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14. John Crumly

CEO, Pharmacy Providers of Oklahoma

Eric: Hey there everyone, I'm your host, Eric Mueller, and welcome back to The Eric Mueller Show. This is the podcast where we explore what makes any successful person's inner clock tick. Today on the show, we're rocking the mic with another chief executive officer. He's been a mentor to me in the pharmacy world, and he's a phenomenal example of upstanding leadership.


John Crumly became Chief Executive Officer of Pharmacy Providers of Oklahoma, also known as PPOk, in April of 2018. Prior to that, he served as their Executive Vice President for 17 years. PPOk was formed in 1985 and provides services to over 3,800 pharmacies nationwide. John received his bachelor's degree in Pharmacy in 1985 from the University of Oklahoma. Boomer Sooner! He also holds a master's degree in health care administration from the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health.


With more than 30 years of experience as a pharmacist [00:01:01] and 20 years as a healthcare administrator, John is focused on ensuring independent pharmacists continue to be positioned to successfully compete in an ever more complex and challenging health care environment. John served as president of the Oklahoma Pharmacists Association for the 2010 to 2011 term. He also received the Upsher Smith Excellence in Innovation award in 2013 and the Oklahoma Pharmacists Association Spirit award in 2015.


Are you ready to discover what makes John's inner clock tick? Let's head on over to the interview.


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Eric: So, welcome back ladies and gentlemen to The Eric Mueller Show. A podcast where we explore what makes any successful person's inner clock tick. Today, we're lucky to have another CEO on the show.


We have John Crumly, CEO of Pharmacy Providers of Oklahoma. John's a[00:02:01] big sooner fan, and I'm really happy to have him on here as I am an alumnus of the school pharmacy at Oklahoma. John, welcome, welcome to the show, sir.


John: Well Eric, very great to be with you and look forward to our conversation today. And yep, go Sooners.

Eric: That's right. Preseason number one. Let's do it.


So, so John, you're the CEO of Pharmacy Providers of Oklahoma. Would you care to share just a little bit about what PPOk is, what you do at Pharmacy Providers of Oklahoma?


John: Absolutely. Yeah, there's no two days that are probably the same. PPOk is a very complex company with a range of subsidiaries underneath and so you know, we have a PSAO which is a pharmacy services administrative organization. So think of that as the corporate office for all of our member independent pharmacies out there. And you know that's kind of how we got our beginning way back in [00:03:01] the mid-80s, but our business model has evolved and so anything that's good for independent pharmacy, you know, we're going to take a look at.


You know, after the PSAO, the next company that can talk about is RxLink. It's a telecommunications company. People often call it a switch and that's where we're running the prescription claim traffic between the pharmacy and the payer and back. We capture that claims information, and then we can use that to develop other products and services to help independent pharmacy. And then finally, we have a pharmacy benefit management company, and it's called MaxCare, and a lot of people might wonder what in the world do a bunch of independent pharmacists have a PBM for? And because you know PBMs are a pretty tough on independent pharmacy in the marketplace today, the kind of take it or leave the contracts and very, [00:04:01] very difficult in this space with the leverage that the large PBMs have. They control almost 90% of the market.


And so, we negotiate hard and try to get competitive rates and a lot of other aspects in the language that are protected for independent pharmacies, but it is a big challenge. So those are the things we do. MaxCare is there as what we would say a market alternative, really. I kind of tell the staff MaxCare needs to be the poster child for doing the PBM right. To show the market that a PBM can do things transparently and can charge fair administrative fees and not spread price and share rebates with the clients and stuff like that. So that's why we have MaxCare, Eric.


Eric: Yeah, thanks for sharing that John and diving a little more deeply into your background specifically. So you got your bachelor's in pharmacy, [00:05:01] and then you want to get a master’s degree. And so I just thought it'd be interesting to share with the audience here because traditionally now to become a pharmacist, you go through a four-year program and get a doctor of pharmacy degree, a PharmD, which is what I was awarded with.


So just share a little bit of that history of how you decided to do a master's degree and how that might have prepared you for the leadership role that you currently have.


