Bartell, George David (b. 1951)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 5/16/2013
  • Essay 10367

George D. Bartell is the third Bartell to manage the Bartell Drug Company, which was founded in 1890 by his grandfather, George Bartell Sr. (1868-1956). He first began meaningful work for the company at its downtown Seattle triangle store in 1968, and over the years gradually assumed more responsibility. He succeeded his father, George Bartell Jr. (1916-2009), as company president in 1990, and since that time has become known for continuing the company's traditionally conservative fiscal policies while encouraging gradual but steady growth. As a result, the company has grown and prospered to become larger and more successful than at any time in its history.

Early Years

George David Bartell was born in Seattle on September 7, 1951, the son of George Bartell Jr. and Elizabeth "Betty" Bogue Bartell (1911-2003). He was the first of three children; a sister, Jean, followed in 1953, and a brother, Robert, in 1954. He grew up in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, and later described his childhood as "relatively idyllic"(interview, March 20, 2013). Magnolia was quiet and seemingly far removed from any of the problems (crime, vagrancy) that downtown Seattle routinely dealt with. He attended Lakeside School, a private school known for its high academic standards, during his middle and high school years (1963-1969) and enjoyed its organizational structure and emphasis on education.

His father didn't say much to him about working for the company while he grew up, and he didn't have any particular career aspirations. "I think in the back of my mind I thought I'd go into the business -- but it was in the back of my mind," he laughed (interview, March 20, 2013). Still, when he was in his early teens, he took inventory for a couple of Bartell stores, and once washed Bartell's Queen Anne store building. But it wasn't his father who eventually got him to take a job with the company. Instead, it was Sanford Barnes (1910-1998), the manager of Bartell's triangle store, who urged him to come to work at the triangle store at 4th Avenue and Pine Street in the summer of 1968, when he was 16.

First Job

Sanford Barnes hailed from North Carolina and had the accent to match. In 1968 he was in his late 50s, a large man with horn-rimmed glasses, plain spoken, with a fondness for cigars. Bartell has described him as "a pretty big man, but his personality was bigger" (email, October 8, 2012). He knew people and enjoyed working with them. Yet he brooked no nonsense. He was a singular presence, the epitome of tough but fair, and left a profound impression on those who knew and worked with him that resonates decades later.

"I started in the basement [at the triangle store], mostly doing stock work and cashiering. I was a horrible cashier to start out, introverted, looking down more than looking customers in the eye," admitted Bartell (email, October 8, 2012). Barnes's recollection of Bartell's early days was more diplomatic. "[He] was a real smart young man, but he had to be trained, and his father didn't train him any," Barnes explained in a 1997 interview (video). Instead Barnes provided the training, showing Bartell how to buy and sell merchandise, providing advice on customer relations, and often reminding him that it was the customer who was the boss.

In the 1960s, nearly all Bartell employees were required to join the Pharmacists and Retail Drugstore Employees Union pursuant to Bartell's contract with the union. Bartell soon learned that he would have to join the union too. "Frankly, I did not want to," he said. "It seemed an imposition to be forced to join an organization that might call me to go on strike against my family business. I did not know what to do" (email, October 8, 2012). How the problem was solved remains a mystery (Barnes is suspected to have played a role), but he never joined.

Bartell went to Bowdoin College, a small, private liberal arts college in Maine, between 1969 and 1973. He later explained his seemingly unusual choice: "I really enjoyed Lakeside ... I thought I learned a lot. It was stimulating. I wanted to duplicate that in college" (interview, March 20, 2013). Bowdoin was (and still is) a highly ranked college, and Bartell was impressed when the college admissions director came across the country to visit Lakeside. However, his Bowdoin experience disappointed him. It was not just the college itself but also the times. Some of the students were protesting against the Vietnam War, but he was not interested in joining them. "I was there to learn, but not everyone was," he explained (interview, March 20, 2013). He was also surprised by what he saw as East Coast cliques. But he stuck it out, and graduated with a degree in Economics in 1973.

