Alumna and Walgreens executive reinforces the company’s focus through adaptability

Andrea Collaro “Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking about how drugs work, and how they can be manipulated, improved and made more longer-lasting,” says Andrea Collaro, senior director brand management/product development, Owned Brands Health & Wellness, Walgreens. (Photo By Scott Thompson)
Walgreens executive and pharmacist Andrea Collaro’s domain encapsulates the company’s focus on health and happiness.

Her realm is huge.

It’s the back quadrant of most every Walgreens store, the busy section where customers shop to relieve pain, cure a cold, stock up on vitamins or buy testing devices for everything from diabetes to pregnancy. Within that space, Andrea Collaro, PHARMD ’97, manages every product that carries the Walgreens brand.

“It’s a pretty big section,” she acknowledges with a confident smile. Confident because Collaro just celebrated her 25th anniversary with Walgreens (now Walgreens Boots Alliance). Her official title, a mouthful, is senior director brand management/product development, Owned Brands Health & Wellness. It’s a big corporate position, and it’s rooted in Walgreens tagline, “At the Corner of Happy and Healthy.” For Collaro, that translates into consumer-centric pharmacy.

Pharmacy is what motivated Collaro to join Walgreens in 1991, and it remains her passion today. “Not a day goes by that I’m not thinking about how drugs work, and how they can be manipulated, improved and made more longer-lasting,” she says. “The first thing I think about is how are we going to make things easier, better and more of a value to the people in our stores.”

Collaro and her 15-person team don’t develop new drugs or peer through microscopes at malignant cells, but they constantly brainstorm to improve drug delivery or determine how to make existing products more useful and appealing. For instance, their consumer research may indicate that children prefer bubble-gum-flavored cough syrup over traditional flavors such as cherry and then secure a supplier of the former. Or, they might introduce a 200-count bottle of an anti-allergy medicine and seek a break in price, figuring that an entire family could be afflicted. Or they might determine that arthritis sufferers can’t easily open the push-and-twist bottle of a top analgesic and then select a manufacturer who can deliver an easy-open “gear” top for the Walgreens branded version.

Staying on top of trends is her biggest challenge. Some trends are predictable; cough and cold season means demand for medications such as decongestants is going to spike. But others aren’t always based on seasonality, and that’s what makes her job interesting.

“If there’s a [televised] story with a doctor who talks about a new supplement and says … it does this or that—people get off their couch and come into the store immediately and wipe out our shelves,” Collaro says. Timing is key. “If I wait until a trend hits, I’m too late,” she adds.

Although Collaro doesn’t work directly on outbreaks of diseases such as the Zika virus, she needs to be ready to ramp up product inventory. “Any time there’s talk of a pandemic, the public reacts quickly,” Collaro says. “They want masks, and cold and cough products. It happened with SARS, and it happened with West Nile virus. Thermometers go like crazy when this stuff happens.”

The recent Walgreens merger with Alliance Boots, a European-based pharmacy chain and pharmaceutical wholesaler, has added new challenges for Collaro and her team, many of them on the global front. “We’re always asking, ‘What’s going on in your market?’” Collaro says. Trends often emerge first in Europe, she explains. The company also must contend with different consumer and cultural needs, as well as different regulations. Codeine, for instance, is sold over the counter in the U.K. “We [can’t] always say things the same way [we do here in the U.S.]. We work on that constantly,” she says.

You learn a lot by talking to Collaro. For example, Walgreens recently reduced the height of the top shelves in its retail stores to improve product accessibility for women customers. “Women are shorter,” Collaro says. “And most shoppers at Walgreens stores are women.”

She also answers the age-old question of whether Walgreens-branded products contain the same ingredients as their more expensive brand-name counterparts. Take the Walgreens version of Excedrin as an example. “It’s the same exact thing,” notes Collaro. Otherwise, Walgreens couldn’t say it “compares to Excedrin” on its label. Many people, she says, don’t realize that the active ingredient for the brand name and the Walgreens brand are one and the same.

Walgreens also plays a role in product innovation. The company, she says, was the first to rethink how creams used for poison ivy are applied. What sensible parent, after all, would want to rub a cream on a child’s highly contagious rash? To avoid such contact, Walgreens introduced the industry’s first continuous spray for poison ivy, Collaro says.

Pharmacist at heart

Collaro’s rise through the executive ranks at Walgreens is not unique for a pharmacist. The company’s current co-COOs, Alex Gourlay and Ornella Barra, began their careers as pharmacists.

“There’s a rich history of people coming up through the ranks of pharmacy,” says Helayna Minsk, Collaro’s supervisor and Walgreens group vice president. “It’s certainly a tradition in the company.” Minsk, however, is quick to credit Collaro’s drive and character for her success. “Andrea is a lifelong learner …She’s very generous with her knowledge, has a cooperative style and enjoys a phenomenal reputation within the organization. I adore her.”

