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Fruth Pharmacy a family endeavor

Dec. 16, 2012 @ 08:47 AM

CHARLESTON — On Dec. 3, 1996, Mike Fruth and his sisters Joan and Carol were working late at Fruth Pharmacy's main warehouse in Point Pleasant.

The siblings, children of company founder Jack Fruth, had sent their employees home to spend the evening with their families while they stayed behind, making preparations for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

Around 7 p.m., one of the warehouse's heaters caught fire. Mike, Joan and Carol tried to salvage everything they could, but the blaze was quickly out of control.

"At one point in time, my brother, Mike, had the presence of mind to tell my two sisters, 'We have to get out of here or we're going to burn up,' " said Lynne Fruth, now president of the company.

Lynne was at home with her infant son when she got the call.

"Somebody said the warehouse was on fire. I thought they meant a little building in Hurricane. But they said, 'No, the big warehouse,'" she said.

It took three hours for six fire departments to extinguish the fire in the 10,000-square-foot warehouse, according to news reports at the time. When it was over, several firefighters had to be treated for heat exhaustion.

Although no one was seriously injured, the Fruth family worried the blaze would deal a fatal blow to the family business. The fire damaged about $1 million of merchandise but also destroyed all of Fruth's corporate offices, including the company's computer system and all of its important documents.

Lynne said the next morning an executive from Rite Aid called Jack Fruth. The pharmacy chain wanted to purchase Fruth Pharmacy for "a ridiculously high price."

"They didn't think we could survive the fire," she said.

The money was tempting. Jack asked Babs, his wife and longtime business partner, what to do. Together they decided, for the good of their many longtime employees, not to sell out.

Jack Fruth was born in Mason County, the fourth child in a very poor family. As a boy he set his sights on a military career and, when he was old enough, enrolled at the Greenbrier Military School in Lewisburg. He dreamed of heading off to West Point and becoming an officer.

Those dreams were soon derailed, however. When he was 15, Jack came down with a bad case of the measles. He then contracted pneumonia and eventually lost his eyesight, ending any chance of a military career.

All was not lost. He visited a doctor in Charleston who, through a series of treatments, was able to restore some of his vision. Although he could not see well enough to attend West Point, his experiences left him with a profound interest in medicine.

Jack headed to Ohio State University, where he studied chemistry and eventually became a registered pharmacist. He opened the first Fruth Pharmacy in Point Pleasant in 1952. Business went so well he soon opened another location in downtown Point Pleasant, dubbing that store City Pharmacy.

The business was a family endeavor from the start. Lynne said when she was young, her mother would load down all five Fruth children with handbills advertising the pharmacies' big sales and then drive them into Point Pleasant.

"My mom would drop each of us off on a different street, then drive downtown and pick us up," she said.

Jack worked seven days a week and no matter what time of day or night was always available to his customers. There were no 24-hour pharmacies at the time, so he posted his name and home phone number on the front door.

"We'd get a call in the middle of the night. One of the kids got up and went to the store with Dad," Lynne said.

And whether it was a vaporizer for a sick child or a much-needed prescription for someone who had just left the emergency room, Jack would drive down, unlock the store and fill the customer's order, sometimes wearing pajamas.

A fire destroyed City Pharmacy in 1969. Because the business was not adequately insured, Jack's plans for expansion were put on hold. It would be another seven years before he opened a second Fruth Pharmacy. By the end of the 1970s, there were four stores in his burgeoning chain.

The next few decades brought even more growth, with 14 stores opening by the end of the 1980s and 22 locations by the end of the 1990s.

Although business was growing in leaps and bounds, Lynne said her father never figured out how to live large.

She said he never wore anything flashier than a watch and a wedding ring, and although his company eventually became a multimillion-dollar business, he and Babs never moved from their modest Point Pleasant home.

"He didn't store his treasures in earthly vessels," Lynne said.

Jack preferred to invest in his employees and community.

Fruth Pharmacy set up scholarships for local children at a half-dozen universities in Ohio and West Virginia. The company also set up several more scholarships available only to children of employees.

