At the same time, business has surged as COVID-19 sends droves of customers in for vaccinations, booster shots and hard-to-find test kits, bolstering Walgreens' bottom line. Net earnings rose to $3.5 billion last quarter, compared with a $300 million loss during the same period in 2020. Retail comparable store sales—a closely watched growth metric—jumped 10.6%, the fastest rate in more than 20 years.
Still, between COVID effects and predecessor Stefano Pessina’s retention of power—as executive chairman and the company’s largest shareholder—it’s hard to discern Brewer’s impact on the company. Her influence could become clearer in the year ahead, as early indications of the success or failure of the healthcare push reveal themselves.
She’ll also have to manage the potential divestiture of Boots, a British drugstore chain acquired in the 2014 merger of Walgreens and Pessina’s Alliance Boots, a $16 billion deal that gave Pessina 16.9% of the combined company’s stock. Brewer announced last month that Walgreens would seek bids for Boots, which is expected to generate interest from private-equity firms willing to pay as much as $9 billion. Walgreens unloaded another big piece of Alliance Boots in a deal struck shortly before Brewer arrived last year, selling drug wholesaling operations mostly in Europe to AmerisourceBergen for $6.5 billion.
“What now happens over the next year will be fascinating,” says Harry Kraemer, clinical professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and former CEO of healthcare company Baxter International. “Are they really doing what they said they’re going to do? Are they capable of getting (Boots) spun out at the right price?”
Depending on COVID’s twists and turns, challenges that dogged the company pre-pandemic—like pressure on drug pricing and competition from online retailers—may dominate its story again.
No pharmacy operator has figured out how to deal with profit pressures caused by pharmacy benefit managers that dictate drug prices, says Dylan Finley, equity analyst at Morningstar. The strategy has been to grow in other areas. In Walgreens' case, that comes in the form of its investment in primary care provider VillageMD and other newly acquired healthcare businesses.
The company bought into VillageMD before Brewer came in, but she made a $5.2 billion investment in October that upped Walgreens’ stake to 63% from 30% and accelerated plans to put medical clinics in stores. The company now plans to open VillageMD clinics in 160 of its nearly 9,000 stores this year, with a goal of 1,000 clinics by 2027. Walgreens added more healthcare capabilities last fall, when it invested $330 million in home care provider CareCentrix and $970 million in specialty pharmacy company Shields Health Solutions.
At an investor conference in October, Brewer issued unprecedented growth goals that hinge on the success of its healthcare push, targeting 11% to 13% long-term growth in earnings per share. To hit those targets, she’ll have to weave Walgreens' pharmacy operations and its new healthcare businesses into a synergistic whole.
She grouped the healthcare units into a new business segment called Walgreens Health, the finances of which will be disclosed in earnings reports. Some analysts laud Brewer for her clear vision and transparency surrounding the company’s healthcare push but say it’s too early to know if the strategy is working.
“We don’t know the long-term economics, and it’s hard to truly value what Walgreens Health will contribute to the company and if it will be enough to mitigate the margins concern,” Finley says, “but she’s been as transparent as she can be and she’s made all the right moves from a strategic point of view.”
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