John: No great question, Eric. When I graduated from pharmacy school, the PharmD degree was not available in Oklahoma. It was around the country in a few different states, and so we had a five-year, bachelor's degree back then.


So you did a couple years of prereqs and then three years of pharmacy school, and even when I was going to pharmacy school, I had thoughts about going on and getting my PharmD, going to the state to get that and actually entertained thoughts of going to medical school, but yeah, with some, some personal things and meetinsg to get on my own, [00:06:01] I decided to go work retail pharmacy for a while, and then I thought I would go back. As it turned out, I started working retail, enjoyed working, you know with customers, enjoyed getting to engage with them on their over-the-counter medications at the time.


So I think my passion for helping patients and doing more with my pharmacy degree was kind of stoked early but you know, to answer to your question, I worked for about 9 years, I guess and felt like there was more for me out there than the actual dispensing of prescriptions, and so I'd been in management at a fairly young age for a local independent chain called My Drug and that was good. I enjoyed running the business aspects of it and working with the personnel and so that was kind of a signal for me that [00:07:01] you know, I like the business side of pharmacy as well.


And so about 9 years in, I had an opportunity to go to work at the University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy, doing drug utilization review, that was brand new. And so while I was there, I kind of got the bug to go back to graduate school, and I got a masters of Health Administration, you know at the OU College of Public Health back then, and it did set me up, you know for what we do today in running the company.


Pharmacy school prepares you for a lot of things, but you know, the graduate program was a total different way of learning. You're always working in teams, you’re problem-solving, you know, projects. You know, things that take time. You know, if you're a retail pharmacist, you know, your projects really are filling the scripts. And those are very short and very volume oriented tasks. But so in [00:08:01] my world, you know, projects, you know, take weeks, months, years sometimes.


And so I got a lot of skill sets. Everything from accounting, several accounting classes, management, org theory. All kinds of programming that really prepared me for today.


Eric: And based on the experiences you've had, and the leadership experience you had early on after graduating from pharmacy school, and getting your masters, what advice would you have for someone who wants to pursue an executive leadership role within an organization? Are there any tips you can share with people that are listening that have those aspirations, that want to do those types of things with their careers?


John: Well, I think number one, you have to be patient, you know, it takes time, it takes a lot of hard work, you know, certainly networking is key, you know, getting to know people. But in my world, in a lot of things we do, understanding [00:09:02] prescription claims data and being able to manipulate that and glean information from that, or, you know, to build products that solve problems, you know, those are all, you know, what you're preparing to do.


And so having an understanding, you know, of prescription claims data for me was real important. Understanding Medispan and First Data Bank and how you can use those tools to take that data and transform it into information.


But in general, you know, it is going to, you got to find a way to differentiate yourself from everyone else out there. A lot of people have pharmacy degrees and that's great and, you know, really, you know, if you’re clinical in nature and learn a lot of clinical, then you can work your way into an administrative job. Where you're [00:10:02] a director, you're overseeing a staff of clinical pharmacists. So, you know, those interpersonal skills, being able to deal with the tough days and problem solve. Those are all part of it.


Trying to get people to work together as a team and solve those problems as a team. So I go back on that. Everything we did in graduate school was really very team-oriented, very project oriented and you know, sometimes some of your best lessons are learned when you make mistakes. And so, you know, don't let the mistakes don’t let the short term disappointments get you down. You just gotta come back the next day, and keep pushing and shoving and that opportunity will come.


Eric: That's a fantastic answer. I really like how you touched on the networking piece, the patience piece. You know, it's really pieces of advice that I know that I need to take myself, and I'm sure a lot of people listening who have those desires and aspirations [00:11:02] to do those, you know, be a CEO or lead a team someday to know that it is going to take some time. And you might need to like, you did, you know, practice for 9 years or something before deciding to go do that.


Kind of building off that even further, is there a specific moment in time that you can say, you knew that you wanted to be a CEO?