Jack made sure each of his workers received a turkey on Thanksgiving, and he held yearly picnics for employees and their families.

When a longtime employee's father fell sick in Costa Rica and the hospital there would not let him leave until all his bills were paid, Jack told the man to use his corporate credit card and pay the debt. Jack then booked a medical jet staffed with doctors and nurses to take the man back to Huntington.

Not one to do his alms before men, Jack's family did not learn of the story until after he died.

His consideration for his employees also was on full display after 1996's devastating warehouse fire. The day after the fire, he made a public statement he would not lay off anyone. Warehouse workers would be sent into the stores to work, so no one would lose their job before Christmas.

And in a George Bailey-like twist, the investment in others began paying his company big dividends in his time of need.

Hearing of Fruth Pharmacy's plight, local businesses began calling to offer their assistance. Someone loaned the company some warehouse space. Other businesses donated cash register tape, vials for prescriptions, label for prescription bottles and plastic shopping bags. A local bank called to offer the company office space.

"They said, 'Jack, we've got five offices in our bank, you can send your accountants here. They can work for free,'" Lynne said.

It was enough to tide the company over until the insurance money arrived, and Fruth built a 30,000-square-foot warehouse that is still in operation today.

When Jack died on July 19, 2005 at the age of 77, the company he had founded over a half-century before had grown to 26 stores with more than $100 million in yearly sales.

"In a single lifetime he went from three employees to 650 employees and 26 stores," Lynne said.

His influence lived on, benefiting the company even after Lynne took over as president. When she joined the company in 2009, the U.S. was in financial turmoil. Banks everywhere, including the New York bank Fruth Pharmacy used, were on the verge of failure.

"They were taking our money every night, but they weren't returning any of it to pay our bills," Lynne said. "The fellows in the company came to me and they said, 'We don't know if our bank's going to make it or not, and we need $3 million to pay our payroll and our bills on Friday.' "

Although the company had no collateral to offer, Lynne called the Ohio Valley Bank and explained her situation. The president gave her a $3 million, 30-day loan to help cover the company's expenses.

"He later told me, 'I didn't know if I would still have a job after making that loan, but I made that loan based on what your dad did for the community and what the business means to this community,' " she said.

Fruth Pharmacy recently celebrated its 60th anniversary with a special dinner in Point Pleasant to honor its employees.

The chain has locations all over West Virginia and Ohio now and does about $130 million in sales each year. It is one of the top 20 retail pharmacy chains in the country. Lynne is on the board of directors for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, where she shares a table with the CEOs of Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS.

Yet, the business remains a family endeavor. Fruth family members still hold the majority of stock in the company. Lynne's brother, Mike, is a pharmacist and travels overseas to import seasonal items for the stores.

Her sister, Joan, is the company's special events coordinator, organizing dinners, the company's Veterans Day celebration and other holiday events.

Baby brother John works as an engineer in Indiana but remains on the company's board of directors. Sister Carol is currently a stay-at-home mother but has worked in the business several times over the years.

Even Lynne's mother, Babs, now 84, still works as secretary of the corporation and is a member of the board of directors. She also regularly visits the stores, spending her weekends driving to different Fruth locations to shop and see how things are going.

"In one way or another, everybody in the family has been involved," Lynne said.

And the "family" isn't limited to people with "Fruth" in their name. The company has many loyal employees who have become an extended family of sorts. Lynne said those employees are what keeps the company popular in a world filled with big box stores.

"They know when your wife has been in the hospital or you lost your dad. I think people really respond to that," she said. "We know people are looking for value. They're not impressed by the glitzy. We recognize you may not want to buy the same thing your neighbor wants to buy."

Lynne said while larger stores may carry hundreds of bottles of skin lotion, the supply is usually limited to three or four brands. At Fruth, the shelves are stocked with 20 different brands, and while that makes inventory more difficult to manage, it sends a message to customers.

"It's saying we want to sell you what you want to buy," she said. "If we have one customer that's going to buy 10 of them a year, we're going to keep it on the shelf. That type of personal care is certainly significant."

It's a history of service not unexpected for a company founded by a man who once filled prescriptions in his pajamas.