A Young Manager

Bartell returned to Seattle and to Bartell Drugs, where he began coordinating the implementation of a new ordering system within all of the company's stores, visiting each store weekly and transmitting its order. Once the new system was firmly established, ordering merchandise was turned over to the store employees, enabling them to write their own orders. This was a tremendous benefit to Bartell Drugs, for several reasons. The most obvious was that the individual store managers and employees knew what sold well at their store and what did not. Previous store orders had been handled by a supplier's salesman, who was more likely to place a generic order and order the same products for all Bartell stores without regard to whether or not the product actually sold at a particular store. Now store employees could simply order merchandise themselves by sending the order over the telephone.

Bartell moved on from there. In the autumn of 1973 he briefly managed Brown's Bi-Rite Drugstore, a store that Bartell Drugs had recently acquired in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood when it was uncertain that it would be able to renew its lease at its existing store nearby. When the lease was renewed, the company no longer had use for the Brown store and closed it. In 1974, he was promoted to store manager of Bartell's West Seattle store. The store was older (it had been open since 1938), and small by the standards of the mid-1970s. Still, it was a good training ground for Bartell, who, in his words, was "very young to be a manager" at the age of 23 (email, January 7, 2013). It was at the West Seattle store that he discovered his entrepreneurial side. He looked for opportunities to pass good deals on to customers, and discounted items that had been in stock for awhile. Sales and profits at the store increased, and management at Bartell's corporate office on Boren Avenue noticed.

A Learning Experience

It also was a learning experience for Bartell. He wasn't as shy as his father (who was known for his reticence), but people skills didn't come naturally to him in his early years with the company. He honed these skills at the West Seattle store, aided by occasional tips from Val Storrs (b. 1931), the company's operations manager. He also endured a strike during his early years at the West Seattle store, which left an especially strong impression on him. Bartell Drugs had a lockout agreement with several other area companies, including Pay 'n Save and Fred Meyer, which provided that if union employees struck at one business, the other businesses were required to lock out their union employees. Since nearly all of Bartell's employees were union members, this meant the company could not let them work when the union struck Fred Meyer.

"I had to hire staff off the street," Bartell recalled (email, January 7, 2013). Some of the employees he hired were from other countries and English was not their first language. In a few cases, this inhibited them from fully understanding prescription orders or even making correct change. Bartell found himself doing a lot of quality control. The experience was a crash course in human resources for him, but he emerged from it more resilient and self-confident.

By 1977 Bartell was well-prepared for the company's next move, which came that spring when, with his encouragement, Bartell Drugs opened a store in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood and named him manager. It was a perfect fit since he had grown up in Magnolia and already knew the customer base, and the store was a success. He remained there for more than a year before departing for Harvard Business School in 1978. He had been looking forward to this additional educational experience for some time. "That I really enjoyed," he said (interview, March 20, 2013). He found his fellow classmates more serious and engaged than they had been at Bowdoin. The school also taught using the case method (for example, the story of General Electric), which Bartell found practical and useful.

Much to be Done

He graduated in 1980, and returned to Bartell Drugs. Unlike his father, who had been assigned specific job roles in his early years with the company, Bartell had no set role when he returned to Seattle. "My dad did not really manage my career," he explained. "I had to chart my own job" (email, January 7, 2013). This he did, primarily by reviewing the company's operations and picking up on things not being done that needed to be done as the company began to grow more rapidly.

And there was much to be done. Bartell Drugs was transitioning from a relatively small company to a much larger one. Bartell wrote manuals, provided financial analyses when the company considered moving a store or buying a new one, and provided input on store design and layout. He also played an increasingly active role in negotiations when the company purchased or leased new stores. For instance, when Bartell Drugs purchased five drugstores in King and Snohomish counties from the Canadian chain Shoppers Drug Mart in 1984, he and other company executives traveled to Vancouver to meet with Shoppers representatives to handle the negotiations -- while George Bartell Jr. stayed behind in Seattle.

Bartell continued to gradually take a more assertive role in company operations during the 1980s, and by 1987 had become executive vice president. He impressed the management team with his drive, but also with his intuitiveness of what was needed to make Bartell Drugs more successful while at the same time remaining responsive to its customers. More aggressive than his father, he was making many of the key decisions at the company by the late 1980s. But he did not become president until 1990, the company's centennial year. He subsequently explained that scheduling the transition in 1990 was deliberate, because it was important to his father that he and his father, George Bartell Sr., run the company between the two of them for 100 years.