John: I don't know that it was cognizant thought, but you know, early on anyway I know I was just working and advancing my career and enjoying what I was doing up through the 90s and but you know, I had worked in academia, I've worked in state government and you know, so those were not realistic times for me to be thinking about being a CEO during those days, but when I got to PPOk and was really reintroduced to the business world, and [00:12:02] you know, I guess I've always enjoyed, you know, trying to solve problems and grow the business and make it more profitable. And so that that kind of drove me. And then know along the way, I realized that, you know, I can lead this company.


You know, I was I spent my first probably 16 years at PPOk started office of Clinical Services director and then became a vice president MaxCare and so was really running the day-to-day. So maybe as I reflect on it, you know when I started running the day-to-day for MaxCare, and we were successful and growing it and I say we because it's a team, you know, it's never just about you, it's about you know, the people that you surround yourself with, and if you got a great team and they're working together, then you can be successful and everybody wins that way.


 But yeah, probably got [00:13:02] the bug for it, realized it could be an opportunity when I was at MaxCare, and we were growing it and people realize that, and I had an opportunity to expand in other areas when I became the Executive Vice President for PPOk. And so, I started to get involved in other aspects of our business and it's again, it was you know, it was 16 years, you know at PPOk after 9 years of retail, you know, probably 6 years in academia and, you know, 4 or so, in state government.


So each one of those steps along the way actually, Eric I think each one of them kind of prepared me, you know, for the future and I'm very blessed, you know, to do that. I didn't have a lot of connections going in back to the networking thing, and so just a lot of hard work you know, being blessed timing and being able to enjoy a [00:14:02] little success along the way and it's been it's been quite a career, quite a ride. It's not over yet. There's still plenty of work to do, but I've enjoyed every minute of it.


Eric: Yeah, I applaud that answer, John and I applaud your efforts thus far. I know having worked for PPOk myself, I have seen firsthand your leadership skills and the way that that team is led, and I think you're doing a fantastic job. So, keep up the good work doing great jobs for pharmacy and independent pharmacy specifically.


So when you are looking for those next opportunities, and you're going through your career with that maybe end in mind per se where you know where you want to go or you. If you have someone that has an aspiration to get into an executive leadership role, there's going to be a lot of work that goes into that and a lot of work ethic that needs to be put forth. I'm curious to ask you, are you able to put a number on how many hours a day you work on average as CEO right now?


John: Well, you know, with technology the way it is and the connectedness [00:15:02] that we get between cell phones, and emails, and texts, and all that, my wife would probably tell you that, you know, I'm always working. You know, days can start early, you know, it, as a CEO it's very important that you be outward facing and you understand, you know, what's going on in the environment around your company and so that helps you to kind of anticipate change and prepare for change. You always want to be looking, you know, a year, two years down the road, and hopefully you've got good managers inside the company that can help you run the day-to-day.


So you know, to answer to your question, how many hours a day, a lot of my days start you know, at seven o'clock and can end at seven o'clock but there's you know, and a lot of days you're working at your desk through lunch, some days you have a business meeting, get to go out and enjoy lunch and talk, [00:16:02] you know, business while you're at lunch. So that's still kind of a different kind of working and, you know, there's the networking aspect, you know, a lot of times you get out of town guests in and so you'll go out and have a beverage or dinner and build that relationship up. So those can extend your day, and it's still a form of work. You know, this last year with COVID has really cut business travel down a lot. So we do a lot of this, you know, Zoom talk, you know, audio, video, whatever but you know a lot of my job involves travel to business meetings and again building relationships.


You get a lot of attention from people that want a piece of your time, and they’ve got a product or service that they want to introduce to you and so you have to kind of pick those carefully and manage it along with a whole plan. So yeah, there's not really 40 hour [00:17:02] weeks when it gets to this and even when you're on vacation, you know, you can get pulled into, you know, phone calls and being answering emails, and be either kind of do a little bit along the way or you pay for it when you get back. Because the email inbox is just stacked full, but I will say it is important, you know, to find that right balance. You know, you gotta find time for family, and kids and relationships and so every now and then you gotta just slow down and take it easy and recharge the batteries, or you'll burn yourself out.


