Retail & Innovation

High voltage with a higher purpose: Get to know Tracey Brown

Walgreens’ chief customer officer is a self-described data nerd who is obsessed with the customer experience. But it’s her profound personal and professional experiences that have uniquely prepared her for the job, and defined her calling.

Steve Rausch, Walgreens Stories

It’s an early mid-week December morning and Anneliese Szutenbach is walking Tracey Brown through the Walgreens store she manages in Deerfield, Illinois. As Szutenbach guides her up and down aisles, Brown is engaged and inquisitive, peppering her with questions about the store’s successes, challenges and performance, and listening intently to her replies.

When Szutenbach informs her the store has achieved its highest sales numbers in more than eight months, Brown’s face lights up behind her bedazzled mask.

“YES! Great job!” says Brown, Walgreens first president of retail products and chief customer officer, giving Szutenbach an enthusiastic high five and a hug.

It’s a single data point on a single day at one of Walgreens nearly 9,000 stores, but it’s good news that reflects a strong focus on the customer, and is worthy of a morale-boosting, energetic reaction from the self-professed off-the-chart extrovert. That’s just the way Brown is wired. Always has been. And it’s that positive, high-voltage attitude she’s brought to Walgreens in a role she sees as fulfilling a higher purpose.

You see, Brown has been on a journey, one that’s led to this time and this place. She has experienced inflection points throughout her life in meaningful, difficult and sometimes painful ways. But she readily acknowledges they have driven her, formed her world view and shaped who she is as a person and leader.

Her professional and personal paths have always been intertwined: climbing the ladder, constantly achieving, but always being guided by the life lessons echoing in her mind. The young professional whose mentor advised her to never be afraid to swim upstream. The motivated little girl who heard and heeded her parents’ maxim that passion will allow you to do anything you set your mind to, just don’t ever let anyone outwork you. And that same girl who, at age 10, suffered the tragic death of her father.

“I was very close to my father, and his passing had a profound impact on me,” says Brown. “But I watched my mother pick up and lead the family, and she did it with such strength, courage and grace. I learned a lot from that.”

Brown’s personal journey has progressed through important experiences at the University of Delaware, where she earned a degree in chemical engineering while captaining the basketball team, and later, an MBA at Columbia Business School at Columbia University. But her most critical and ever-present life lessons would come with the birth of her daughter, Sydni, in 2003.

Discovering her life’s purpose

While pregnant with her first and only child, Brown developed gestational diabetes, which turned into type 2 diabetes postpartum. It was a life-changing diagnosis that she admits she didn’t take seriously at first.

“I felt OK, but I wasn't really managing my diabetes early on,” she says. “When my daughter was 5-years-old, she would see me take my insulin shots and prick my finger every day. One day she looked at me and said, ‘Mommy, are you gonna die from diabetes?’ That’s not a question any parent wants to hear from their child, and it became a pivotal moment in my life.

“I made a commitment right then, honestly with tears in my eyes thinking, oh my God, this is what my daughter believes,” she says. “No, Mommy's not gonna die from diabetes! I made a promise to myself, my husband and my daughter to say, not only was I not going to succumb to it, I was going to turn my life around and show how you can thrive while living with diabetes.”

After that personal revelation, she immersed herself in information to understand exactly how pervasive diabetes is, and the stigma of being one of 122 million people who live with diabetes and pre-diabetes, particularly those with type 2. “Somehow people think it’s your fault for not taking care of yourself,” Brown says. “There's a lot of misinformation about it.”

With the same drive she’s had since she was a girl, Brown adopted a new, healthier lifestyle, ultimately working herself off insulin and all but one of her medications. The more she learned about the disease, the more determined she became to be an advocate for those living with the illness. Her passion as a volunteer and record-setting fundraiser in her community made the American Diabetes Association (ADA) take notice, and ultimately earned her an invitation to join its national board of directors, which she did with a purpose: to make a difference.

As a board member, her deep strategic and operational expertise, and ongoing advocacy quickly stood out. After several months of working to drive change on the board, Brown was asked to interview for the organization’s CEO role, a potential career move she hadn’t necessarily anticipated.

At the time, Brown was senior vice president of operations and chief experience officer at Sam’s Club. Suddenly, she found herself staring at a daunting fork in the road dividing her career and her calling.