Company President

George D. Bartell became president of Bartell Drugs on April 1, 1990. Although his father had been overshadowed in the early years of his presidency by the exuberant George Bartell Sr., there was little question that after April 1990, George D. Bartell was in charge. That said, he often sought his father's advice. But as the 1990s progressed, George Bartell Jr. began to slowly decline from dementia, making it more difficult for his son to tap into his experience. However, this was offset by the arrival of another family member at the company. In 1993, Bartell's sister Jean Bartell Barber began work for Bartell Drugs, assuming the role of chief financial officer in 1997.

The surging growth that Bartell Drugs enjoyed during the 1980s continued through the 1990s, though in a different fashion. Whereas many new stores opened by Bartell Drugs in the 1980s had come through acquisitions, the 1990s were marked more by the expansion of existing stores and the development of entirely new ones. This trend -- particularly in developing new stores -- has continued into the twenty-first century.

Perhaps the greatest change Bartell has seen during his years at Bartell Drugs has been the move toward more long-term strategic planning. "When I started it was a hand-to-mouth thing. We were just trying to get better," he explained. "But in the last 20 years it's been a continual evolution. For example, no one talked about long-term strategy during my early years. It was more tactical then. Now we're trying to be more and more strategic ... . One example is keeping the company relevant and stimulating to customers. I like working on those kinds of challenges" (interview, March 20, 2013).

Bartell Today

Bartell was in his early 60s when he was interviewed by this writer in 2012 and 2013. Aware of the march of time, he nevertheless had no immediate plans to retire. Still, he acknowledged that he may begin cutting back on his duties to some degree by the time he's in his mid-60s and not be involved in as many critical roles as today. But he emphasized that he intended to remain active and engaged in the company for many years to come. Considering that both of his parents lived into their 90s, it's not unreasonable to expect that he'll be around for awhile.

Inevitably, George D. Bartell is compared and contrasted to his father and grandfather, but this is fair in only a general way. In the broadest sense, George Bartell Sr. was the entrepreneur who started and built the company. George Bartell Jr. shrank the company and preserved it so it could make the changes necessary to transform into a more modern company. George D. Bartell's contribution has been to continue the company's conservative fiscal policies (Bartell Drugs has never been a highly leveraged company) and to encourage gradual growth, which has succeeded in turning the company into a far larger and more successful business than either his grandfather or father achieved. But he's done it his own way.

The Ultimate Civic Engagement

Bartell married June Erdman (b. 1956), a dietitian, on November 4, 1989. They have two children: Claire (b. 1994) and Mike (b. 1997), and presently live in the Eastside suburb of Bellevue. He enjoys gardening -- a trait he acquired from both of his parents -- occasionally bikes, and is an avid hiker when he can find the time, sometimes hiking up to 10 or 12 miles a day. He also enjoys traveling and reading. Like his father, he tried his hand at golf, but unlike him, he did not pursue it. "I was never as good as my dad. I developed a slice and never got rid of it," he conceded (interview, March 20, 2013).

He's been active in a number of civic activities. He has served on the board of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores for a number of years. He's in the World Presidents' Organization, is on the board of the Salvation Army of White Center, and is a member of the Washington Roundtable, a public-policy organization that works on critical policy issues to help stimulate growth and jobs in the state. In the past, he has served on the board of the Woodland Park Zoo Society and on the executive committee of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Young Presidents Organization.

But in a way, he considers his business the ultimate civic engagement. "It's something I take very seriously," he explained (interview, March 20, 2013). He noted that Bartell Drugs has created many thousands of jobs for Puget Sounders over the years. Yet his focus remains on the customer, and on keeping Bartell Drugs current and exciting for its shoppers. 

Sources: Phil Dougherty interviews of George D. Bartell, February 8, 2013, March 20, 2013, Seattle, Washington; George D. Bartell emails to Phil Dougherty, October 8, 2012, January 7, 2013, January 10, 2013, in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington; Bartell Drugs: A Company History (1997) video, Bartell Drug Company archives, 4025 Delridge Way SW, Seattle, Washington.


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