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Vyto's Pharmacy, founded by self-made European immigrant Vyto Damasius nearly three decades ago, picked up new employees and new customers when CVS bought Fagen Pharmacy for an undisclosed sum last year, closing 12 locations and converting the remaining eight to CVS-branded drugstores.

The deal left Hammond-based Vyto's as the largest independent, locally owned pharmacy chain based in Northwest Indiana.

The growing Vyto's now has about 56 employees and four locations: two in Hammond and two newer ones in Highland, with drive-thrus. It opened a new pharmacy on 45th Avenue in Highland a few years ago and moved its downtown Highland location into a newly constructed two-story building at the long-vacant site of a former nightclub on Kennedy Avenue last year.

More growth is expected, General Manager Dave Dal Corobbo said. Owners Nate and VJ Damasius, Vyto's sons, have a vision to open 10 new Vyto's pharmacies over the next five years.

“That’s aggressive and would take a lot of capital,” Dal Corobbo said. “It’s a vision. It isn't as easy as finding a space and stocking the shelves with medicine. You need licensing deals, insurance contracts and many approvals. It takes time.”

Long-range plans

Vyto's is eyeing growing communities such as St. John, Crown Point, Dyer, Schererville, Valparaiso and Chesterton for future growth.

"All our pharmacies are within a tight area, a 10-mile radius," Dal Corobbo said. "To capture more business we need to look at where the population is growing, but also look at the demographics. If 70 percent of the population is under 40, they may not have as much need for pharmacy services. Younger people certainly need meds, but the bulk of our business comes from Medicare, so we need to look at what makes financial sense."

Sales of nutritional supplements and the recently legalized CBD oil have been booming at Vyto's existing stores. Vyto’s also recently secured a Medicare contract to provide medical equipment such as oxygen tanks and CPAP machines for sleep apnea.

“Bigger medical equipment competitors can afford to lose five or 10 patients from bad service,” he said. “For us, five or 10 patients is a lot, so our turnaround time is faster.”

Vyto's has been able to hold its own at a time when the pharmacy industry has consolidated greatly into the hands of a few big national players like Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid by offering a personal touch and excellent customer service, Dal Corobbo said.

"If you go to Walgreens or CVS, you might be told they'll have your prescription in four hours," he said. "If you come into Vyto's, you'll get your prescription filled in 15 minutes or less. People are not a number to us. They're family. We have that personal touch when the person comes in."

Vyto's for instance matches competitors’ prices “99.9 percent of the time,” offers cash prices lower than many deductibles, gives seniors packaging that parcels out the exact amount of meds each day, and delivers prescriptions, employing four full-time drivers. Vyto Damasius' mother was the first driver.

“She wanted to help out and see him succeed,” Dal Corobbo said. “Patients appreciate the convenience, even if they live close. They don’t have to go out in wintertime, if it’s hot like it’s going to be in the next few days, if it’s cold and if there’s three inches of snow. We do deliveries a lot more in the winter time.”

The Hammond-based pharmacy chain faces challenges, such as insurance companies turning to mail-order pharmacists to provide long-term prescriptions, the rising costs of medication and lower reimbursements from insurance companies.

“We have really tight margins that are getting less and less,” Dal Corobbo said. “We’re constantly looking for places we can buy cheaper.”

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Not alone

Despite pressures that encourage volume for negotiating leverage, Vyto’s isn’t the only independent pharmacy left in Northwest Indiana. There’s also Quik Scripts, which has locations in Lansing, Griffith and St. John. Quik Scripts, which opened its third location in St. John a few months ago, promises prescriptions in 20 minutes or less.

Mom-and-pop pharmacies are less prevalent than they used to be, back when recent pharmacy school graduates often struck out on their own. A Harvard study found that about 5 percent of pharmacists are self-employed today, as compared to 40 percent in 1966. About 62.1 percent of pharmacies nationwide are chain-owned while only 37.4 percent are privately owned, according to the National Pharmacy Market Summary.

Barclays investment bank estimates Walgreens and CVS have taken 50 to 75 percent of the market share in the country's 14 largest metropolitan areas, including the Chicago metro. And now Amazon is looking to disrupt the drugstore market, acquiring online pharmacy PillPack in a move that shaved $11 billion in value off the stock of the three largest pharmacy corporations in a single day Thursday.

Indiana Pharmacists Association Executive Vice President Randy Hitchens said Amazon's entry into the pharmaceutical space would "rock the market."

The rise of big national players and consolidation in the sector has been ongoing for decades, but there are still savvy independent pharmacies like Vyto's that are doing well, he said. He estimates there are about 180 to 200 independent pharmacies in Indiana, which typically have one to three locations.

"The value proposition is service and convenience," he said. "They tend to provide a higher level of patient consulting and clinical consulting than you would see at some of the chain stores. They typically live in their community. They are leaders in their communities. They give back to their communities."

Invested in the community

Local owned pharmacies offer communities many benefits, Dal Corobbo said.

“We go around to senior buildings and put on flu shot clinics, host special lunches, have Christmas parties and promote our services,” he said. “The big chains don’t do that. Their corporate offices are out of state, so all the tax dollars go out of state. We paid taxes in Indiana and give back to the community. We promote health. When it’s a customer’s birthday, we call them to wish them a happy birthday. We have a personal touch that goes a long way.”

Vyto’s also got rid of an eyesore in downtown Highland by building a new $1.3 million pharmacy with a second floor that will be rented out at 8845 Kennedy Ave. in Highland, Dal Corobboa said. The pharmacy chain replaced the long vacant Finke’s Bar and Grill and American Auto Body.

Vyto’s is looking to move its compounding laboratory from Hammond to that location. That’s where pharmacists make drugs that aren’t commercially available, such as for hormone replacement therapy or pain treatment for cats, dogs and other animals.

“It takes time to build a specialty lab,” he said. “It requires ventilation and circulation. We deal with hormones and things, and need many certificates.”

Vyto’s will mark the one-year anniversary of the new downtown Highland location from 3 to 6 p.m. July 6. The celebration will include food, raffle tickets, sales, a caricaturist and a visit by the Gary South Shore RailCats mascot, Rusty.

“We care,” Dal Corobbo said. “We don’t want our patients to have to wait for hours. We go the extra mile.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.