“Our biggest challenge during Corona was dealing with uncertainty,” says Ori Watermann, CEO of Be by Shufersal, the drugstore chain with 105 branches throughout Israel. “We had to learn to deal with changing circumstances – with lockdowns, without lockdowns, and operating stores that were open under difficult circumstances.” As an essential business, pharmacies were open throughout the pandemic, and Watermann recalls the difficulty of dealing with the possibility of a customer becoming ill in a store or if someone had been in a location where an infected person had been. “We had to keep the health of our clients and workers in mind and maintain a business plan, which had changed from our original plans,” he says.
Watermann explains that two factors were responsible for the company’s ability to survive and even thrive during the pandemic – the infrastructure that it had readied in the two years prior and alert company management. “We purchased New-Pharm at the end of 2017,” he says, “and we had invested a great deal of money in building infrastructure – in human resources, branding, online sales, and real estate. When the pandemic arrived in 2020, all of the infrastructure was ready.”
The company’s responsive management style was also key to its success. Company-wide status reports were prepared every few hours, WhatsApp groups relayed up-to-date information, and decisions were made based on the most current information. Watermann recalls that at the beginning of the crisis, there was a shortage of masks available in hospitals, and he received calls from hospital heads desperate for adequate supply. “We were the only ones who were able to get masks, and we managed to get them because of our contacts and initiative,” he notes.
Watermann says that the pandemic changed Be’s entire planning methodology, forcing it to quickly adapt to the new reality. In the first few days after the pandemic struck, sales plummeted by 30%. Many of Be’s branches are in hospitals, and most people were staying away because of fear of infection. Other stores were in malls, which were completely shut down. Watermann responded by quickly implementing changes. Be rolled out a drive-through prescription pick-up service in just two weeks, which had earlier been estimated as a long-term project. He worked out an agreement with the Wolt delivery service arranging home deliveries of prescriptions and cosmetics, which he says has been a most successful partnership.
The pandemic caused unusual fluctuations in sales, says Watermann, from which the company was ultimately able to benefit. On the one hand, sales of prescriptions were initially lower because few were leaving their homes to pick them up. Additionally, wearing masks caused an almost complete cessation of all flu cases, which resulted in lower sales of flu medication. On the other hand, he notes, sales of masks, hygiene products such as alcogel, and health products such as vitamin D rose rapidly. Be sold many in-home corona tests and performs PCR tests in 15 branches. As a result, the company recorded a profit in 2021. “The fact that we were open during corona was a great opportunity. We didn’t want to miss this opportunity to provide good service,” he says.
Be measures customer satisfaction in its branches every month, and Watermann points out that the highest grades received were during the corona period. “During corona, people who left their houses wanted empathy and attention,” he says. “We needed to show them that we were there for them.” Watermann adds that Be’s employees have brought the company to where it is today and lauds them for the courage and care that they displayed during the most challenging times of the corona pandemic.
In 2022, Watermann says that Be by Shufersal will be expanding its sales of medical cannabis in its authorized pharmacies. “We are hoping to become a big player in this field,” he says, noting that in Israel, approximately 100,000 people are authorized to use medical cannabis. While no one knows with certainty what will happen with corona in the coming year, he says that the country has learned how to live with corona and that Be will continue its growth regardless. “Our goal is to be a profitable company that does good for its customers and its employees. I have three stakeholders – the owners, the customers, and my workers. They all need to be happy.”
This article is taken from The Jerusalem Post Annual Executive Magazine 2021-2022. To read the entire magazine, click here.
This article was written in cooperation with Shufersal