Eric: Yeah, and everybody listening, I think you'll notice, if you haven't listened to it already episode 9, Greg Evans the CEO of Merchants Bank. A lot of his answers tie into what John is saying here. So, you're on the clock, really 24/7 if you're a CEO is what is what Greg was saying. So that kind of ties in, and also he went on to say if he's on the golf course or something [00:18:02] in a local, you know, Winona course, he's representing the company whether or not he's wearing Merchants Bank apparel. People know him as the CEO. So I’m sure you have experienced some, similar type things. When you're out to dinner, when you're not working with have a, you know, other people you are representing the company even when you're not on the clock.


John: Yeah, that's true. And sometimes I kind of talked about it like being in a fishbowl.


Eric: Sure.


John: You know, and so you're in that fishbowl and there's always somebody looking. So it's best that, you know, you're conducting yourself appropriately so that anybody watching you know would be proud of how you're represented them, and yeah my parents always, you know, said that you know, the way you talk in public, the way, you act in public, you just can imagine what the story would look like if it was on the front page of the paper and say you want to you want to be proud of [00:19:02] what that news story might say on that front page.


Eric: And touching on integrity, keeping that it, you know, making sure that you don't lose yourself when you get into that place of power let's say and making sure that you remain humble, and how has being a CEO of impacted your family life? You touched on it a little bit with, you know maybe you'll get pulled into a call on vacation or you might have to work you know, 7 to 7 but do you have any strategies for how to avoid that to or how to how to mitigate some of that some of that work-life balance?


John: Well, you just have to be very methodical and very organized in multitasking, I think, you know, when it comes to your wife or kids, you know, if they come by and you're working late, you know, you really need to stop a moment. You know, spend that few moments answering their question, helping them with their homework or whatever but take that break, you know. It doesn't have to be a marathon, you know, where you don't stop the whole [00:20:02] way through, you know, you just, you can take breaks along the way, and you got to find that time. Kids grow up so fast and so forth.


So, you know, you just got to find time and find that balance if you have a happy healthy balanced life, it is, it is a challenge. You're never bored but you got to find that time for family, got to find that time for yourself. Like I said that downtime, you know, otherwise you're wore out and then your performance is not, you know what it would be if you were at full capacity so to speak. So yeah, it's a balancing act.


Eric: I believe it. And as you're chasing success and as you're, you know, trying to improve the happiness in other pharmacists and the work-life balance that other pharmacists have in the state of Oklahoma and beyond, I really want to ask you the core question of my show. So I set out with this show to explore what makes any successful [00:21:02] person's inner clock tick. Do you, John, have one single driving force that keeps your inner clock ticking toward success?


John: Wow, that's a great question, Eric. Probably should have should have read that in the pre-notes a little bit and thought about that one. You know, I am driven obviously. Some people talk about a fear of failure. I don't really look at it as a fear of failure, but I am driven. I'm a competitor. I like winning. I like, you know, being successful, it is, being a leader is part of my makeup. I felt like I was a leader in graduate school. A lot of those teams we talked about, I would end up, you know, kind of kind of leading the team and pulling people along.


So there's something maybe a little bit innate there but, you know, just to drive, to succeed and be successful and, [00:22:02] you know, it's also like I said, it's a little bit, it's a little bit outward.


I have passion for what I do because I believe in the people that I work for. There's something very special to me about independent pharmacy. I came from a smaller city in Oklahoma, and there was something to me that was just valuable about relationships with people, and I've been very passionate because early on I just felt like pharmacists could do more with their degree and helping provide a better healthcare system and better care for patients, and I've been chasing that one you know for 20-plus years all the way, probably 25 years even back when I was at the health care authority.


I used to get in the medical director’s ear all the time going pharmacists this could do that. Pharmacist can help someone you know, just need a shot, you know. So I think something [00:23:02] about something drew me to the pharmacy at first, it was just the perception of it being a good paying job at that time. But you know, again just the evolution. The things I've been blessed to do being able to interact with patients and impact people's lives at the drugstore. You know, I felt joy helping those people and so that was a piece of it. And then I was able to manifest it obviously through the pursuit of the business acumen and trying to change that system even in my own small way and, you know, we're getting close, Eric.


