German drugstore barons dwarfed by WBA
Götz Werner, Dirk Roßmann and Erwin Müller, the founders of leading German drugstore chains dm, Rossmann and Müller, also rank among the planet's wealthy. But their thriving businesses hardly extend beyond Europe and cannot match the US and Chinese giant in annual sales, store count or global reach. Put in health & beauty terms, they are provincial European belles in a Miss World contest.
A question of size
As of July 2017, A.S. Watson runs more than 9,800 outlets in 19 markets, in addition to a joint-venture with Rossmann in Germany and Central & Eastern Europe (CEE).
These realities must be compared with the international expansion of German drugstore operators who, with the exception of Rossmann in Turkey, have confined themselves to Europe. The US, Asia and Australia, let alone Latin America or Africa, are still terra incognita for them all and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
By contrast, WBA's Stefano Pessina has long been gunning to enter the People's Republic of China big time.
When one confronts German drugstore managers with the big difference in size, they are quick to point out that Walgreens Boots Alliance, created in December 2014 after the merger of UK market leader Boots and US multiple Walgreens, benefits from a different historical tradition where chemists (pharmacies) developed into health & beauty retailers and are frequently integrated on their sales surfaces.
It's a family affair
It is also true that dm, Rossmann and Müller as private, family companies cannot tap the international money markets via listings on the Nasdaq, S&P 500 or the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in order to finance their expansion.
But the fact remains that Walgreens Boots Alliance and A.S. Watson are thundering past the Germans on the takeover lane of the international drugstore motorway.
Should anyone doubt this, just look at the rate of store openings. Whereas dm and Rossmann will get a good 250 outlets up and running between them in Europe in 2016/17, the global giants each work in thousands.
In its company report for 2016, global rival A.S. Watson announced the opening of more than 1,000 new outlets worldwide this year. But COO Malina Ngai Man-Lin indicated to Chinese sources last month that the actual figure will be around 1,400.
About half of these will be in China, but a "significant share" will go to CEE, including the Ukraine and Russia, where as a Chinese company it will not be hampered by sanctions. The group will also expand in Western Europe, primarily through Superdrug in the UK and Kruidvat in the Netherlands.
The size and the pace of global growth at both Walgreens Boots Alliance and A.S. Watson will inevitably lead to increasing competition with Germany drugstore empires in western and eastern Europe. A partial exception will be Rossmann with whom A.S. Watson has a 40:60 joint-venture agreement.
To date, German drugstore chains have had to contend with a fiercely competitive local market, but with little interference from abroad. If one excludes WBA's acquisition of Frankfurt-based pharmaceutical wholesaler Alliance Healthcare, Germany is currently not on the global players' radar.
This has allowed dm and Rossmann to virtually carve up the Health & Beauty segment between them, despite spirited resistance from Müller and the surprising new plans by Edeka, Germany's largest grocer, to enter the market in partnership with Hamburg's local hero Budnikowsky.
They shall not pass
Another barrier for foreign entrants is the Pharmacy Act (Gesetz über das Apothekenwesen), making it all but impossible for multiples to break the cosy status quo enjoyed by local chemists. But given the numerous holy cows that have gradually been slaughtered on the altar of modern retailing even in Germany, change could come in due course.
Whenever that time arrives, Germany's drugstore stars must hope that they are healthy and beautiful enough to meet the global beasts.
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