“I love retail, but I really believe everything happens for a reason,” she says. “I don’t think it happened by chance that I am living with diabetes. I think this is a part of my life's purpose to help people thrive, whether they’re affected by chronic disease or something else. When thinking about the ADA job, I realized it has a huge impact on people, their lives and their livelihoods. I thought I would retire from Walmart, but instead I left to take the helm of ADA to represent these 122 million people, advocate to help them thrive, and fight for a cure.”

The power of the fourth network

The promise Brown made to her daughter 15 years earlier ultimately led to a platform for her to speak loudly and proudly as ADA’s first CEO to live with the disease. In classic Brown practice, it was purpose meets passion meets position.

In her new role leading the ADA, Brown poured herself into mastering the complexities of the healthcare industry. She identified the three existing pillars of healthcare as she saw them: hospitals, doctors’ offices and urgent care centers. And the more she dug, the more she realized that while these existing networks were best for treating acute issues, they weren’t structured to adequately address the needs of those with diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

“I started saying, we need a fourth network, which is community-driven health. Why community? Because there's built-in trust there.

“The healthcare professionals in communities are in the local pharmacy. I said, well, I know a little bit about retail [laughs] and I know that, particularly with Walgreens, they’re on the best corners within 5 miles of approximately 78% of all Americans. So how do we start to think about personalized, trusted care leveraging these providers who are already in a community?”

That question became Brown’s North Star, and she began her quest to formulate an answer by creating partnerships between ADA and large retail pharmacies, then piloting ideas to build out the concept of the fourth network.

It was around that same time that Brown was approached with an offer to return to retail leading the customer experience with Walgreens, presenting an opportunity to expand her health-centric mindset and focus on community-based healthcare to a significantly larger audience.

After three years spent working to make healthcare more responsive to those with chronic illness at the ADA, Brown had arrived at yet another inflection point—one that required an even bigger stage to fulfill her life’s calling. And that stage, it turns out, is one of the largest and most trusted brands in healthcare.

Scaling the Walgreens experience to empower people

Brown comes to Walgreens with the mandate to transform. As a retail veteran and engineer-by-training, she admits to being a data nerd who lives to dig into numbers and make sense of them to help solve problems. In her new role, she envisions creating a data-first culture as the driver of how to learn and make decisions, particularly when it comes to creating an unmatched, end-to-end Walgreens customer experience, in stores, via mobile and online.

“We have data from 85 million customers through myWalgreens. So how do we use that data to help us intimately understand our customers and patients, and create simpler, more personalized experiences for them?” she asks. “Most importantly, how do we empower people?

“Personally, I became empowered as I started to understand and learn my body, my disease state. So how do we use that knowledge and data to empower people to make choices that are good for them?” she asks, defining the challenge. “There's no person I know of living with diabetes or any other chronic disease who wakes up and says, ‘I want to make bad choices for myself today.’”

Brown also understands that as powerful as data may be, the critical element that truly differentiates Walgreens is its store team members who build relationships with customers and patients every day. They bring the fourth network of community-based healthcare to life.

“The thing that will make all of this work is our people,” she says. “The moment of truth is right here in our stores. I am a believer that if you treat your team members well, and you enable them with the tools and processes they need, they will overdeliver the kind of experience you want customers and patients to have. Scaling that experience, that built-in trust our pharmacists have earned, is one of my primary goals.”

That is why someone who describes herself as frontline obsessed spends so much of her time in stores—like she did in Deerfield—meeting with team members and asking questions, while always listening, testing, learning, encouraging, and celebrating success. Brown knows great ideas can come from anywhere, and is keenly aware that Walgreens’ people on the front line are the closest to our customers and patients.

“If I had my druthers, I'd spend as much time in our stores as I possibly could,” she says. “The relationship we have with our frontline team members is so important that it’s equally important for me to be present to see and hear things directly with no filter.”

Tracey Brown’s life journey has ultimately led her to Walgreens, working to put customers and patients—groups for whom she holds so much empathy—at the center of everything she does. It’s empathy born of personal tragedy. Empathy learned from being a mother. Empathy hard-earned from living with a chronic illness thrust upon her and the myriad challenges that come with it. It is those experiences that have allowed her to understand the needs and the pain of others, and what is required to help people live their best lives. As chief customer officer, she expects nothing less from herself.

“I really believe driving change is a part of who I am, and doing it for a higher purpose—to help humanity—is why this particular role holds so much meaning for me,” she says. “It has the size and scale to impact millions of people to help them to improve their health and well-being. This is my whole life coming together.”

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