We've had some bills in Oklahoma passed that actually are going to get pharmacists paid for professional services. The same services that might be reimbursed for a doc or a nurse in Oklahoma. Now, we just had a stuff, a law pass this last week and signed by the governor that allows for that. There's a [00:24:02] lot of great work that NCPA is doing at the federal level. So I think that day’s, you know, coming pretty quick actually.


Eric: Yeah, I've, you know following it from Iowa now, I have seen major strides happen in the Oklahoma space for pharmacy and within the legislature specifically, so that's really great to see that. John, are there are there any myths about pharmacy, that that you think we want to debunk on the show right now? Is any, you know, misconceived notions that people have about the practice of pharmacy, pharmacists or healthcare in general?


John: Well, I think pharmacists are probably one of the best kept secrets, and when you live this, you go how could it be a secret? We're telling people all the time, but I think a pharmacist that that is comfortable in their training and given the opportunity, you know to interact with patients, there is certainly a need out there.


There is a huge gap in the delivery of care. [00:25:03] The healthcare system is fragmented. Doc's are stretched pretty good. Nurses of stretched pretty good, and so there is a place for the pharmacist in there and so you know, you ask is there myths or misperceptions, you know. Yeah, we can, we can do a lot more than, you know, what they were calling when I was in pre-pharmacy. You know, lick, stick, count and pull. We can do a lot more than that, you know.


I would encourage people coming in knowing that, you know, it's, it's a process, it's a transition. We're not there yet. You know, we're not going to just be doing patient encounter type stuff all day. There's still an aspect of that product, and I’m not willing to say we leave that product behind, but I think the healthcare system is forcing us to look at, you know automation, technology, technicians to do more of those road tasks, and we really need to rely on the pharmacist’s [00:26:03] just to use that knowledge and education and training to fill those gaps.


So it's not an easy business anymore. You know, back to what I talked to you about this, you know, big PBMs that run it. You know, you can make money still today, but you have to be creative, you have to work hard, you get to find your niches and you got to run the business lean, but there are a lot of young pharmacists that are getting in the profession and are buying pharmacies still today, and so you know, when I was in pharmacy school, people thought independent pharmacy would go away and be taken over by the chains. But I, I would say that, you know, independent pharmacy is recreating itself, and there's a lot of bright, young, entrepreneurial type people that are going to find those ways to provide care for patients and still, you know, [00:27:03] run a good business, but it is anything worth doing, you know, is challenging most of the time.


So you just have to prepare yourself for meeting those challenges head on and knowing that, you know, there'll be a lot of good days, but there'll be a lot of lot of tough days in there as well. You just gotta work through them day by day.


Eric: Yeah, and I think a lot of people in the nation and in the world really have seen the impact that pharmacists can have with the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I've seen PPOk had a vaccine clinic that you guys did, you know vaccinated quite a few individuals there. And then, of course, got them back for their second doses. You know, the next thing I want to ask, you can kind of draw it from the COVID-19 pandemic if you want to. But if you have an example from earlier on, you'll feel free to speak on that too. But what would you say is the greatest challenge that you've encountered? Whether it's been with PPOk or at any point in your career?


John: The greatest challenge, [00:28:03] you know, I think you know whether it's being able to react to change in its simplest form. So whether it is COVID or whether it's, you know, trying to get legislation passed and sometimes it's a step forward and two steps back, you know, you get, you get the House and the Senate to approve unanimously and then, you know, you have the governor veto the bill on. So now you're back again, and we had a key bill that we experienced that this year, and so now there's a lot of work going on to get that detail overridden.


So, you know, legislative challenges, market challenges. You know, that's the thing about health care and pharmacy in particular is it's constantly changing. So if you don't like change that's the one thing I can tell you. You should probably stay away from pharmacy because, you know, there's constant [00:29:03] introductions of technology, a lot of new drugs, a lot of players in the space that are trying to get their piece of the pie, so to speak. And so it's a challenge, you know, on a daily basis, Eric.


