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Change in ownership, but not in philosophy: Ryan Okerlund assumes mantel at Iverson Corner Drug

Paul Iverson has sold Iverson Corner Drug in downtown Bemidji after owning the pharmacy for over 28 years. Submitted photo. 1 / 2
Ryan Okerlund (center), new owner of Iverson Corner Drug, is greeted by Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors. From left are Chamber Ambassadors Sylvia Wildgen, Jill Beardsley, Noemi Aylesworth, pharmacist and owner Ryan Okerlund, and Chamber Ambassadors Benita Dingman, Denae Alamano and Russ Moen. Submitted photo.2 / 2

BEMIDJI—Downtown Bemidji's oldest pharmacy remains locally owned with the recent sale of Iverson Corner Drug.

Ryan Okerlund, a Bemidji native, has purchased the store at 408 Minnesota Ave. NW from Paul Iverson, who owned the business for nearly 29 years.

Iverson's is the only independent pharmacy in Bemidji since the closing of MedSave in 2018. Both Okerlund and Iverson stressed the importance of local ownership.

"I think it's absolutely essential," Okerlund said. "Even with the influx of all the MedSave people, we know most of our patients by their first name."

Iverson added, "It was important to me that we sell it to someone who would keep it independent and at least have the same general philosophy that I did. It was a good time because of the increased amount of business with MedSave closing. It worked out well for both of us. It was important to me that someone was there to take care of our patients, take care of our employees."

Iverson grew up in a pharmacy family. His father owned Iverson Rexall Drug in Bagley. Paul graduated from North Dakota State University's pharmacy program in 1982. He started his career in Sauk Rapids and Grants Pass, Ore., before moving to Bemidji in 1985. He worked at Thomas Drug at the corner of Fourth Street and Beltrami Avenue before purchasing the store in 1990 and renaming it Iverson Corner Drug. There has been at least one drug store in downtown Bemidji since before 1900. Iverson's relocated to Minnesota Avenue in 2009.

Okerlund was born in Bemidji, grew up in Little Falls, and graduated from NDSU's pharmacy program. He started his career at Iverson's Corner Drug, then worked at Bemidji's Pamida pharmacy. He was a clinical pharmacist at Sanford Bemidji before returning to Iverson's with the idea of eventually becoming its owner.

"I've taken over bigger chunks as we've moved along," Okerlund said. "(Paul) was really good at helping me get my feet under me when it comes to contracting and insurance issues and all the minutiae that has nothing to do with medication that's all part of owning."

That kind of mentoring has been a passion for Iverson. He has been a preceptor for about 150 pharmacy students at five colleges of pharmacy in the region, and was named the University of Minnesota's preceptor of the year in 1999. He also hired 21 pre-pharmacy students either in high school or at Bemidji State University who are either pharmacists today, attending or applying to pharmacy school.

"I always thought that I could recognize talent," Iverson said. "You don't have to be smart if you can figure how to hire smart people."

Although no longer a full-time pharmacist and store owner, Iverson is still involved in the profession. He is part of a Minnesota team that is creating a network of more performance-based pharmacies as they look to the future of health care.

"There are payers now that are looking for that," he said. "They want higher levels of pharmacist involvement, because there are studies showing the effectiveness of pharmacists in improving patient outcomes when they are involved in managing drug therapy. I still think I have things to give and I can help people, so this is a way to do some things more globally. And it's kind of fun."

As health care policies and practices change, so will pharmaceutical services, Okerlund said.

"I think there's going to be a separation in the next 5-10-15 years where you're going to have the pharmacies that just are basically depots for mail-order spots, and there's going to be the high-service concierge, and that's kind of where we're heading," he said. "We want to make sure our folks get taken care of. We don't have customers, we have patients, and that's a big difference."