Nov
26
2015
Volume
4-1

Dave Hill: Stepping Up When Help Is Needed

(4 votes)

If there’s a niche that needs filling or something is broke and needs fixing - as the saying goes - Dave Hill has likely stepped in.

Name sound familiar? It should. He’s a third generation pharmacist in town. But he’s more than just a pharmacist; he’s also been an engaged community leader for years.

Take, for instance, his long time involvement in Vista Ridge.

“Amazingly there are four out of seven of us founding guys from 95 still involved led by John Wilson,” chuckles Hill.

There’s also Jim Moore and Greg MacMillan.

Skiing has been in Hill’s blood since he was a kid.

Growing up in Fort McMurray, he recalls walking up the water tower hill across from the end of Hardin Street with his Uncle Dave’s old skis and his grandpa’s old size eight boots in hand to go skiing behind Abasand at the old Mistie Sepee ski hill back in about 1969. 

“If you go to Abasand, go to the back, to the west and look down and see where Horse Creek comes into the Athabasca, right at that point where the bench is, that’s where we’d ski down that honkin’ straight slope. There was even a bunny hill and a rope tow.”

These runs were primarily built by men who worked at what was to become Suncor Energy. Their wives would also help out.

“We had a cabin there so we’d get warm and have hot chocolate or chili or whatever.”
Fast forward to 1982 when Hill was approached by Bob Reynolds (owner of Sportswise) about developing the Spruce Valley ski hill. In recognition of all the volunteers creating the ski hills of his youth, Hill readily agreed.

So with used equipment from such places as Grandview and Kamloops, they got a ski hill going.

“We opened in January 84. We had a good little hill; didn’t lose money.”

However, the ski hill collapsed because there wasn’t good infrastructure. A couple of owners and a good few years later, Hill hadn’t given up on Spruce Valley as he and Ed Pacholko, a Suncor engineer, with other supporters approached the city in 1995 asking it renovate the hill. Not overly optimistic when the city took their redevelopment plan “for information,” they then asked the council of the day to appoint a committee to look after the hill. Council agreed and a week later Hill gave them a list of five names including his own. That list also included Moore and Wilson as well as Jim Carter of Syncrude and Gerry Manwell of Suncor.

While the group presented a $2.5 million plan, the city gave them a $1.8 million debenture “And we went from there. We raised lots of funds. We opened in 96 and we brought on Kevin Grogan who’s still our manager.

“That’s the definition of good governance.”

When the ski facility opened, it was with a new look and the new name of Vista Ridge.

“We keep making significant changes such as the rope course, a first in Alberta,” he said, referring to the WildPlay Park which opened this year.

Hill is also one of the founders of the Mark Amy Treatment Centre creating it about nine years ago with Christine Burton along with several Aboriginal partners.

While Hill also helps in other areas around town, he is more often than not found behind the counter at Dave Hill Pharmacy.

Following in the footsteps of his dad Ken and grandfather Walter, it means the Hills have been involved in helping look after people’s health in Fort McMurray for more than 90 years. It all started when Walter first arrived in 1922 to help run Sutherland’s Pharmacy. Angus Sutherland had come in 1918 and was the first medical person here. However, he soon needed help because of ill health.

“He asked my grandpa to buy him out. My grandfather said ‘Well I’m too young; I don’t have any money, why don’t we become partners?’”

That partnership lasted for until Sutherland’s death in 1951.

“Grandpa did start a store in Yellowknife in the thirties after the gold rush and was up there in 1934 when the fire broke out downtown (here). My grandmother got my dad out who was only two-years-old and my uncle who was 10-years-old then; saved a few important papers and they opened up again.”

The store built to replace the Hill Drugs destroyed in that fire now stands in Heritage Park.

Some 80 years later, Hill opened his current Thickwood location in 2013.

“It’s not much different than what my grandfather did; just a little faster,” says Hill.

When it comes to how he operates, he follows the Golden Rule: He treats his customers how he would like to be treated.

He’s also known for filling a bit of a pharmaceutical niche, offering products not found anywhere else in town.

“We have a certain standard,” he admits.

“We try to differentiate ourselves. We don’t have the cards and the cosmetics. We’re not copying Shoppers Drug Mart.”

Without the right location, Hill wasn’t about to start his pharmacy unless he could have parking and a drive-through; a feature he wanted even back in 1997.

“You need something that is going to get you business faster and compete with the corporates that have the whole store to sell groceries.”

He came to his model with a “little bit of experience ... about 40 years,” he quips, which included lessons learned working in the corporate world governed by the “bean counters.”

“They have their model they want to pigeonhole everybody into and then they restrict the inventory and so on versus what I can put into inventory, so now we have doctors that contact us first, not last.”
Another corporate lesson included a conversation one day years back with a colleague when he mentioned about hurrying to fill a prescription, “And she said plainly to me, ‘Well, we’re not known for our service.’”

Being responsive to what people want also helps differentiate his business. If someone comes in for a three-month prescription or something unusual, “We likely have it versus the other stores that can’t have that kind of inventory because the corporate accountant won’t let them.

“We understood before what people want and we’ve tailored it some more. When I started, we didn’t do specialized compounding; we did basic compounding like any other store, but now we do bioidentical hormones, HRTs, for women that no one else does in McMurray.”

He’s also quite proud of his state-of-the-art robotic dispensing system.

“I’m not creating anything new; I’m just putting it together and executing with running shoes ... not quite,” he chuckles.

He defines customer service as recognizing people, knowing what they want and when they’re here, serving them in a timely manner, and then they have a nice experience and they tell other people.

“We’re not putting out 20,000 flyers every week. We attract people from Saprae Creek, Abasand and Beacon Hill because they can come here and get their things with a little bit better service, personal service. We want to be involved in their life and they want to be involved with us.

“We help a whole range of people because we are able to and we have personnel to do it. We have the time to do that.”

That even includes helping veterinarians from Edmonton.

It’s his aim for the store to look after its customers from their formative to their golden years.

“We start from the young ones which is Baby Dr. Browns we bring in from the States; we rent breast pumps. We have specialists send people here for the Sigvaris stockings that we carry; we’ve developed our clinic with Ideal Protein for improving people’s looks and their health. Obviously if they can do better in their weight category, reduce issues like high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, etc., all that helps have a higher quality of life especially when they get to 50, 60, 80. If they do well early on or in the mid range or correct what they’ve been messing with, they do better at the end,” explains Hill.

“When we help people with some of the things we are able to do, people appreciate that.”

Though Fort McMurray is smaller than it was a year ago, “We still want to do better.  We’ve got a good thing going and we want to keep it that way.” 

Photo: Dave, in this picture from Vista Ridge, is wearing the yellow jacket in the right rear.

CAROL CHRISTIAN

One of those people who arrived in Fort McMurray for a short time – six months - but eight years later is still here. Love this place, the people, the outdoor escapades and the incredible heart of the community. Work hard, volunteer lots and would rather sit and chat with someone than do housework. Passport always at the ready to jet off to some wonderful global locale. So much to see and do.

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