George Bartell Jr. assumed the presidency of the Seattle-based Bartell Drug Company in 1939, but maintained the status quo until his father, George Bartell Sr. (1868-1956), passed away in 1956. Faced with a moribund company when his father died, Bartell implemented a series of initially unsuccessful changes before finally finding the right mix and putting Bartell Drugs back on the road to recovery. A quiet, reserved man, Bartell is remembered more as an effective manager than an aggressive leader. He turned the presidency of the company over to his son, George D. Bartell (b. 1951), in 1990.
George Henry Bartell, Jr. was born in the wee hours of October 20, 1916, at Providence Hospital in Seattle. He was the first son of George H. Bartell Sr. and Beatrice Shaffer Bartell (1879-1969), and arrived two days after his parent's 11th wedding anniversary. He was preceded by a sister, Amy Ellen (1906-1998), and joined the family at their house on the western flank of Seattle's Queen Anne Hill at 1517 11th Avenue W.
About 1920, Bartell Sr. and Beatrice divorced, and he moved out of the Queen Anne home and later remarried. The divorce was amicable -- in fact, Beatrice Bartell later served in various officer positions in the Bartell Drug Company, including president. However, this was more for paper purposes; there was never any question as to who was really in charge, and that was George Bartell Sr. George Bartell Jr. -- who went by "Henry" as a boy -- grew up with his mother and sister. (Amy Ellen later moved out and married.)
Divorce was far less common in the 1920s than today (2012), and Beatrice, who had enjoyed an active social life when she was married, suddenly found her life much quieter after the divorce. Though Bartell wrote late in his life that he had no recollection of his parents when they were still married, the divorce nevertheless had an impact on who he became. By nature he was a bright but quiet child, and the circumstances of his childhood probably exacerbated his natural reticence. He grew up to become a mild-mannered, quiet -- some have described him as almost shy -- adult.
Bartell Sr. visited his children regularly, and occasionally took them on fishing trips, his favorite pastime. Likewise, Beatrice Bartell took the children on hikes and picnics in the Cascades, and they occasionally camped out together. This instilled a love of the outdoors in young Bartell, which remained with him the rest of his life. Also at a young age he developed a passion for golf, which he played regularly -- and well -- until he was 90.
In 1934, Bartell graduated from Queen Anne High School. He attended one year of college at the University of Washington, but in the summer of 1935, the future arrived. George Bartell Sr. was 66 at the time, several years past the life expectancy of the day. He'd also had several health scares, primarily stress-related from the long hours and hard work he'd put into running his company. He told his son that if he was interested in learning the business that now was the time. Bartell had actually been interested since he was a boy, famously advising his father in 1925 to turn down a million-dollar offer from a competitor, the Louis Liggett Company, to purchase the Bartell Drug Company. Yet he was not driven by it as his father was, and probably would have been happy to stay in college. But he was strongly influenced by the elder Bartell, and dropped out of college to go to work for Bartell Drugs.
On August 5, 1935, George Bartell Jr. started as a warehouseman (at a salary of $14.50 a week, or $240 in 2012 dollars) at the company's warehouse located in the 1900 block of Boren Avenue in Seattle. The following year, he transferred to Bartell's newly opened "triangle" store at Westlake and Pine and worked as a stock boy and part-time clerk. In 1937, he moved to the company's headquarters at 1916 Boren Avenue and was put in charge of purchasing candy and tobacco. (After this stint, he didn't enjoy candy. Likewise, he never smoked.)
A year later, he was also put in charge of purchasing and supervision of remodeling of the company's stores. As a result of this experience, he developed a keen interest in the design and construction of the stores, and for most of the next 50 years was involved in the layout work of many of Bartell's new and remodeled stores. Indeed, this interest in design and construction eventually ran deeper. In addition to his duties at Bartell Drugs, he later managed the G. Henbart Company (Henbart), a commercial real-estate company formed by his father in 1922 that later became a subsidiary of Bartell Drugs. While working for Henbart, Bartell designed the seven-story Lake Union Building on Seattle's Westlake Avenue, completed in 1971. He was especially proud of this achievement.
On September 27, 1939, Bartell was elected president of the Bartell Drug Company, replacing his mother, who resigned the presidency and became vice-president. George Bartell Sr., who had been vice-president, became secretary. He would remain an active presence in the company for most of the next 17 years, until his passing in 1956. Indeed, this presence would to some degree stymie the younger Bartell from making needed changes in the company in the 1950s. But that was more than a decade ahead. In the meantime, World War II intervened.
World War II began in Europe in 1939, and by the end of 1941, America was in it too. In May 1942, Bartell was drafted into the U.S. Army. (His father ran the company in his absence.) After enduring basic training in Missouri, he was sent to Camp Murphy, Florida, for radar training. He was soon transferred to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, for officer training in the Signal Corps. After graduating in 1943 as a second lieutenant, he was sent back to Seattle, where he worked in the headquarters of the Alaska Communications System at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle.