Collaro’s roots in pharmacy—indeed her entire career at Walgreens—almost didn’t happen. Growing up in Bridgeport, the daughter of Italian parents (her mother is from Sicily, her father is from Calabria), she had her eyes set on becoming a lawyer. Her older brother, Benjamin “Ben” Tassone, PHARMD ’89, however, was a pharmacist (he is a member of the first graduating class of UIC’s Doctor of Pharmacy program). Throughout high school and later college, Collaro worked at a Bridgeport restaurant, Laura’s, which is where she was the day Ben called to say his pharmacy technician had quit and would Andrea like the job.

“I didn’t know what a pharmacy technician did, but I said, ‘Sure, I’ll come do it,’” Collaro says. Ben explained to her the different kinds of drugs and how they worked. “It was awesome,” she says. “At the end of the day, I thought, ‘Omigosh, I want to be a pharmacist!’”

Thereafter, Collaro switched from pre-law to pre-pharmacy at Loyola University Chicago, then enrolled at UIC to get her PharmD degree, which requires four years of study. “It wasn’t easy,” she says with a smile.
“I definitely recall studying every hour of my life. But I loved it. I’ve always liked chemistry and biochemistry.”

Beyond the science, it was her brother who made the career of pharmacist seem so appealing. “Ben was a great inspiration to me,” Andrea says. “He had a great relationship with all his customers—he kind of mold-ed how I talk to people and how I treat them.” In cases where there wasn’t enough medicine to complete a prescription, she’d offer to drop off the remainder at customers’ homes when new stock became available. “I would do things like that,” she says. “In return, people wouldn’t scream at me in the pharmacy when
it took more than 15 minutes to get their prescription.”

Collaro spent 11 years as a Walgreens pharmacist, working in a variety of positions in the Chicago metro area. She opened one of the company’s first pharmacy clinics inside an HIV center. Collaro accepted a manager position at a Southside pharmacy, and became a shared faculty coordinator when Walgreens partnered with the UIC College of Pharmacy. She moved into corporate operations as a disease state manager, with a special interest in asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) and diabetes. Diabetes had been a special interest from her earliest days working in a pharmacy.

“Someone would come in and say, ‘I’m going to lose my leg in 10 or 15 years,’” Collaro says. “I’d ask, ‘What do you mean, you’re going to lose your leg?’ And they’d tell me, ‘My dad had diabetes and so did my grandfather.’

“People thought of diabetes as a death sentence,” she continues. “They were poorly educated, and I tried to explain how they could take control over their lives—that they didn’t have to lose a leg if they exercised, ate right and monitored glucose levels.”

In regards to HIV, “I was fascinated by the way the virus works,” Collaro says, “and I was thinking about a residency in infectious diseases after pharmacy school. Instead, an advisor mentioned a pharmacy inside an HIV clinic, and I went with that opportunity. It was really a pivot.”

(Her interest in diabetes remained, however, and after she’d switched to corporate, Collaro launched a magazine, Diabetes and You, which remains in Walgreens pharmacies today.)

Gut check

Beyond moving from pharmacy to retail, what is most noteworthy about Collaro’s career at Walgreens is the carousel of promotions that have led to her current position. Even Collaro can’t count the number of times her responsibilities switched from one section of the store to another. “I would be buying all diagnostics—such as diabetes test products, blood pressure monitors and ovulation detection kits—and my manager would say, ‘You have been here for a few years; now, I want you to go over to vitamins.’ Then, a couple of years later, I would be moved over to the cough, cold and allergy section.”

“I like to move around,” Collaro offers. “I don’t like to sit in the same spot too long. I want new tasks and responsibilities to be added on. It forces your brain to think. Otherwise, you get used to how to do things, and it’s very redundant. I like to keep it fresh!”

Keeping it fresh could mean a category manager’s hop from “Generic Pharmaceutical Strategy” to “Cough, Cold, Allergy and Lip Care”—the body parts changed, but not the insights she developed from being on the broad front of Walgreens sales and needs. Collaro does admit that making the decision to move wasn’t always easy, but she could always tell if it was the right decision based on her stomach’s reaction. “I kid around, but every time I’ve moved I’ve had a sick stomach. My stomach flexes, and I get nervous. Should I go for this? Should I do it? This is a brand new position.”

Apparently, she and her stomach have adapted quite well to new challenges. Just recently, the National Association of Professional Women inducted Collaro into its VIP National Women of the Year Circle, 2015-2016. NAPW is the nation’s leading networking organization for professional women, with more than 775,000 members.

However far she’s climbed the corporate ladder, and however far she is likely still to go, Collaro’s roots remain in pharmacy. Once a year, she returns to spend time in a pharmacy just to ensure she’s still attuned to customer needs. “Though I’ve got be honest,” Collaro says. “It’s like [the movie] Groundhog Day. In some ways, not much has changed. The customers still come to the counter and tell the pharmacist, ‘I don’t know what product to take.’”

If some things never change, it’s also an indication, says Collaro, of how much stock customers put in Walgreens pharmacists. “Our pharmacists are always engaged; it’s the human connection.”

Indeed, when Collaro looks at her own future, she’s committed to staying in the “health-care space.”

“My goal is to help develop tools so that people can manage their conditions better, especially chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes,” Collaro says. Are those tools likely to be available soon? “I hope so.” As a result of work at Walgreens? “Absolutely.”