Trust is Like Virginity

Trust is like virginity, Cormac Tobin said. “You can only lose it once.”

Tobin, who began his career in retail at age 13 under Fergal Quinn, told of how trust is crucial both between himself and staff, and between their customers and Unicare. Maintaining these relationships has been important in the current climate, he said. The government wants to cut payments to pharmacies for medicine, consumer confidence has collapsed, prices are still falling and people are scared about their, or their loved ones’ jobs.

Tobin, Managing Director of Unicarepharmacy, was sharing his leadership insights at the third of DIT’s Leadership Forums. The sell-out event were organized in conjunction with the Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW) and was held in DIT’s Aungier Street campus last week. (An account of the previous talk can be found here).

Pharmacy is a strange industry, Tobin said. None of the retailers have a monopolistic product. Nor is there a secret formula. They cannot compete on freshness. “I can’t sell you fresher Viagra,” he quipped. As a result, pharmacists must have a unique proposition, he said. Unicare’s mission is the help its customers. The sector also suffers from “elitism,” he said. But Tobin sees himself as a retailer whose mission is to provide excellent service and value for money.

Having literally grown up in retail, Tobin became Superquinn’s youngest store manager at age 23. He was a member of the board by the year 2000, and went on to become MD of Unicarepharmacy in 2006. This employs over 850 people in 72 pharmacies in Ireland, and is part of the multinational, €22 billion Celesio group. Unicarepharmacy has been a consistent high scorer in the Best Places To Work rankings since 2007. It came in sixth in the “best large places” category, and was number 1 in the retail division.

The last two years have been very difficult for retail in the Republic. Lower prices and sales tax have drawn hordes of shoppers to the North of Ireland. To add to pharmacists’ difficulties, the government has cut back on drug expenditures on behalf of patients. This provoked a strike by the Irish Pharmacy Union in the summer of 2009. But citing his customers’ trust, Tobin said Unicarepharmacy decided to stay open and to keep dispensing drugs.

In tackling the recession’s impact, Tobin presented employees with two options: Plan A was to protect staff levels and pay rates in return for other changes to cut costs. If there was no buy in, Plan B would have seen store closures and layoffs. Over 90 percent went for Plan A. Noting rent and pay are the two largest expenses in retail, Tobin was adamant that any cost reductions were not to impact customers.

Tobin said both he and staff relied on trust, collaboration and engagement, ownership and responsibility, and team work and rewards. He places a premium on communication and engagement. He likes to meet everyone at least twice a year, and is currently on his “second kiss the tarmac tour” of Unicarepharmacy’s stores. He also uses a regularly updated intranet and performance management to develop staff.

In managing stores, Key Performance Indicators were drawn up by employees themselves. Taking a steering-wheel format, the KPIs put customers and people front and centre. Finance and operations are the other two categories.  External benchmarks used include the GPTW survey, and the high mystery shopper scores that Unicare achieves.

To keep growing, Tobin relies on employees for ideas. He cited Apple, Amazon, Wal-Mart and Superquinn as model on how to shake up a business. Some of Unicare’s innovations include the DocMorris start-up pharmacies in Dublin and Limerick. One employee suggested a small counter where women could put their handbags while they were at the till. Tobin said displays usually clutter the cashier area. Women who put their bags on the counter while they look for money could end up stealing something by mistake because it gets stuck to their bags, he joked.

Another interesting approach Tobin has is how he communicates he concern about the €7.5 million that leaks out of the organization each year. A real-life bath tub is prominently displayed with stickers showing pilferage, poor service, breakages, etc. This image is also publicized to all the shops.

In dealing with employees, he summed up his approach like this: Remember they have lives outside of work. Keep egos out of it. Encourage people to be objective, honest and uncompromising with the boss. Share praise, give feedback, show empathy, encourage, coach and inspire.

Finally, he suggested not getting bogged down in the past. “Ensure your dreams are bigger than your history.”

Picture of medicine courtesy Nicholas Vinacco on Flickr.