By Michael Tatarski

In 2011, Chris Blank spent two days in a Ho Chi Minh City hospital after taking medicine from a local pharmacy. Tens of thousands of similar shops, often staffed by employees with little to no training, can be found throughout Vietnam.

“After leaving the hospital I walked around and was looking at this convenience store that had just opened and noticed the store format,” Blank told me at his spacious home in Diamond Island. “I thought, I should contact the police and have this pharmacy shut down, but the issue is that there are 56,999 other ones doing the same thing, and I thought it would be much better to improve things instead.”

At the time, Blank was working for a stock broker when he decided to launch Pharmacity, now Vietnam’s largest pharmacy chain.

“Many of my colleagues from my previous role laughed at me,” the CEO and founder recalled. During his 25 years in Vietnam, he had seen both supermarkets and modern electronics stores overtake wet markets and small phone stalls in popularity, and was confident he could do the same with pharmacies.

Ten years later, Pharmacity operates over 500 stores nationwide, with another 500 set to debut by the end of this year. This is the result of an aggressive expansion drive that Blank pushed through during the pandemic when many others tightened their belts.

“I’m extremely sensitive to the fact that a lot of people are suffering and numerous businesses have closed over the last year,” he said. “We have been incredibly fortunate in that we were able to take advantage of falling rents in order to secure several high-profile locations and renegotiate existing rents, and I was able to convince our investors to support us in our expansion plan instead of slowing down.”

While Blank’s decision has paid off so far, he admits that he was scared, though risks are part of his nature: “In the early days when I started this company, we nearly went bankrupt three times. I have always been a calculated risk taker – and these calculated risks have ended up creating enormous benefits for Pharmacity and our investors.”

This willingness to take risks stems from Blank’s unique background. His parents died in a car accident when he was a child, leaving him orphaned in the United States. Eventually he entered the foster care system with foster parents he didn’t like.

His grandmother took him to Vietnam for a visit when he was 12, and at 15 he ran away from his foster home and moved to the country.

“I left a highly challenging environment,” Blank said. “I could not see a whole lot of opportunity, and knew I needed to leave to succeed in life.”

Once he started Pharmacity, this upbringing showed in his management style.

“I was a tough leader in the beginning because I was scared of losing; I look back and realize that my leadership style was something that I needed to address, but in the end it was grit and a hunger to succeed that drove our early success,” shared Blank.

He now runs a business with 3,500 employees, a figure set to expand to 6,000 by the end of 2021, and his viewpoint has evolved.

As we stand on his deck with sweeping views of Ho Chi Minh City’s skyline, I ask Blank how he feels now that Pharmacity’s success has proven his vision right.

“One of the reasons I started this business is because I wanted to prove my theory that the market would support a retail pharmacy chain was right,” he said. “But it’s not like that anymore. I’m in a place now where I can develop our strategy in so many directions with my guiding principal being that Pharmacity should benefit the Vietnamese population. I look out over the city and I remember that I am in this position because of our customers and because of all of those who work at Pharmacity. I have an incredible team, many of whom have been at Pharmacity for years.”

He shared the story of an employee who illustrates part of what drives him to push Pharmacity towards further success: “She’s the same age as me and I asked her why she works here. She explained it is about opportunity. Her parents used to worry about her; she was unmarried and had not yet achieved financial security. However, now she is a shareholder of Pharmacity, she has bought her own apartment, and is buying a car.”

“Ultimately what 90% of my employees will say they want security for their family, that’s what all of us want,” Blank added. “It really comes down to that, and I want to do my bit to contribute to that security by creating pharmacy stores in which people can fully entrust their health and wellness, and which are incredibly convenient for them. If I can continue to offer that to a growing number of Vietnamese each year, then that is what I call success.” [C]

“In the early days when I started this company, we nearly went bankrupt three times, and I’ve always been a calculated risk-taker and these calculated risks have ended up creating enormous benefits.”

– Chris Blank –

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