Alex Gourlay, the Boots lifer is making the jump across the pond to take on customer service at US partner Walgreens as its executive vice-president. Retail Week profiles the former Alliance Boots chief executive of health and beauty.
Despite his high-profile roles at high street giant Alliance Boots and now partner Walgreens in the US, Alex Gourlay does not describe himself as being particularly career driven.
“People find it quite surprising,” he says. “For me, it was always about managing a bigger shop because you can easily have an interesting career by moving every two to three years.”
This strategy has clearly paid off, as Gourlay rose to become a powerful figure in UK retail after working his way up from the shopfloor to chief executive of health and beauty for Alliance Boots.
And for the first time his reach is to extend overseas, as yesterday he took up his new role at US drug store chain Walgreens, where he is leading the customer service remit as its executive vice-president and president of customer experience and daily living.
But the likeable and modest Gourlay has not let success go to his head.
“I don’t see myself as any different to a store manager,” he says.
“One of my reflections as I move on is that I used to nod when people would say ‘it’s lonely at the top’, but I don’t think it’s true. I’ve always had an enormous amount of support from my family and my colleagues. I’ve never felt lonely. I’ve always felt stretched and challenged,” he says.
He is likely to feel challenged at Walgreens, not only because he is working for a different business but also because he is based in a different country – Gourlay is working out of Walgreens’ headquarters in Chicago.
While the Scotsman has become used to moving around the country during his years as a store manager, it is the first time he has moved continents for his job.
“It is a life-changing event,” Gourlay says. “It is an emotional period because it is a new beginning for myself and my family. But the great thing is I’m still in this partnership, which will almost certainly merge and then I’ll be part of one big international happy family.”
Walgreens and Alliance Boots struck a deal last year in which the US giant acquired a 45% stake in its UK counterpart for $6.7bn (£4.14bn). The two are expected to eventually merge next year, when Walgreens has the option of buying the remaining 55%.
Alliance Boots executive chairman Stefano Pessina led the deal with the aim of creating a global pharmaceutical group.
Pessina has regularly praised his right-hand man Gourlay for driving growth at the business, and has now put his confidence in him to be his man on the ground in the US.
And that comes as no surprise. Gourlay is a Boots lifer who started his retail career as a shop assistant on the pharmacy counter at the retailer’s store in Glasgow 34 years ago. He quickly rose through the ranks and in his time leading the UK, Gourlay helped to create stores that are an essential visit for high street shoppers. Its strategy to have stores on most of the UK’s high streets seems to be paying off. Boots now has 2,476 stores and pharmacies in the UK, and in some cases operates more than one shop on the same high street.
The 53 year old also led the growth of Boots’ highly regarded own-brand health and beauty products, which include No7, Soltan and Botanics.
No7 has done particularly well and is now expanding across the world. It is sold in more than 1,000 Target stores in the US and is being tested in Walgreens’ flagship stores.
Gourlay says that his new role will initially focus on customer service and finding out how US consumers shop.
That will not be the only research Gourlay will need to do to fit in to his new surroundings. A keen sports fan, Gourlay says he’ll have to swap golf for basketball, baseball and ice hockey.
Whether or not Gourlay can get to grips with the American sports remains to be seen, but his appointment will no doubt prove to be a slam dunk for Walgreens.
What Gourlay will miss most from the UK…
Diet Irn Bru, although he is also a self-confessed Diet Coke fan
The biggest challenge of moving to Chicago…
The weather. Gourlay says he will feel at home with the cold winters but Chicago’s summer heat might be hard for him