Owner Ellis Herz Describes His Path to Independent Pharmacy
We recently spoke with the owner of Maxsons Drugs, Ellis Herz, about his unintended path into becoming an independent store owner. Though he knew he wanted to be a pharmacist, he didn’t think he would become an owner until the store he worked at went up for sale. Despite not having the money to purchase it, things fell into place in such a way that he would end up running the store for more than four decades.
A long time ago, a philosopher and satirist named Seneca observed that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. Nearly 2,000 years later this idea held true for Ellis Herz when ownership of a pharmacy fell into his lap.
Herz has been in the pharmacy industry for the better part of five decades and for most of his career he’s owned Maxsons Drugs in Sherman Oaks, CA.
“I’ve owned my store 43 years,” Herz said. “Growing up, I lived in an apartment in North Hollywood with my parents and I always wanted to get ahead in life and get myself a good education and I thought pharmacy would be something good to go into.”
Though his family wasn’t poor, the pharmacy schools in California were too expensive for him, leading him to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson. While attending he was required to have 3,000 intern hours; he got them at the store he now owns.
“I worked the whole summer there and the owner liked me so much, that he actually called me up three days before I was graduating and said, ‘When are you graduating from pharmacy school?’”
With just four days left before he graduated and no response on his state boards, he was called by the then owner of Maxsons.
“He said ‘Can you work for me Monday morning, I had to fire my pharmacist,’” Herz said.
Herz told the owner that he’d love to but didn’t have the results in from the state boards. The owner had a friend at the state board and called him back two hours later with the results.
“He said, ‘you passed, I have your license number can you work Monday morning?’” Herz said.
On his first day the owner introduced him as the new pharmacist and then announced he would be going to Hawaii and return in two weeks, leaving Herz in charge of the store. Herz was the main pharmacist for about a year before the owner decided he wanted to sell his two drug stores. There were two buyers who already owned several stores that were interested in making the purchase.
“But they needed a working partner,” Herz said.
The original owner told the buyers that he didn’t want to make the sale unless they made Herz one of the partners and so one of the buyers lent Herz his share of money for the store.
“It just fell into my lap, some of these things are just accidents,” Herz said.
“You have to have a good connection with the community, even doctors.”
This was an opportunity he never expected or planned for, but his schooling and work at the pharmacy had prepared him for it. In the time since he became an owner, the other two buyers have passed away. He’s also built a strong connection to the community he serves and the staff that helps him do it..
“You have to have a good connection with the community, even doctors,” Herz said. “I have doctors that call me specifically because they call a chain store and they’re on hold for ten minutes. They call me and I got them in five to 10 seconds.”
Herz also works with different groups to provide them with items and service they can’t find elsewhere.
“I have a pediatric group that sends me patients,” Herz said. “I carry all the antibiotics that they want, I make a special diaper rash ointment for them.”
He also has a group of moms he works to ensure he has enough ADHD medication for, as they’ve had issues filling their prescriptions in the past. He also works to fill prescriptions quickly with all his patients, something IPC helps him to be able to do as his secondary wholesaler.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of times I can buy a lot of things cheaper from IPC,” Herz said “And as long as I order it early enough I get it the next day, which is great.”
“I have people that come into my store every single day that say please don’t ever sell your store, please don’t ever retire,” Herz said.
Despite this he still does lose customers, but not for the reasons someone might consider typical.
“People that come to me basically only leave for three reasons,” Herz said. “Either they move, they die, or they’re forced to use mail-order pharmacies and that’s becoming a major, major problem in the independent pharmacy world.”
He does gain more customers than he loses at this point, but also faces the challenges brought on by the partnership between chain stores and PBMs. In some cases, chains are allowed to provide a three-month supply of a prescription whereas he can only provide enough for one month.
Herz said he’s concerned issues like this won’t stop where they are now and questions why someone would pay three copays at his store when they could pay one at a chain.
He has however found ways other than his fast and accommodating service to remain competitive. Herz has a post office in his store along with several retail items.
“My post office in my store is so busy I actually got the post office to give me a second computer,” Herz said. “I earn a commission on everything I sell.”
Herz still works a handful of days each week and on his weekends off he remains involved with a dog hunting and training group. He used to compete heavily, but now judges and serves as a gunner during hunts.
At 67 years old he still rides horses during hunts and moves fast in the desert.
“It keeps me physically in really good shape,” Herz said.
He doesn’t intend to slow down anytime soon.