In this longer-than-usual Drug Channels article, I probe:
- How does Walgreen benefit?
- What does ABC get?
- What does this mean for drug procurement?
- What should Cardinal do?
- How will the companies balance competing priorities?
- Will this become one mega-company?
NOTE: I don’t address here how brand-name manufacturers should respond. If you are a brand-name manufacturer, email me to learn more.
HOW DOES WALGREEN BENEFIT?
Like any other major channel customer, Walgreens got a great deal by extracting a good chunk of ABC’s buy-side margins. (See below for the contract’s economics.)
By giving ABC its buying leverage for generics, Walgreens all but ensures the lowest cost of goods. (See below for more comments on the deal’s global buying platform.) If Walgreens chooses to do so, it will be well positioned to win the pharmacy industry’s race-to-the-bottom price war. See What Free Generic Lipitor Says about Pharmacy's Future.
An unusual aspect of this transaction is ABC’s offering up its equity to get a big distribution deal. But this should be seen as a potential win-win. Walgreen’s potential 23% equity stake in ABC helps ensure that contract savings flow to Walgreens. It also helps reassure ABC’s shareholders that Walgreens won’t grab every last penny.
Walgreens also gains the more robust distribution infrastructure of a major wholesaler, while gracefully backing away from its ill-conceived plan to insource purchasing of brand-name pharmaceuticals. The strategy was doomed by an inept rollout and an unnecessarily aggressive “sell direct or else” message. Manufacturers were justifiably concerned about Walgreen’s capabilities and the disruption to existing channel strategies. In its press release, Cardinal disclosed that 40% of its sales were shipped directly to a Walgreens pharmacy, further demonstrating Walgreen’s dependence on wholesalers.
There may be other benefits. Can Walgreens leverage ABC’s Good Neighbor Pharmacy Provider Network, the pharmacy services administrative organization (PSAO) that negotiates and administers contracts between PBMs and independent pharmacies?
WHAT DOES ABC GET?
Most obviously, ABC gains an unusually long, 10-year distribution contract with one of the two largest chain drugstores.
The deal’s profitability seems to fit the typical low-bid wholesaler strategy. Tom Gallucci of Lazard Capital estimates that ABC will earn EBIT margins of about 40 basis points on the new Walgreens’ business. In contrast, Cardinal’s total profitability from this volume was closer to 60 basis points, reflecting a blend of very low bulk warehouse margins and somewhat higher margins on the non-bulk, direct-store delivery business. See “EBIT Margins from Large Customers” (page 45) of the 2012–13 Economic Report on Pharmaceutical Wholesalers.
However, this analysis is simplistic, because ABC is also gaining “opportunities to accelerate the Company’s efforts to grow its specialty and manufacturer services businesses domestically and internationally (per its press release). In other words, Alliance Boots will be helping ABC expand its highly successful specialty businesses to Europe. I presume that ABC’s World Courier business will play a key role here, perhaps by aligning with Alliance Boots’ Alloga contract logistics business. This relationship, though hard to quantify, could turn out to the biggest win for ABC.
By the way, I expect ABC finally to bite the bullet and build a national redistribution center, akin to those operated by Cardinal and McKesson. Such a move will boost ABC’s margins on the deal, especially because ABC gets access to additional logistics fees from brand-name manufacturers. Until then, manufacturers will experience supply chain inefficiency by having to ship to ABC’s 24 regional distribution centers.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR DRUG PROCUREMENT?
The deal creates a novel aggregation of cross-organizational, cross-border purchasing power. Vertical integration into generic manufacturing is nearly certain.
Walgreens is turning over its domestic generic purchasing to ABC, which gives it even more scale. ABC is getting a Generic Pharmaceuticals Purchasing Services Agreement from Walgreens Boots Alliance Development (WBAD), the Swiss joint venture formed in August by Walgreens and Alliance Boots.
Thus, ABC will now get to share in (and contribute to) the purchasing synergies of Walgreens and Alliance Boots. This part of the deal is crucial to ABC, because it can source products through WBAD for Walgreens stores along with all other wholesale customers. ABC can cancel the equity warrants if WBAD terminates the Generic Pharmaceuticals Purchasing Services Agreement. See section 5.1(d)(i) of the full agreement.
