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It isn’t that she prefers doing things the hard way, but it’s probably fair to say that Najwa Kassem, all 5-foot-2 of her, has never backed down from the many challenges that have come her way.
Growing up in her native Lebanon, there was pressure to settle down and marry and not pursue a career. Instead, she went to school and became a pharmacist.
Later, she wanted to start her own pharmacy in her town of Baalbeck, but everyone cautioned her that in Baalbeck — a conservative, traditional city whose roots date back 9,000 years — women do not own businesses. “It’s very unusual for a woman to own her own business there,” Mrs. Kassem said. “There were seven other pharmacies and all of them were run by males. I was told, ‘This is a big challenge for you, a girl, in this area, with seven other guys. I don’t think you’re going to stand a chance.’ ”
Undeterred, she started her own pharmacy, which became very successful and was destined to remain that way until 1995 when she met a visiting American, Jamil Kassem. A whirlwind romance ensued, and after a quick marriage she moved to Toledo.
From 1997 until earlier this year, Mrs. Kassem was a pharmacy manager with Rite Aid Corp., but this month she opted for yet another challenge: starting her own independent pharmacy in West Toledo.
Mrs. Kassem’s Westgate Family Pharmacy, at 3147 West Central Ave. in the Cricket West Shopping Center, opened for business on Oct. 8. Not only does it bring her back to the Westgate trade area where for 11½ years she managed the Rite Aid pharmacy in the Westgate Village Shopping Center, it also fulfills “a dream I always had,” she said.
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“Some people told me it’s not possible with all the competition, all the big fish in the sea around here,” Mrs. Kassem said. “But at some point, it’s time to attempt a change,” she added.
“I like the pharmacy to be one-on-one, that personal touch, that pleasant connection between the customer and the pharmacist,” said Mrs. Kassem, 51.
Mrs. Kassem, who was known simply as Najwa to her numerous customers, had a reputation as a friendly pharmacist during her stint at the Westgate Rite Aid. But as business grew at the store, there was less time to interact and counsel customers, she said. And then this spring, she was transferred her to a store on Byrne Road near Hill Avenue.
The move was almost like “anxiety separation” for Mrs. Kassem, who suddenly had to work with a new customer base. “I understood that that’s just part of how they do business. But it was an adjustment,” she said.
Mrs. Kassem said the move also got her thinking about becoming an independent again, and having the time and freedom to connect with customers. “I felt it was time for a change because you like to make a difference, you like to be yourself,” she said.
To open Westgate Family Pharmacy, Mrs. Kassem took on a silent financial partner — a successful pharmacy industry businessman — and set her sights on the Central Avenue location, which puts her less than a block away from her old Rite Aid site.
It also places her business less than a mile away from pharmacies at Costco, Kroger, Walgreen, The Pharmacy Counter, and a new CVS to be built at Monroe Street and Douglas Road.
John Norton, a spokesman for the National Community Pharmacists Association, of Alexandria, Va., said that from a numbers perspective alone, starting an independent pharmacy and succeeding might not look very promising. For example, the number of independent pharmacies in the United States dwindled from 40,000 in 1980 to 23,000 in 2000.
“There was a lot of erosion. But once it hit the 23,000 mark it has stayed in that vicinity for the last decade and the market has stabilized for independents,” Mr. Norton said.
What has helped independents is that the business models for independents and drug store chains diverged.
Chain drug store revenues are now 60 to 70 percent drug prescriptions and 30 to 40 percent peripheral items, like health and beauty aids, groceries, and even small electronics.
Independents get nearly 100 percent of their revenues from prescriptions. Any health items they carry in their stores are usually just a courtesy for their customers.
“So it’s all about prescription drugs. But they will also provide services, so many will do things like free home delivery, immunization, and some also do compounding [of drugs],” Mr. Norton said.
“What you do to survive is offer a wide variety of services, which the chains usually don’t do,” he said. “How we beat them is we serve specific needs and have a lot of revenue streams that don’t depend on one thing. And the patients obviously appreciate what they get from independent pharmacists — advice, counseling.”
Westgate Family Pharmacy is following that business model. It provides free delivery, immunizations, blister-packaging, and personal counseling about medicines and dosages.
Mrs. Kassem also feels she is bringing something special to her business model: her personality. “I love my job and I love my people. And I make sure anybody feels what I have in my heart,” she said.
Additionally, Mrs. Kassem has a sharp memory for faces and names. “All I have to see it is one time, see the person, and I remember,” she said. “And people like to be remembered.”
Mrs. Kassem, who lives in Ottawa Hills, said that despite the nearby competition, she never considered starting a pharmacy anywhere other than the Westgate area.
“I felt the connection to this area. People need the proper environment to feel comfortable and succeed at what they do. This is the environment that works for me; this is my neighborhood,” she said.
The way she has structured her business plan, Mrs. Kassem said she believes she could break even in a few months, perhaps even turn a profit by the second quarter of next year.
However, her business strategy is heavily dependent on re-connecting with customers who know her from her Rite Aid days. She is confident that will happen.
“I think the people that I have known throughout the years know what kind of service I provide. They appreciate it and hopefully, we we’ll get to connect again,” she said.
Mrs. Kassem said that when she first came to the Westgate area in 2001, she had a lot of challenges to over come. People viewed her as a foreigner and she spoke with an accent, she said. “All you have to do is just make them believe in you. Do your job the way it’s supposed to be done, and they get to trust you, they get to like you,” she said.
Once that trust is established, be prepared to back it up, she added.
“You have to be consistent, that’s what my mom used to say. You be consistent in anything you do, you’ll succeed,” Mrs. Kassem said. “Loving what you do is the key to success, in my opinion.”
Contact Jon Chavez at: email@example.com or 419-724-6128.