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Daughter embraces pharmacy founder's legacy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Yes, there's still a Fruth calling the shots for Fruth Pharmacy.

In 2009, four years after Jack Fruth's sudden death, former teacher Lynne Fruth gave up a flourishing career as a school system consultant to operate Fruth Pharmacy Inc., the 25-store chain her father started from scratch in 1952.

Fueled by passion, tenacity and the ideals her father instilled in her, she brought the company back to the prominence it enjoyed under his watch.

Sorting through letters and notes in his desk, she discovered another dimension to his compelling bootstrap success story -- the role of Good Samaritan.

The revelation inspired her to commission a book about his life, "A Journey of Giving."

Interviewed at the Oakwood Road store, known to the corporation as Store 14, she talked about growing up in the first Fruth store in Point Pleasant and the legacy of the man behind that familiar name.

She's 54.

 

"It's easy for people to look and think, 'Oh, they're so successful.' My parents struggled a lot. They couldn't afford a home for years. My dad started the pharmacy in Point Pleasant in November 1952. He was the only employee. The first day, they took in $37.

"They lived in a hovel-like house -- a dining room, kitchen and one bedroom -- and they had two children. My parents slept on a foldout couch, and the two kids shared a bedroom.

"When I was in high school, they bought my uncle's home, an older home. By today's standards, my parents lived in a very modest home. My mom still lives there.

"When he died, my father had three pieces of value -- a wedding ring, a ring my grandmother had given him and a watch. He was more about leaving the world a better place.

"He was the most generous and concerned person, very outgoing and jovial. There was something about his personality that attracted people.

"When he passed away, everybody kept telling me stories about what my dad had done for them. After 25 people saying to me that my dad was their best friend, I thought, I don't really think he was, but he made you feel you were the most important person in his life at that moment.

"He was a very astute businessman. He understood what customers wanted. In the middle of the night, he would go down in his pajamas to fill a prescription or get somebody a vaporizer. How do you go someplace else after something like that?

"We didn't have as much as other kids, but I had the perfect childhood. We were very involved in going to the store every day where my dad worked long hours.

"When you grow up in a family business, it's hard to tell where the family stops and the business starts. My dad would do ads, more like handbills. Mom would take the five of us kids and drop us off at the top of each street, and we would put these fliers out door to door.

"At Christmas, we would wrap packages in the back room. When you got old enough to reach the cash register standing on a milk crate, the older ladies would teach us how to rings things up.

"All the food was made by my grandmother -- ham salad, chicken salad, pimento cheese, barbecues. We'd go get a ham salad sandwich and a Coke and read a comic book.

"We had only one store when I was growing up. In the '60s, Fruth Pharmacy in Point Pleasant was the largest retail store in the state. It had everything. We like to say we were the Wal-Mart before Wal-Mart.

"When I was little, we built a second store in downtown Point Pleasant. After four or five years, it burned. We didn't have enough insurance. The setback probably would be about $1 million in today's terms, so it took a long time to overcome. They didn't build the next store until I graduated from high school.

"I wanted to be in the Olympics. I was an athlete. I went to WVU on a softball scholarship. I was very competitive. I still am. Going to Fruth to put things back together, that competitive spirit of, 'I am not going to lose' is probably what put me through.

"I taught elementary and secondary education, primarily with struggling students. I started training teachers on ways to reach kids who struggled, and I ended up doing a lot of consulting, going to different school systems and figuring out what was wrong and how it could be fixed.

"In 2005, my dad had a massive coronary. We were out fishing. My little boy said he wanted to go to the cabin. It was raining, but he made me go. The three of us fished in the rain and had a great time. Then my dad came in and said he didn't feel good. He died of what they call the widow-maker. He was 77.

"There were other principal people in the company, and the thought was that they would carry on. It just didn't work out. The company was struggling. There wasn't that go-to person who had that ability to lead, or the passion.

"I went up there in 2009. I was still married at the time and teaching. I still had a son at home. I have two older children. It was a huge decision, a life changer. I went from a good career to driving to work an hour each way and working 12-hour days.

"We really just needed to re-focus on the things that had made Fruth such a great company. Our people were no longer interested in community service. I knew that was a part of our success. Probably the guys in the company had just gotten tired. I had to get everybody fired up again.

"The first summer, I made it a point to go to every store and meet every pharmacist and every manager.

"We have 25 stores now, and we're ready to open No. 26 in Ironton, Ohio. There were 22 when my dad died and two being built.

"We call them by numbers. We don't say Oakwood Road. We say Store 14. It's one of our biggest volume stores. We're getting ready to put in drive-through. The downtown Charleston store where Sam Arco works was 25. It opened in 2006.

"Our company does about $135 million in sales a year. I can remember when they got to $100 million. My dad always liked to say, 'I came to Point Pleasant with a wife, a baby and a suitcase full of dreams.' At $100 million, the dream was even bigger than he thought it could be.

"We have 700 employees, something I'm more proud of than the money. There are 700 families that rely on this little regional business. Other stores have wanted to buy us. My dad would always say, 'What would happen to the people who work for me?'

"I'm on the board of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, and I serve on the WVU pharmacy school visiting committee, so I've gotten myself in a lot of organizations where I've learned a lot more about pharmacy.

"If I'm in a meeting with top executives from other companies and they start talking about something I don't understand, I have no problem asking them to explain. That's how you learn.

"A few years after my father died so suddenly, his office was just like he'd left it. Finally, they called my mother and said they'd like to use his office. It was time. So I started going through drawers. One was full of letters and cards from people he had done amazing things for.

"A fellow who works for us, David Jenkins, his father had gotten sick in Costa Rica and was hanging on to life. David took his mother and sister there. The hospital said they couldn't leave until they paid his father's bill. My dad gave them the company credit card and arranged to get a medical jet there.

"I wanted my kids to know that story. So I collected all these things and thought I would get someone to write a book. It was going to be just for our family. The author came to me and said, 'This is a story other people need to read.'

"It's a feel-good story. The author is a pharmacist who grew up in Point Pleasant and knew my dad very well. It was a labor of love for her.

"We have the book in all our stores, or people can call the corporate office, but I understand it's also on Amazon.

"I love my life. I love working for the company. It's been very gratifying to restore the company to the success of the past. There was never a time when I wasn't proud to say Jack Fruth was my father. And I think my father would be proud of me.

"My dad always had the right answer. I was getting ready to sell my house. These people were trying to beat me down on the price. I knew I was being taken advantage of.

"I had one of those weepy moments you have when your parents are gone. I thought, 'I wish my dad were here. He would tell me the right thing to do.' Just then, I heard his voice inside my head say, 'Honey, it's only $10,000. Sell the house and be done with it.'

"I called my realtor and said I'd take less money, that I was moving on. The bottom dropped out of the housing market two months later.

"When you have a person in your life who is such a source of wisdom, and then they are gone, they're still in your head if you can only quiet yourself and listen."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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