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The Morton Pharmacy Story

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The story of Morton Pharmacy starts on a hot summer day on July 30, 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression.

Newspaper ad for the 1932 opening of Economy Drug Store.
A newspaper advertisement
trumpeting the 1932 opening
of Economy Drug Store.

Having graduated from Clintonville High School in 1924, where he was known as “Duke” according to his yearbook inscriptions, Charles Everard Morton opened the Economy Drug Store, a Walgreen Agency, at 111 E. Wisconsin Avenue in Neenah. He invested $600 of his own money to open his own storefront.

Since age 14, he had been working in pharmacies; first, at Olk Drug Store in Clintonville, mostly sweeping floors and running errands; then in 1928, when he moved to Neenah to work for George Elwers at Elwers Drug Store at southwest corner of Wisconsin and Commercial Streets. Morton’s own Economy Drug was leased for $55 per month and ideally located across the street from the Neenah Theatre where it attracted a regular crowd of customers to its soda fountain for 5-cent Coca-Colas.

Charles Everard Morton in 1924.
Charles Everard Morton
in 1924.

Charles Morton would later report that opening day was very a very successful one at Economy Drug. He did $207 worth of business on that Saturday, and he had to call a buddy at his supply warehouse and drive there over the weekend in order to have enough stock to open his store again on Monday morning – a day that brought in a sharply contrasting $57.

According to the late Charles’s son, Peter Morton, all his father needed back then to open his apothecary emporium to dispense medicines was a 6-month pharmacy short-course through Marquette University and a successful board exam. Charles Morton later recalled that it was a full year before he established a prescription department at Economy Drug, as the store also sold toiletries and sundries, which attracted a steady stream of customers. Before his death in 1986, Charles pondered the miraculous transformation he’d seen over his decades as a pharmacist.

He experienced medical history in the development of sulfa drugs, the advent of penicillin, and the invention of the Salk polio vaccine. “We used to make powders and ointments by hand,” he recollected of the early days.

Building sign in downtown Neenah circa 1952.
Building sign in downtown
Neenah circa 1952.

Steve Morton, Charles’s grandson and current president of the regional Morton Pharmacy chain, has heard tales of Morton’s first foray into the pharmacy business. At the same time he opened Economy Drug in downtown Neenah in 1932, there were four other pharmacies already serving the same community: Schultz’s, Barnett’s, Elwers’ and Island Drug. “My grandfather started advertising low prices right away, and price points hadn’t been used in advertising very much up until then. The four other pharmacists were said to have met and reassured each other that this Morton wasn’t going to last that long, and not to worry about his stealing their customers,” Steve recalled.  Ironically, Morton Pharmacy is the only company still in existence today, and three of these same competitors would later be bought out by Morton.

Charles Morton was one of the last licensed pharmacists in Wisconsin to practice under a grandfathered clause that did not require him to hold a college degree.  He was also one of the first 20 Walgreen agents, the forerunner to today’s Walgreen’s pharmacy chains, meaning he stocked most of his shelves with Walgreen branded products and participated in their promotions and store display programs through the 1980s, at which time the agency program was cancelled as the larger chain embarked on its nationwide expansion. In the meantime, the Morton family continued to nurture and grow its business and relationships within the Neenah and Menasha communities.

Morton Drugs interior, 1952.
Morton Drugs interior, 1952.

Most Neenah citizens will remember Morton Drug at it most enduring location at 108 W. Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Neenah.  Charles moved his store there in 1952, and was later joined by his only son Peter, a graduate of the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy, in 1962. Peter, now 71 years old and retired, remembers crowding into his dad’s shop after a school with his junior high buddies, bellying up to the counter for a soda. “Of course, my dad didn’t appreciate it all that much, because he was paying for all of it,” he laughingly recalls.

Then known as Morton Drug, Charles went on to expand his business to a retail store in downtown Menasha in 1939, and later opened another pharmacy on South Commercial Street in Neenah in 1967.

Over the past 20 years, those three pharmacies blossomed into a small family-centered and managed chain of 13 locations, plus a closed-shop pharmacy that exclusively serves the need of long term care facilities and a safety distribution and training business called Morton Safety. The surge in growth was accompanied by a surge in annual sales from $1.5 million at the original three stores to more than $40 million in sales in 2006.

Peter and Charles Morton with Morton's 50th Anniversary award.
Peter and Charles Morton hold
an award marking Morton's
50th Anniversary in 1982.

Morton Drug was renamed Morton Pharmacy in 1992, on the occasion of its 60th anniversary in business.  By that time, the family business was being led by both Peter Morton and his children with wife Darlene.  Steve Morton, a CPA, now serves as the company’s president and CEO. David holds an MBA from Marquette University and is the chief operating officer. Kathryn holds an education degree and is the merchandising manager, and Jennifer, a dietician in northern Wisconsin, has plans to relocate to the area.

Jeff Blank, Kathryn’s husband, is the chief information officer, and Kurt Holm, R.Ph., serves as the director of pharmacy. As of 2006, Peter Morton sold his shares of Morton Pharmacy to his four children who now each have 25 percent ownership in the thriving business.

Steve Morton credits the growth and respect that Morton Pharmacy has earned over the past seven decades to the strong family culture within the organization. Morton is run by a family for families, and treats its team members with the same respect afforded to members of one’s own family. “We are so fortunate to have such an experienced and committed team. Many of them have committed their careers to helping the Morton family build the pharmacy business.” That loyalty amongst Morton’s pharmacists, many of whom have 10 to 25 years with the company, means they get to know and serve multiple generations of customers.

Jeff Blank, CIO; Steve Morton, CEO; Peter Morton, R.Ph. (retired); David Morton, COO: Kathryn Blank, Merchandising Manager.
Jeff Blank, CIO; Steve Morton, CEO;
Peter Morton, R.Ph. (retired); David Morton, COO:
Kathryn Blank, Merchandising Manager

Today, Morton Pharmacy employs 160 people across the Fox Valley region and Oshkosh. They strive to differentiate themselves from the chain-store competition by offering personalized services such as attentive counseling about the correct use of medicines, home delivery, personal charge accounts, a state-of-the-art compounding lab, prescription flavoring and bubble packaging. Steve says “We are large enough to benefit from economies of scale in purchasing, so we can pass competitive pricing on to our customers.  But we are agile enough to be flexible and focused on each individual customer.

With nearly 90 percent of prescription drug sales covered by insurance, Morton competes on a level playing field with other chains when it comes to dispensing prescriptions. Like the others, Morton accepts most insurance plans and Medicare, and customers pay the same co-payments no matter their choice of pharmacies. “The difference is that we are all about health care, and all about caring for the people of the Fox Valley,” Steve Morton explained.

Pictured are the second, third and fourth generations of Mortons who own and operate Morton Pharmacy, established in 1932.
“It’s our family taking care of your family.”
Pictured are the second, third and fourth generations of Mortons who own
and operate Morton Pharmacy, established in 1932.

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