Eric: And we need individuals like you mentioned earlier to be entrepreneurial and to think of what are some better solutions to current problems or how can we find, you know, a niche in the marketplace to bring about better care for patients. So I'm curious to ask you John. Do you believe there's a successful pattern or formula for someone who wants to be entrepreneurial? You hear of, you know, the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and things like that. But your personal take on that. Do you think there's some success pattern?


John: Yeah, I probably don't want to repeat myself too much, but obviously, learning. Never stop learning, you know, always keep looking to broaden your knowledge, [00:30:03] gain those experiences of past mistakes. You know, you're good at this yourself Eric but networking, you know, don't be shy and think that oh, that person won’t talk to me, just walk right up like Eric Mueller would do and say hello my name is Eric Mueller, and I hear you’re John Crumly, and you’re the CEO of PPOk and just strike up a conversation. That that was, that was very refreshing to have you do that.


And that's a great example that any young person should do because those CEOs, they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else and they're good CEOs, and they recognize young people that are willing to come out and do that and you know that's what you got to do. You got to give back a little bit and give a little bit of your time and because we all had help getting where we're at, you know. So yeah, education, learning, [00:31:03] networking and of course you know, not to be redundant but work, work some more and keep a good positive attitudes. Keep the eye on the prize, set those goals and chip away at that big target and you do it a little bit of time and you'll get there.


Eric: Really appreciate those kind words, John. And I think it's just serves as a testament to anybody listening that, you know, you shouldn't be afraid of failure, either. You know, I could have just as easily approached you and you said, you know, I appreciate you coming up here but I don't have, you know, the time to meet for lunch or, you know, there might not be anything that we can do, you know, opportunities-wise while you're a student, but the worst that they could say is no.


So it's not like you're going to get kicked out of pharmacy school if you, you know go do those types of things or whatever school or whatever career path you might be on. But yeah, John, I really appreciate you being on the show.


I have one last question for you and that really boils down to success. So people define success in a variety of ways, if you ask a hundred people that question [00:32:03] of what is success, you'll probably get a hundred different answers. I've asked a few people this question so far. And so far, I've gotten a different answer each time. So I want to ask you, John, what is your definition of the word success?


John: My definition of success is being comfortable in my own skin, being able to enjoy the people that I work with and to enjoy my home life and be able to, to enjoy my spirituality and stuff because all gifts come from above, and I'm a firm believer in that. And so if you can, if you can blend those things of the spirituality, family and work and enjoy yourself along the way, even through the tough times. There's positive things in every challenge [00:33:03] as we go through them. They become part of our makeup part of our character and it makes us better. You know that the doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right?


So that's probably you know my idea of success is just, you know, enjoy that family. Every day is a gift and so maximize it, you know in all that you do and all those that you touch.


Eric: That's perfect. I think it really, really ties in. You know, keeping your eye on the prize. Like you said earlier, keeping that positive mindset and really just not losing sight of what you're, what you're trying to achieve and why you're doing those things that you're doing. Even though, you know, when the going might get tough along the way, and it likely will get tough along the way.


John: Yeah, it's worked pretty good so far.


Eric: That's right.


John: Awesome. Well, you’re an energizing young man, and I wish you well, and I want to sit back [00:34:03] and watch you, you know, throughout your career because I have a feeling you're going to do some great stuff young man. So stay after it!


Eric: Thanks John. Well John, I'll let you get back to your night. Thanks again for making the time for me here on this Tuesday night and as we go forward to the fall, Boomer Sooner!


John: Yes. Boomer Sooner! We’ll hope to see you here in Norman, and catch you for a tailgate or at the game, Eric. We look forward to it.


Eric: Most definitely sir, well you take care. Have a great night, appreciate your time.


John: Yep, bye-bye.


Eric: See you later.


[EDM music fades-in, plays and then fades-out]



Voice audio: Written, produced and edited by Eric R. Mueller

EDM music: Produced and edited by Eric R. Mueller

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