Charlie Burnett will be the first to tell you he’s been lucky.
“I’ve been fortunate to work for Costco for 25 years. This company has such high ethical standards, I get in trouble for making too much money for the company, not for making too little. We’re known on Wall Street for being kinder to our employees than to our stockholders.”
Burnett, who graduated from UA with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in 1959, is senior vice president of pharmacy at Costco. He works at corporate headquarters in Issaquah, Wash., just outside of Seattle.
It was a relatively fortuitous route to Costco for Burnett. After graduating from UA, he soon moved to San Diego, where, by a stroke of luck, he met his future wife, Barbara. They married in 1979. Later, Burnett got even luckier by convincing Barbara, a lifelong San Diegan, to move to Washington state.
Before the move, however, while in southern California, Burnett worked for FedMart and attended law school at UCSD at night. After taking his juris doctorate, he practiced law for about two years before the world of pharmacy called again.
“FedMart asked me to run their pharmacy division, so I gave up law,” he says.
When FedMart liquidated in 1978, the Burnetts opened four pharmacies of their own. Burnett ran those until his old boss at FedMart, Jim Sinegal, called.
“Jim said they wanted to put pharmacies in low-cost warehouse clubs they were forming,” says Burnett. “I told him, ‘I don’t think that will work.’”
Sinegal insisted. He told Burnett that he would put up the money if Burnett would provide the expertise. He gave Burnett two mandates: the pharmacies must pay the highest salaries to their staffs and charge the lowest prices for their prescriptions.
Burnett smiles. “I told Jim, ‘Okay, it’s your money.’ That was in 1986. Costco now has 460 pharmacies in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.”
Costco is the largest membership warehouse club chain in the United States. As of July 2009 it was the third largest retailer in the United States and the ninth largest in the world. Jim Sinegal is cofounder and CEO.
One reason the pharmacies did so well, according to Burnett, is that Costco provided the funds to offer not only the lowest priced prescriptions, but the highest quality of professional services as well. The company purchased automated equipment, installed central fill operations, gave immunizations and offered a mail order prescription service.
In addition to being lucky, Burnett is one of the most humble men you’ll ever meet. When asked about awards he’s won (there are many), he demurs.
“Yes, I’ve won awards,” he says. “But you never win an award by yourself. You hire people who make you look good and then you get the award. I wish I could chop it up in little pieces and give a part to everyone on my team.”
The award Burnett is referring to is the highest honor given by the chain drug industry, the Sheldon W. Fantle Lifetime Achievement Award given by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Burnett received the award April 27, 2010, at the NACDS Annual Meeting in Palm Beach, Fla. Sinegal flew across the country to attend.
Sinegal and Costco value Burnett so much, they discourage him from retiring.
“I had planned to retire last January, but Costco asked me to stay and put pharmacies in their warehouses in Japan, Taiwan, Australia and the U.K. So I will stay and do that, but then I’ll step aside. I have a very good staff, people who can easily take over.”
Burnett spends much of his personal time working with the autism foundation he and Barbara started not long after their daughter was diagnosed with the disease.
“When Alyssa hit puberty, her behavior went south,” says Burnett. “There was no good place for her in Washington. One of our psychologists suggested we check out a school in Wichita, Kansas, so we did. It was perfect. Alyssa spent two years there, but it was very hard on us, traveling back and forth. We finally decided to found a place in Washington that would help autistic kids and their families.”
In 2008, the Burnetts created Tessera (www.tessera.org), a foundation that has served more than 300 people annually with a variety of recreational, social and educational family-friendly activities. So far the foundation has purchased a home for residential services and a former American Legion post for a life learning center that will serve as many as 200 to 300 severely disabled adults. Moreover, during a recent visit to Tucson, the Burnetts met with UA autism researchers to learn about the latest research in the field.
Having had a long and notable career with a company he considers great, partnered with a woman he cherishes, and established a foundation to help those less fortunate, Charlie Burnett considers himself the luckiest man in the world.