With generics on track to account for nearly 9 out 10 prescriptions within 5 years, buying power matters. I believe that a similar rationale drove the Express Scripts-Medco combination. And don’t forget that CVS Caremark claimed more than $700 million in total cost synergies in 2008 from their combination. (source) The majority of those savings came from generic drug purchasing—both sheer volume as well as contract comparisons (per CVS' Channel Power).
Given regional differences in drug formulations and packaging, these global synergies can be hard to access. The combination is likely to bypass traditional generic manufacturers and expand private label generic lines a la Alliance Boots’ Almus or McKesson’s NorthStar Rx.
WHAT SHOULD CARDINAL DO?
My $0.02? Keep calm and carry on.
Cardinal still has three significant growth platforms: (1) Medical products (institutional and consumer), (2) Independent pharmacies (where Cardinal has successfully defended its Kinray share), and (3) China. Given the more fragmented structure of these markets, Cardinal’s earnings growth rate will likely improve. That’s the upside of reduced customer concentration and less pricing pressure from two mega-customers. See Mo Money, Mo Problems.
As Cardinal noted, it will get a “significant net working capital decrease” and “a meaningful net, after-tax benefit to cash flow from operating activities.” Translation: it will have lots of cash to reinvent the business.
I also think Cardinal will behave rationally and not try to grab McKesson’s Caremark contract. If McKesson also behaves rationally, we can expect an orderly CVS contract renewal. However, both Cardinal and McKesson will likely face a bigger margin hit than they would have if Walgreens hadn’t shifted its business. Hence, the Walgreen’s news was slightly positive for CVS Caremark’s stock. CVS Caremark may even have some new ideas on collaborative sourcing.
I’m sure Express Scripts is having second thoughts about its move to ABC. (See ABC Wins Express Scripts Contract from Cardinal.) And I suspect that if Cardinal waits a few years (or less), Express Scripts will come back to Cardinal. Stay tuned.
There will surely be short-term pain and restructuring as Cardinal resizes its organization. But I believe that it will emerge as a stronger company.
HOW WILL THE COMPANIES BALANCE COMPETING PRIORITIES?
For now, this transaction creates three companies with overlapping minority shares. As I told The Wall Street Journal: “The challenge is that it's now quite a complex organization, with many competing loyalties and agendas.”
A few examples:
- After Walgreens becomes ABC’s major shareholder, will independents stay with ABC? If ABC loses the small customer, it will have traded the pleasure of higher-margin business for the thrill of lower-margin revenues. I suspect that ABC will retain most (95%+) of its smaller customers, but there will be friction and noise. Some pharmacy owners will whine, but ultimately price and service are what matter. If ABC can leverage its new scale into better pricing, then most pharmacy owners will stick with it. In the meantime, expect competing wholesalers to ramp up the counter-advertising.
- ABC has successful, higher-margin consulting and outsourcing businesses that sell services to manufacturers. Will manufacturers continue to purchase these services, even as the combined organization tries to simultaneously squeeze manufacturer margins through global sourcing RFQs?
- As the leading distributor of specialty medications to physician offices and clinics, ABC is heavily invested in the buy-and-bill channel. Meanwhile, Walgreens operates the largest home infusion business, which attempts to shifts administration out of physician offices. As the third-largest dispenser of specialty drugs, Walgreens also has a white-bagging program that undermines specialty distribution, per Specialty Pharmacies Keep Gaining on Buy-and-Bill.
WILL THIS BECOME ONE MEGA-COMPANY?
Short answer: Probably.
Walgreens has a 45% ownership in Alliance Boots, and is likely to exercise its 2016 option to own the whole business. Walgreens and Alliance Boots can buy up to 7% of ABC on the open market now, and has the option to own an additional 16% in 2016/17. Note that the agreement prevents WAG from owning more than 30% of ABC.
Assuming that small customers don’t desert ABC, I expect Walgreens/Alliance Boots to purchase ABC outright within 10 years. In Drug Channels' early days, I predicted that Alliance Boots would buy a wholesaler. (See 2006’s US Wholesalers Look to Europe and 2007’s The British are Coming?) Looks like I may end up being right about the outcome, but wrong about the timing…which is slightly better than just being wrong!
The transaction puts Stefano Pessina ever closer to his long-held goal of building a truly global organization. In 2017, Pessina will be 75 years old. He will also be the single largest shareholder of Walgreens, Alliance Boots, and (by extension), AmerisourceBergen.
Forbes recently pegged Pessina’s net worth at $6.4 billion. (source) The drug channels participants are all now playing on this billionaire’s chess board.