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Ever wonder how Prism got started?-Updated

When Dan Quinn asked me to write about the starting of Prism Retail Services, my first thoughts went to the 13 years I spent at Osco/Sav-on. Without the leadership examples and different experiences I had, Prism Retail Services would never have happened.

In my opinion, starting in store operations is a must for virtually any job within a retail organization. During my 3 ½ years in the stores I was mentored by phenomenal District Managers such as Richard Davis, Dave Gillis, and Steve Mannschreck. Getting invited to lead a department in the accounting area was the great opportunity that followed my time in the stores. The department I led collected tear sheets from all the newspapers across the country. We measured, calculated, and billed manufacturers for coop advertising. It was a manual and tedious task which required 28 people.

My fifth day as manager of that department a tornado hit the 3030 Cullerton office. A number of my people were injured and the reams of paperwork that were on the desks went into the air, including tens of thousands of dollars of vendor checks. Because the tornado took out the roof above my department, the paperwork that settled back to the floor got snowed on overnight. Was I injured? No. It turns out that I felt the call of nature just before the tornado hit and was sitting on the toilet when chaos irrupted. I’ll never forgot the bathroom going dark and hearing the screams of 300 people. A chunk of the roof was sitting in my chair when I returned to my desk. We spent the next week hanging paperwork from makeshift clotheslines at a hastily occupied warehouse in Franklin Park.

A few months later our department was relocated to 1818 Swift Dr. in Oak Brook. In that assignment I got to work for John Benner. What a gifted leader! John was a very smart financial/accounting professional. John had a great sense of humor and seemed to always find something to smile about.

Following the 3 ½ years in Accounting I was lucky again to be able to work in another part of the business – Distribution. Working for yet another great leader, Arlyn White, I got to see how he pulled all of the various parts and managers of that area together to create a great service to the stores. Arlyn used manager meetings to create consensus without seeming to break a sweat. Not an easy task! My fellow managers were Tom Carroll, Doug Fetzer and Lou Rymarshcyk (sp?). A great bunch of guys!

After 3 ½ years in Distribution I moved to yet another part of the business – Merchandising. I took over the buying desk that Mitch Oddo had. John Dvorak was my boss. John’s leadership style was, well, different than John Benner or Arlyn White. I never served in the military, but I think I got a little taste of what a drill sergeant might be like while working for John. Fortunately, I was not the only buyer in our group that incurred John’s enthusiastic “coaching”! Bob Maag, Jim Mullins, Austin Stanton, Sue Herrick, and Denny Zimmerman got “mentored” regularly too. And yet, John was one of the smartest people in the business, in my opinion. He was very tough, and almost always right!

It was that job as a buyer that provided the impetus to move me to start Prism. But first, I thought that chains like Osco Sav-on could use a well-managed giftware section to complement the robust greeting card/social expression category. My first attempt as an entrepreneur was to start a giftware company called Barrington Distributors. That company never became profitable enough to continue, but I got valuable experience managing part time merchandisers to go into stores to do task work.

One of my biggest frustrations as a buyer was not having my programs fully implemented by the stores. The biggest incident was when I negotiated a guaranteed sale from a vendor for a shipper to be sent to all stores on an auto distro. Six weeks after delivery the stores could send back whatever remained unsold. To my horror (and the vendor’s), 600 of the 1,000 shippers were returned to the vendor unopened at the end of the promotion.

Now, in defense of the stores, they were under constant pressure to run the stores with less and less hours. Often, push comes to shove and store managers are forced to sacrifice the implementation of things like category resets in order to achieve their hours budgets. However, I think that product change is the life blood of keeping a store fresh. When stores don’t get updated in a disciplined fashion, ultimately sales will lag. Vendors and retail chains suffer subpar results when this happens. When new items got stuck in the backroom, vendors often had to send their people or brokers into the stores to try to find the new items and cut them into the section. A store could get 20-30 such visits each week. This struck me as not being very efficient.

This is where the idea behind Prism comes in. What if a small team of merchandisers came into each store once every two weeks and implemented all of the product changes and category resets/updates for all categories. Vendors liked the idea of seeing their new items in all stores within two weeks. Eventually, they liked it enough to pay the cost of the Prism service. It was a win for the Osco Sav-on, a win for the manufacturers, and a win for Prism.

A couple of years after Prism got started in 1992, we got asked if we could help convert a bunch of CVS stores in California to the Sav-on format (ironic, right?). It was mass hiring and controlled chaos for a few weeks, but the Sav-on team and Prism came together to get the job done. That put Prism into the store remodel/conversion business. After that, Prism expanded to opening new stores for Osco/Sav-on. I’m proud to say we got that process down from 8 weeks to 2 weeks from the time merchandise hit the backroom until grand opening.

The concepts behind Prism became accepted in the retail industry, primarily in food and drug. Prism was able to expand to other retail chains like Longs Drug, CVS, Walgreens and SuperValu.

While I sold Prism in 2010 to “retire”, I continued to do Retail Services consulting in Japan, which I continue to do to this day. Twenty four years ago a prolific Japanese entrepreneur, an owner of a regional drug store chain there, asked me to come to Japan to help him start a company like Prism. While Mr. Saito passed away 10 years ago, I continue to work with his sons to advise them on the many businesses he started.

Recently, someone joined me in working with Japanese retailers and service providers that many of you know Bryan Shirtliff. Bryan, having recently retired from Rite Aid, will bring significant experience to our consulting effort.

The years I spent with Osco/Sav-on were a huge blessing. During my years there, 1972 to 1985, the company was led by great people like Dick George and Dave Maher. In my memory, it was a magical time working for one of the best companies that existed at that time. I will always be grateful for the wonderful people from which I learned so much.

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