Bill Ladwig, a 44-year employee of Lewis Drug, was honored as the 2022 Distinguished Alumnus by the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions at South Dakota State University at the college’s Scholarship and Distinguished Alumni Luncheon Sept. 10.
Ladwig, of Sioux Falls, became the 35th person to receive this honor.
The senior vice president for professional services at Lewis, Ladwig has spent his entire career with the company, beginning as an intern in 1978. He completed his five-year pharmacy degree in 1979 and started as a staff pharmacist in Sioux Falls. At the time, Lewis had five stores—three in Sioux Falls, one in Huron and one in Mankato, Minnesota.
While the chain grew, was promoted to chief pharmacist in 1988, director of pharmacy in 1998 and senior vice president of professional services in 2002.
During his career, Lewis has grown to 60 stores in three states—South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa—with 167 pharmacists. It has added seven stores in the last three years, when most of the industry was constricting, and now is the 14th largest pharmacy chain in the United States, Ladwig said.
Riding the cutting edge
Lewis was started in 1942 and has experienced double-digit growth the last four years with 2021 being the chain’s best year ever, Ladwig said.
The key, he said, quoting the Lewis office manager, “is to be on the cutting edge and not the bleeding edge. We’ve been able to navigate the land mines that have derailed some in the industry. Plus, we have the best pharmacists, the best staff. We’re engaged with our partners, our providers and our customers.”
Part of that engagement is gaining access to patient’s electronic medical records to better educate the patient and advocate for the patient, he said.
“The greatest patient advocate is the patient themselves” and that requires an informed patient who understands how various therapies interact, Ladwig said.
Another innovation that Lewis has done is embed pharmacists at five clinic locations with the pharmacist’s salary split between the clinic, the health plan and Lewis. Their role is not the typical retail pharmacy interaction but they instead work directly with the health care team inside the clinic to increase communication, education and quality care with the prescribers, nurses and the patients, Ladwig said.
The increased dialog reduces the likelihood of conflicting medications and increases the medication adherence by the patient, which makes for a healthier customer, he said.
Combating pharmacist burnout
Greater pharmacist involvement in the health care team, particularly during COVID-19 when pharmacists became more active in giving vaccinations, has increased public appreciation of pharmacists, Ladwig said. However, demands on pharmacists also have grown and pharmacist burnout has become an industry problem, he said.
While Lewis hasn’t lost any of its pharmacists, it is a concern and hiring pharmacy techs is most challenging, Ladwig said.
He said part of the reason Lewis has been able to hold onto its pharmacists is the family feel at Lewis. “You can take the pharmacist out of Lewis, but you can’t take Lewis out of the pharmacist. It’s really like family. Once you work here, you feel it, you get it,” said Ladwig, noting that his 44 years doesn’t put him close to the top of the Lewis seniority pole.
“We have 167 pharmacists. I’m incredibly selective. I hired almost all of them. Almost all are SDSU students. That’s not an accident. Our tie to SDSU is paramount to quality. The company started in 1942. Eighty years later we’re having our best year. The primary reason is we hire the best people. Where do they come from? SDSU,” he said.
‘Dumb luck’ plays a part
Ladwig came from Turton in northeast South Dakota and graduated in 1974 from Doland High School, where he tested high in the sciences.
Coming from a family of nine, he knew he had to stay in state to go to college. There was no career counseling then. He thought about med school and engineering, but he had no relationship to either career. However, “I had seen a pharmacist; I knew what a pharmacy was. So, I picked pharmacy. It was dumb luck,” Ladwig said of his choice.
But better lucky than good applies in this case. “It has been a wonderful profession. I could not have picked a better profession. I have only interviewed for one job in my entire life — and that was at Lewis.”
Dan Hansen, dean of the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions, said the list of awards that Ladwig has won shows he has more than luck on his side.
Among Ladwig’s prior honors are SDSDU Pharmacy Preceptor of the Year (1984), the Hustead Award (2011 South Dakota pharmacist of the year), the Hammer Award (given in 2000 through Vice President Al Gore’s office for a syringe disposal program) and the Time Warner Innovative Practice Award (given in 2006 for a melanoma screening project).
Challenging job forestalls retirement
“Each one (of the awards) is amazing in its own reasons,” said Ladwig, who noted some of the previous Distinguished Alumni winners are those who signed his diploma.
That diploma hasn’t taken him far geographically, but it has carried him to the top of the list of South Dakota pharmacists, Hansen noted.
Ladwig and his wife, Denise, have eight grandchildren and he turns 67 in May. However, he says he is not ready to turn into a retiree.
“I still find it challenging. I still enjoy it. It’s still fulfilling for me,” the Distinguished Alumnus said.
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