“You don’t want to be rich to be a pharmacist,” said Kam Tam, owner of New Oakland Pharmacy. “That’s the wrong profession to be in, OK? So, you have to have a vision and a mission.”
Tam has been an independent pharmacy owner for 32 years with a handful of locations throughout the Oakland area in California. During that time, he’s seen other pharmacies come and go, mentored new pharmacists and is watching his daughter step into his role at the head of the company.
When it comes to running a pharmacy, Tam says it’s important to have a vision and mission. He also described a few important things for pharmacists to remember every day.
“The first, is to advocate the health of children, two is to be able to provide the most comprehensive pharmaceutical service to you patients will all the resources you have, three is excellence in education, which is not part of being an owner,” Tam said. “… Once you do those things well, everything should follow.”
Those are virtues that he repeats to everyone he works with. Whether it’s providers, administrators or even students. He also mentors other pharmacists in becoming owners.
The first was a pharmacist who he sent underwater prescriptions to at a chain pharmacy.
“Many years later, all of a sudden he gave me a phone call and he said, ‘Hey Kam can I come to your pharmacy to check out your pharmacies because I am going to try to open a pharmacy,’” Tam said.
Tam invited the pharmacist to his store and showed him around. He and another mentee who found him through a sales rep made some mistakes early on but are still operating their stores today.
“I helped those two people along the way and they’re doing OK now,” Tam said. “I always help people without the second thought about payback. I didn’t know who they were when we started, but we’ve become friends now.”
Tam’s own path to pharmacy was a little different. It started when he came to the United States in 1968 when he was 16 years old and didn’t know any English. He came from Hong Kong and was already well-versed in math, physics, chemistry, calculus.
“I was able to take the exams and such because math is a universal language, you don’t need to speak English to solve those problems,” Tam said.
The chemistry teacher at his school discovered his aptitude for chemistry and he was asked to work in the lab. Through that opportunity he got to know the counselors in the school, which led him to a youth program and a job in a pharmacy on High Street in San Francisco.
At the same time his family, being what Tam described as poor immigrants, was in need of health services for Tam. He was cared for through a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC). Those collective experiences led him the realization that healthcare was a field he wanted to work in.
After pharmacy school he worked at a chain and was on the path to becoming a district manager. A meeting with his now partner led to him quitting his position and becoming an independent pharmacy owner.
One thing that convinced him, was that his partner was working with an FQHC called Asian Health Services.
“I thought oh wow this is the same type of service that helped me when I first came to this country,” Tam said.
During this time there were many immigrants coming from the Vietnam war according to Tam. He saw it as an opportunity to help those who were coming to the country like him many years ago.
To this day Tam continues to work with FQHCs, in fact each of his pharmacies has a connection with one.
“It completes the circle,” Kam said.
He also regularly works with people who are homeless, juvenile detention centers and mental health centers.
“I try to create value in what I do that people will actually notice, instead of filling prescriptions and getting my fee.”
“I try to create value in what I do that people will actually notice, instead of filling prescriptions and getting my fee,” Tam said. “That’s so obvious and that’s why many of the pharmacies cannot perpetuate their pharmacy because they are very myopic in doing what they do.”
When Tam considers the future of independent community retail pharmacy he thinks of how the opportunity to partner with providers and doctors has changed.
In recent years he’s seen a decline in independent doctors, reducing the opportunity for partnerships.
Tam said there is a direct connection to this changing landscape and the reduced presence of independent pharmacies.
“When I first came to this country in 1968 there were 11 independent pharmacies (in Oakland), at the height there were 13, now there’s only two,” Tam said.
Tam has perpetuated his pharmacies by finding connections with FQHCs, LTC facilities, clinics, and hospitals along with the providers and administrators who work there.
Tam says his success with creating those relationships has to do with building respect.
And though he has created a successful group of pharmacies, even he will have to stop working soon. Unlike many of his peers he won’t be closing his stores.
“Do I have a succession plan, yes I do,” Tam said with a chuckle. “I planned for my succession many years ago when my daughter went to pharmacy school.”
His daughter graduated in 2003, but initially didn’t want to work for him.
“She knew the hours,” Tam said.
About seven years later she began working for him and is now the CEO of the small group of New Oakland Pharmacies.
“She’s very, very good in doing what she does and so I passed my CEO title to her four years ago,” Tam said. “She’s taking over the operation and also all the administrative stuff in the pharmacy and so she’s my replacement person.”
Tam is still working towards the day when he and his partner completely step away from the job. From his viewpoint the business should be in good hands when that day comes.
“It’s very gratifying,” Tam said. “When you realize that your mentee is better than you.”