After nearly a year in Seattle, Bartell received orders transferring him to the Corps of Engineers. He was subsequently sent to Guadalcanal, where he was in charge of the island's water supply. Later in the war, he was transferred to Luzon Island in the Philippines to prepare for an anticipated invasion of Japan, but the Japanese surrender in September 1945 made that unnecessary. He served as part of the occupation force on Japan's Honshu Island until he was discharged the following March, having attained the rank of captain. He returned to Seattle and resumed his duties as president of Bartell Drugs.
He resumed his personal life as well. Before the war he had dated Elizabeth "Betty" Bogue (1911-2003). This relationship continued after the war, and they were married on December 1, 1948. (His father objected to the wedding, partly because the bride was five years older than his son. The senior Bartell -- who had a penchant for younger women -- argued that a man's wife should be the younger partner in the marriage.) The new couple settled into Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood and eventually had three children: George D. (b. 1951), Jean (b. 1953), and Robert "Bob" (b. 1954). He also returned to college in 1951 to obtain a degree in Pharmacy, in response to a newly passed state law (later found to be unconstitutional) requiring drugstore owners to be licensed pharmacists. He completed his degree in three years, graduating from the University of Washington in 1953.
In the meantime, he had his hands full with his job. The war years had not been kind to Bartell Drugs. With so many men overseas, the company had recruited women in larger numbers. While this worked out well for Bartell's, it did not entirely solve the problem with the shortage of employees, which eventually forced some Bartell stores to cut hours and close on Sundays. Inventory was difficult to obtain, and Bartell Drugs had to stockpile what it had. Although these problems abated after the war ended, other, longer-term and more far-reaching problems arose to take their place and would eventually result in profound changes to the company.
These problems became particularly acute in the 1950s. The post-war population shift to the suburbs had an adverse impact on Bartell's, which until 1954 had all of its stores in Seattle, many of them downtown. Parking at the downtown stores was limited, which became a problem after the war as car ownership rose. A surge in the number of drive-in restaurants in the 1950s began to reduce Bartell’s soda fountain business. The number of self-service drug stores also began increasing, threatening to make Bartell’s traditional full-service operation obsolete. Bartell Drugs was also prevented by the Miller-Tydings Fair Trade Act, passed in 1937, from lowering its prices on certain cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs to meet competition from other retailers who flouted the law (which was repealed in 1975). Finally, although all Bartell store managers were registered pharmacists, they lacked the time and experience to handle the changes that needed to be made in their stores’ operations and merchandising.
Certainly by the time George Bartell Sr. died in March 1956, the company's problems were glaringly apparent. Wages and expenses were rising, but profits were mostly flat, and in some years between 1945 and 1956 the company had lost money. Even when Bartell Drugs had enjoyed a good year during this period, it only served to recoup the company's losses from flat or bad previous years. Moreover, many of the younger managers who had worked for Bartell Drugs before the war pursued other opportunities after the war, leaving a management team in place that was older and either unable or unwilling to see the need for change, much less make ecommendations for it. There is some suggestion that the senior Bartell also resisted the changes necessary to turn the company around, but it's not clear how much of a direct role he played in delaying these changes. It's more likely that the younger Bartell simply did not make them, perhaps out of deference to his father or because he just didn't want to take the risks necessary in making big changes to the company unless he felt there was no other choice. Or it could have been a combination of both reasons.
Not long after his father's passing, Bartell began implementing the changes needed to bring the company into the second half of the twentieth century. It would be a long, difficult process. One of his first acts was to ask for the resignation of the company's vice-president, P. G. Power, who had been with Bartell Drugs since 1919. What followed was an almost revolving door of managers coming and going from Bartell Drugs for most of the next decade. During the late 1950s and early 1960s the company also closed nearly half its stores, reducing its count from 23 stores when George Bartell Sr. died in 1956 to just 12 by the end of 1961.
The early 1960s only saw an intensification of the company's woes. Bartell recognized that his strength lay more in managing than leading, so he sought to bring in talented management who could identify the company's problems and contribute their own ideas and experience to solve them. In 1961, he hired Fred Damlos, the former director of merchandising for Rexall Drugs in Los Angeles, as general manager. The next year, 1962, saw the World's Fair in Seattle. The company enjoyed a resulting bump in business, particularly at its triangle store downtown, which was fortuitously located next to the southern terminus of new monorail that was built for the fair. Given the improved performance, Damlos was promoted to company president in June 1963 and Bartell became the chairman of the board.
