St. Peter pharmacist’s passions for pharmacy, drug compounding, porcine drugs, root beer and museum owning mix under one roof.
Photo by Kris Kathmann
Bill Soderlund was sitting with more than 120 other pharmacy students in a lecture hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, when the professor posed a question: How many of you, he asked, are planning to own and operate your own pharmacies when you finish your degree.
Soderlund’s hand shot up.
As Soderlund looked around the room, he saw only two other hands raised in answer to the professor’s question. Not that he was surprised. It was the early 1990s and Soderlund already knew that independent drug stores were being supplanted by chain pharmacies in discount stores and grocery stores. He already knew that the days of being your own boss were over for most prospective pharmacists. But he also knew that there was no other choice for him.
By that time, Soderlund was already managing Village Drug, an independent drug store that his father, also a pharmacist, had purchased in St. Peter. Although his brother Pat was a pharmacist who ran that end of the business, Soderlund thought it only made sense that he earn his degree too. “I didn’t see much of a future in running a pharmacy when you weren’t one,” he says.
So it was that in December 1995, at the age of 35, Bill Soderlund, a former carpenter (or “tree butcher,” as he calls it), graduated from Drake University and became a registered pharmacist. A year later, he purchased the drug store from his father. Today, Soderlund Village Drug is one of the last remaining independent drug stores in the area.
“We’re getting to be dinosaurs,” Soderlund admits with his characteristic smile. “There aren’t many of us left.”
Being independent allows Soderlund Village Drug to do things differently. First of all, there’s the soda fountain. Although no one mans the counter anymore, it does still dispense free root beer for customers (see sidebar)—an amenity you probably won’t find at chain locations. There’s also the drug store museum, a colorful collection of the pharmaceutical paraphernalia occupying a corner of the store. But the biggest difference is far bigger: Soderlund Village Drug still offers custom compounding of drugs.
Compounding, the preparation of custom medications per a doctor’s specifications, is becoming a lost art. At one time, almost all prescriptions were compounded; the doctor would write a code for a pharmacist to follow, and the patient would never even know what they were taking. But today, drug companies create specific formulas that doctors sometimes defer to and that patients often ask for by name. “Now the patients go in and tell the doctors what they want,” Soderlund says. “Times have changed.”
Compounding pharmacists must be specially trained; they need special equipment and special certification of their sites. Most pharmacies, especially those in discount and grocery stores, can’t offer compounding services. But Soderlund Village Drug can, and does.
“Compounding allows us to make a variety of different drugs that aren’t commercially available,” Soderlund explains. “If someone comes in and needs something, we do what we can to provide it.”
That doesn’t mean they create their own version of every prescription. Like other pharmacies, they carry the widely available drugs doctors commonly prescribe. But unlike other pharmacies, they can formulate medications in other forms to make them easier to take—from tablets to capsules, for example. They can recreate a medication that has been discontinued or is no longer available. And they can compound pharmaceuticals that are available in limited strengths to any strength specified by a physician.
“If a doctor writes for a specific drug, we have that here too,” Soderlund says. “But compounding allows me to do things that other pharmacies can’t do, or don’t want to do. To compound is a very big commitment, in terms of training, the facility and the equipment. But for me, it’s definitely been worth it.”
Other pharmacists refer patients to Soderlund when they can’t fill a specific prescription, for example. He gets emails from people around the country asking for help with certain prescriptions. A urology clinic in Kentucky hires Soderlund to make certain medications that they use to treat their patients. “We ship to all 50 states,” he says.
Part of Soderlund’s reputation is tied to the fact that he has a Ph.D. chemist on staff randomly testing the drugs made and dispensed from the pharmacy. “When we make something, we give him a sample and have him analyze it,” Soderlund says. “It’s worth it to me to have a guy here testing this stuff, because there’s an idea out there that no one checks this stuff out.”
Just the other day, Soderlund says, they had the chemist test a liquid medication for a child that had added orange flavoring. It came back fine, but the next day, the chemist tested it again. “The potency had gone down,” Soderlund says. “It was good when we handed it out, but then the orange flavoring interacted with the medicine and changed its potency. So we called the patient and had them come back in to get a new grape-flavored bottle.”
Not all of Soderlund’s clients care what their medicine tastes like. In fact, a good portion of them will take just about anything. That’s because they’re pigs. Literally.
About three-quarters of the business generated out of Soderlund’s store on Third Street in St. Peter is for pigs. His Vet-Rx business, a separate pharmacy dedicated entirely to porcine products, supplies antibiotics, iron and vitamin supplements and ibuprofen to pig farmers.
“We saw a need for it and we went with it,” Soderlund says. “There wasn’t a good way to give pigs certain antibiotics that they needed, so we figured it out.”
Today, the Vet-Rx business occupies at least half of the space in Soderlund’s store and accounts for almost half of the 22 total employees as well. Together, Soderlund and his brother Pat have eight patents for the medications they dispense. And almost a quarter of the pigs raised in this country get one of the drugs they produce.
“Many pigs are born anemic, and they need iron,” Soderlund explains. “So we make about 200 different formulas of iron and vitamin injections. And pigs get fevers too, and when they do they quit eating and sometimes die. So we developed ibuprofen they can take to lower their fevers.”
