Harminder Bajaj, Care4U Health Mart Pharmacy, San Bruno, CA

After searching Google for the phrase “women entrepreneurs in pharmacy,” Harminder Bajaj stumbled across a video featuring Karen Schmidt, McKesson’s RxOwnership® vice president. Inspired by the video, Harminder reached out to Karen and was pleasantly surprised when she picked up the phone right away. Thus began Harminder’s journey to starting her own pharmacy.

Harminder started her career by earning her B.S./M.S. in Pharmacy in Delhi, India, before moving to Storrs, Connecticut, where she secured her pharmacy license while gaining experience in a hospital setting for about a year. Concurrently, she attended the University of Connecticut and earned her Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences in the field of biotechnology. She also worked at Vernon Drugs, an independent pharmacy in Connecticut, while attending graduate school.

Harminder’s next move took her to California, where she worked at Bayer Healthcare developing biotech drugs. Subsequently, she put in a four-year stint as pharmacy manager at Longs Drugs (later acquired by CVS) in 2009. It was there that she built her confidence as a manager and gained a strong understanding of the industry. Her experience working at the chain pharmacy prompted her to begin thinking about starting her own business, and in 2013, she made the call to McKesson.

Karen Schmidt at RxOwnership sent her useful startup checklists and financial templates, and walked her through her initial business plan. Karen also provided her with script volume information for her desired location (which she used in her business plan), and because of her experience suggested that she not start paying for her lease until her store was opened. Thankfully, Harminder listened, as it was almost a one-year process to get her Board of Pharmacy license. Karen then put Harminder in touch with her colleague, Brittany Farmer, the regional McKesson sales manager, who discussed options for Harminder to join buying groups and informed her about all the Health Mart® programs that could be a good fit for her.

Once the local competitive landscape and earnings potential were determined, Harminder was ready to move forward with construction on an established storefront in San Bruno, California. She found the RxOwnership startup and Health Mart onboarding processes to be critical to her success by helping her to navigate the completion of financing, licensing and franchise agreements.

Best part of ownership

Harminder is dedicated to helping the community and is relishing the rewards of running her own show with none of the red tape and political pressures of a large chain operation. “The sky is the limit,” said Harminder. “People aren’t only prescriptions and numbers. Each patient is different. They need targeted individual therapies and I enjoy being part of a team to help find what works best for them.” Care4U Health Mart focuses on coordinated care in partnership with providers and doctors. In one case, Harminder had a patient who called and told her that he was losing his vision. He was a diabetic with high blood pressure. She told him to go see his eye doctor and also called his doctor to get approval to increase his medication dosage, which ultimately saved her patient’s vision.

Worst part of ownership

It’s difficult to change potential customers’ minds about going to an independent pharmacy as opposed to a chain pharmacy that may offer lower prices on specific items or short-term deals. “People don’t always understand the personal care they can receive by going to an independent pharmacy,” said Harminder. “They only care about price and don’t consider that someone being able to help them with their medical and clinical therapy is so much more important. It can change the health of the customer, which can be less expensive in the long run.” She is now leveraging the Health Mart brand recognition for advertising in the area to promote the store.

The differentiators

As the business grows, Harminder will specialize in skin analysis and hormone analysis, and work with dermatologists and endocrinologists. She is also beginning to work with compounding and specialty drugs not offered by the chains. Unique to the location, the pharmacy will target local retail customers, gyms and technology/biotech companies that surround her pharmacy. Plus, she will offer delivery services to both time-starved customers and seniors in her community.

Working with RxOwnership and McKesson

“From start to finish, no other wholesaler is as approachable as McKesson. They are as involved as I am,” said Harminder. “McKesson has so many programs to help, including McKesson LoyaltyScript®, the Health Mart franchise, AccessHealth®, Your Pharmacy OnlineSM, Marketing Hub, Physician Outreach, medication synchronization (med sync), and more.” Harminder takes advantage of many of the Health Mart services including their OTC products, custom signage, and professionally created website that includes a Facebook page link. After opening in June 2015, she found that participation in AccessHealth was critical to her early success. “No one besides McKesson has the full package of solutions that help get you through initial financing all the way to your grand opening,” said Harminder.

Parting thoughts

While Harminder notes that she couldn’t have opened without the support of her husband, her two children (one of which she was pregnant with during her opening process), and her parents, it has been a rewarding two-year process. She can now focus on patient-centered care and services rather than following mind-numbing metrics often used at pharmacy chains to measure productivity rather than care. “Life just isn’t about money. If you don’t like what you’re doing, change it,” said Harminder. “When you walk into a Health Mart pharmacy you should feel confident that your health is under control.”

As for advice to prospective new owners and students, Harminder suggests, “Go with McKesson, but gain experience from the experts first. Learn the operations of the pharmacy business and work at a chain or an independent pharmacy first. Plan well in advance and talk to the right people that can help you achieve your ownership goals.”