be presented to each other. We then give suggestions and implement it. We’ve had our disagreements, but we’re so concerned and busy with providing our customers/patients with the best care possible that the disagreements are taken care of within 24 hours,” David said. “We really don’t have time for disagreements. I don’t believe the staff’s felt pulled in different directions by each of us, so it’s not an issue.”
Marvin Kohll said the family avoids internal strife as each member involved in the business establishes “responsibilities” distinct and apart from the others’. Besides, he said, “I was never a real taskmaster to them. I let them pretty well do as they pleased and they responded.” David said that’s still the case.
While David monitors the retail end, Justin runs the compounding side. Marvin’s watched over the money in recent years, taking a less and less active role. Still, David said, his presence is felt. “We always feel he’s working with us.” And if dad sees something amiss, David said, “He’ll rip us about something we can do better.”
“Towards Louis’s last years he mainly oversaw the employer pharmacy benefits
area and pharmacy mail order division,” David said. “Since his passing we have continued where he left off. He did a phenomenal job educating the staff…making it easier for us to carry on. It is difficult because we worked so closely together.”
Marvin’s boys weren’t pushed to go into the family business, but each came to it on his own. From the time they were young they hung around their dad at work after school or on vacation.
“We probably first came down to the pharmacies when we were about 4-5 years old. My brothers and I were only 3 years apart, so we played pretty rough and I think my mother would ship us to the pharmacy when she had enough of us,” David recalled. “At first my father would just try to get us out of his way and assign us to one of the staff. They would usually have us break up empty boxes. Over time we became more useful as clerks, stockers, drivers and then pharmacy helpers. We begin working full-time summers when we were 16 or 17.”
Besides David, Justin and Louis, some other Kohlls have contributed to running and growing the family company. “Two of Jerry Kohll’s kids, Cindy and Alan, joined the company in the early ‘90s. They contributed significantly, but not as pharmacists,” David said.
What the next generation holds as far as new Kohll blood entering the business, no one knows. Since David and his wife Janet are the parents of five young children the odds are at least one will follow David’s path. Marvin Kohll said one grandchild has expressed interest to him in studying pharmacy, which if it comes to pass would mean a fourth generation of pharmacists in the family. But more than family legacy keeps the company strong 58 years after its start — its single-minded focus.
“We don’t feel a responsibility to the next generation to carry on the family business. The responsibility we have is to our customers/patients to provide excellent care to them,” David said.