But pigs aren’t the only animals that Soderlund cares for. Because of his compounding capabilities, Soderlund can provide pet prescriptions in dosages and strengths that best meet each animals needs. Soderlund Village Drug supplies medicine to the police canine unit in Anchorage, for example, and has filled prescriptions for panda bears.
It isn’t easy for an independent business to stay competitive. Soderlund knows he’s lucky having the success he’s had, especially in an era when big-box retailers are replacing corner drug stores. But his situation, he says, is unique.
For one thing, he owns his building outright, which means he operates with a lot less debt then others. And he’s found a way to maximize every square foot of that building for the business. “We pack a lot of business under this one roof,” Soderlund says. “There are a lot of economies because we have everything together here. I’ve thought about expanding, but I want to stay in this location and I don’t know if we could expand here. And I’m not going to pay property taxes on two different locations.”
It also helps that he’s able to offer services that other pharmacies just can’t. “Compounding helps me make a profit,” he says. “It’s a source of revenue. If we were just filling prescriptions for Zoloft and that sort of thing, I don’t think I could keep doing this.”
Although the business has indeed been making money, it’s clear that Soderlund isn’t in it just to make money. He and the other pharmacists—Noelle Buckley and Chris Daniels, who was a classmate of Soderlund’s at Drake—often greet customers by name; the clerks offer everyone who comes in a cup of coffee or a swig of root beer.
“I love this community,” Soderlund says. “I want to be able to take care of my customers, and of this community. That’s what it’s all about.”
Family Man Can
Bill Soderlund has nine children, ranging in age from 2 to 27. At age 47, he even has four young grandchildren. Many of the older kids have helped out at the drug store from time to time—and even little Magnus, the youngest of the Soderlund crew, has participated.
“He came to work with us and would come out and say hi to the customers,” Soderlund says. “But at some point after he had crashed my computer for the third time, we decided that he and my wife Beth should stay home instead.”
Even though Magnus is now absent from the store, the Soderlund family still plays an important role in the day-to-day operations of the business.
Soderlund’s stepson Kinsey Maxfield manages the store; Steven Maxfield works part-time, as does Soderlund’s son Melvin. His daughter Emily helps out in the Vet-Rx business as well. His wife Beth helps out paying the bills, while his brother Pat and sister Anne work for Vet-Rx too. And his dad, who sold his own store 10 years ago, comes by once a week to help. “He’s going to be 70,” Soderlund says, “and he still out works me.”
In case anyone thinks it’s nepotism gone mad, Soderlund reports that the kids actually have to work or they don’t have a job. “I fired my daughter once,” he admits. “She wasn’t being as responsible as I needed her to be. But I did eventually hire her back.”
Pharmacy History Buff
Maybe it’s the display case filled with brown and blue medicine bottles that tip his hand. Maybe it’s the trays of dried herbal remedies and ancient medications (including insects) tucked away on a shelf under his desk. Whatever it is that first tips Bill Soderlund’s hand, it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s a bonafide history buff.
Part of his obsession with the past is his close association with it. His father was a pharmacist, as was his great-great aunt Lina Soderlund. Drug stores have been in his family for four generations. And the drug store he now owns and operates has a storied history itself, having been established more than 110 years ago in St. Peter.
“I grew up in a pharmacy, basically,” Soderlund says. “I spent a lot of time at the drug store with my dad. I’d go over on weekends or after school. I was interested in it even then.”
But part of it is also a scientific fascination. Although he keeps blistering beetles in a sealed case in his cabinet, such old school remedies are no longer part of a pharmaceutical practice. Now, drug companies spend millions of dollars trying to make the next great medicine, with each one battling against the other for market share and, basically, money. Soderlund likes to temper those interests with a healthy respect for the things that worked in the past.
“If I don’t understand the history of this profession, how can I have any innovations at all?” Soderlund asks. “Researching the history gives me a completely different vantage point for where we are today.”
It’s important for him to share that history with others through the Pharmacy Museum he’s created at the drug store. He’s gone to great strides to preserve tools and equipment that have become all but obsolete through technological advances. At the time, many pharmacists didn’t see any value to keeping those old things.
“My dad remembers throwing everything away,” Soderlund says. “He graduated from pharmacy school in 1960. At his first job, one of his bosses told him to go downstairs in the basement and throw all the old stuff away. It’s a shame because now those old bottles cost $100 a piece.”
1919 Root Beer Galore!
On hot summer days, Soderlund Village Drug is a happening hangout. That’s because kids can always count on getting a cold cup of root beer when they stop by.
“Kids come down here all the time,” owner Bill Soderlund says. “After school, in the summer, all the time. They don’t buy anything, but I still like them to come in and drink the root beer.”
Kids and grown-ups alike are all invited to have a free serving of 1919 Root Beer (regular or diet) when they stop by Soderlund Village Drug. It’s a way Soderlund can both reach out to the community he serves and, at the same time, make use of the antique soda fountain that sits in his space.
“I don’t know how many gallons we give away, but it’s a lot,” he says.
In a way, it’s also paying homage to Wall Drug and its offer of “free water.” “That guy is my hero,” Soderlund says. “But I figure, if he’s got free water, then we’ve got to be even better. So we do root beer.”
And although he’s not a huge fan of the skateboards they bring to his parking lot, Soderlund loves local kids coming to his store to hang out. “I just hope that when they get older they have memories of being able to do that here,” he says. “Ultimately, we only have so long to be here, so we really ought to make the most of it while we can.”
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