The improved performance turned out to be illusory. Consequently, Damlos was asked to resign in August 1964, and Bartell reassumed the presidency of Bartell Drugs. At the same time, Bartell was receiving heat from a small group of individuals who owned a minority interest in the company's stock. Although Bartell Drugs had had minority shareholders since it acquired Raven Drug in 1910, these shareholders had only begun taking a more active role in during the 1950s. They induced Bartell's board of directors to have Bartell enter into an 18-month contract with two men, George Kanrich and Robert Thornberg, to serve as the company's administrative vice president and operations manager, respectively. Damlos's resignation was effective on September 1, 1964, and Kanrich and Thornberg took their new positions the same day. Less than six months later, Bartell terminated the contract with both men.
Nineteen sixty-five was the year of catharsis for the Bartell Drug Company. The year began with the same turmoil that Bartell's had been dealing with for nearly a decade, but ended with the problems resolved and the company moving ahead. (It just wouldn't be apparent for another decade or so.) In February 1965, Bartell Drugs terminated its contract with Kanrich and Thornberg, and Bartell promoted Bellevue store manager Val Storrs (b. 1931) to operations manager and Ballard store manager Gordon O'Reilly (b. 1937) to merchandise manager. Both men understood the business well and knew what was needed to make the changes necessary to get the company moving forward again. Bartell gave them free rein to make changes, provided they didn't spend much money doing it.
The minority shareholder issue also came to a head in 1965 as a result of the termination of the company's contract with Kanrich and Thornberg and Bartell's more assertive management of the company. Infuriated by these developments, the minority shareholders threatened to force Bartell Drugs into court-ordered receivership because of alleged mismanagement and corporate abuse. They demanded that Bartell buy out their interest in the company. He obliged (one has to assume that he was happy to do so), and the buyout was completed in October 1965. Slowly -- almost imperceptibly for the first few years -- Bartell Drugs began the trek back toward growth and profitability.
Back to Black
In 1966, the company opened a store in Edmonds (Snohomish County), its first new store in seven years; it was also the first store opened outside of King County. For various reasons the store was not successful, which only increased Bartell's aversion to risk-taking. However, O'Reilly and Storrs did not share this view. No other new Bartell stores opened until 1973, but several other Bartell stores moved to new locations or were remodeled and updated in the meantime. Storrs and O'Reilly worked together to modernize these and Bartell's other stores in what became known in the company as "self-modernization," as opposed to having an outside contractor come in and do the work. Storrs likewise had his hands full making the personnel changes needed to bring new store managers in who had the business acumen needed for retail pharmacy. It took the better part of a decade for the turnaround to become apparent, but by the late 1970s, the company was adding new stores and increasing profitability.
By 1980, the Bartell brand that we know today (2012) was largely in place. Its stores were for the most part uniform with each other, with well-lighted, wide aisles and merchandise placed on low shelves that could be easily accessed by the customer. The company's growth accelerated in the 1980s, with Bartell's adding 14 new stores during the decade. The company's expansion into Seattle's suburbs continued, with new locations added in Snohomish County (Everett, Lynnwood, and Mountlake Terrace) and on Seattle's Eastside (Sammamish and Kent). Bartell Drugs had 31 stores in operation when the 1980s ended, well past its previous high mark of 23 stores.
During the 1980s, Bartell's son, George D. Bartell, gradually began assuming more responsibility in the company's operations. He was more ambitious than his father, and, along with Storrs and O'Reilly, played a leading role in the company's rapid growth during these years. On April 1, 1990, he became president of the Bartell Drug Company. George Bartell Jr. served as the company's chairman of the board until 1994, and in 2001, was named chairman emeritus. As had his father before him, he remained a presence in the company well into his 80s, typically working four days a week and visiting the company's stores. He pursued his other interests as well, especially golf, which he played almost religiously twice a week.
Bartell enjoyed making visits every December to each of his stores to thank the employees for their work done during the year. On occasion he would walk directly into one of the pharmacies to greet employees, sometimes startling newer employees who didn't recognize him and would stop him to ask why he was there. He continued this tradition of "Christmas visits" after he stepped down as the company's president, and it was his baby: One year when his son suggested they do the visits together, Bartell would not hear of it. (George D. Bartell continues the tradition of Christmas visits to each store today.)
Betty Bartell died in 2003. Bartell remained in Seattle for a few more years, but he had been slowly declining from dementia (it did not fit the classic definition of Alzheimer's) since the 1990s, and in the spring of 2007, his children put him in an assisted-living facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. He passed away from pneumonia in Mesa, Arizona, on January 21, 2009.
Bartell also was active in a number of civic activities, including the Municipal League of King County, serving as its president in 1966 and 1967. He served in several positions, including chairman, of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Young Presidents Organization, and also was a director of the Seattle Retail Trade Bureau and of Greater Seattle, Incorporated. He was also affiliated with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Totem Council of the Boy Scouts. He was a member of the Rainier Club, the Seattle Golf and Country Club, the Scottish Rite Temple, and the Chief Executive Forum. In addition to his love of golf and the outdoors, he was an avid traveler. He also supported the University of Washington School of Pharmacy and the university's football team, the Huskies.