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McKillican was heading when Texas-based giant McKesson acquired it in 2017. They were so impressed by what she’d managed to do they made her CEO of their entire Canadian operation, including pharmacies nationwide—just in time for the her to help lead the vaccine rollout

This story is part of our annual CEO of the Year package. Each year, Report on Business magazine recognizes five business leaders who have made outstanding contributions to Canada.

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may truong/The Globe and Mail

Rebecca McKillican is part of a new generation of CEOs who came of age in the digital era. In 2006, while doing her MBA at Harvard, the then 27-year-old landed a dream summer job as an intern at Apple Inc. Back then, she says, the “cool kids on campus” were the ones working on iTunes, which drove the company’s growth while turning an industry on its head. A generation later, music lovers had moved on to platforms like Spotify that, to an insider’s eye, did a better job of responding to consumers’ shifting tastes. Apple shut down iTunes last year. “I learned from Apple that even disruptors get disrupted,” says McKillican, who became CEO of McKesson Canada in August 2020, five months into the pandemic. That experience shaped her approach to leadership: “If it’s not broken, break it. Recognize that we will be disrupted, by competitors and customers.”

McKillican first came to the attention of McKesson Canada—a subsidiary of the Texas-based giant—in 2017, when it bought She’d assumed the helm at the money-losing online beauty, health and baby-products business four years earlier, and within a year had boosted sales by 40%. By the time McKesson came calling, had grown substantially and was posting customer loyalty scores that matched tech leaders like Apple.

McKillican took over the entire Canadian operation—a role that puts her in charge of 12,000 employees at 400-plus Rexall pharmacies and indie outlets such as IDA Guardian, Remedy’s RX and Uniprix—just as pharmacies became a crucial part of the fight against COVID-19. The vaccine rollout made the nationwide logistics operation that underpins the retail businesses that much more complicated, with 13 massive distribution centers already processing more than 55,000 products bound for 1,350 hospitals and 7,100 pharmacies. Each day, McKesson fills one in three Canadian prescriptions. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife got their first COVID-19 vaccinations in April, a McKesson employee administered the jab. The company also runs more than 90 clinics under the Inviva brand that offer chemotherapy and other intravenous treatments.

At McKesson—the parent company had revenue last year of US$238 billion—McKillican is a significant partner to provincial health ministries, hospitals and health care professionals across the country. She’s intent on using that deep relationship to disrupt the status quo on patient care. “The pandemic showed that when public and private sector providers work together, we can lower costs and improve access for Canadians,” she says. “There’s so much more we can do together.”

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A native of London, Ont., McKillican earned engineering and business degrees at Western University and worked for two years at consulting firm McKinsey before getting her MBA at Harvard. After graduating in 2007, she joined Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., working on the famed buyout firm’s investments in retail businesses (it once owned Shoppers Drug Mart). “KKR is a special place,” McKillican says. “One of the things I learned is management needs to focus on the three most important things the business needs to do to be successful.”

In 2013, McKillican and her husband—a risk management specialist at Toronto-Dominion Bank—decided they wanted to raise their three kids in Canada rather than Manhattan. As an early convert to online shopping and an expert on digital retailing, McKillican made a pitch for a job at Guelph-based, then partly owned by venture capital firm Inovia Capital. Its co-founder Chris Arsenault says she took a massive pay cut to come home, but believed she could seize the potential of the small platform’s loyal online following.

As CEO, she tightened the customer focus to working women between the ages of 25 and 45, and then narrowed the product lineup to fit their tastes. Within a year, not only had revenue increased, but had even turned a profit. Over the next three years, the company’s sales continued to climb, and it posted customer loyalty scores that matched tech leaders like Apple. “Rebecca understands the numbers inside out—better than most CFOs—and understands how to communicate her vision,” says Arsenault. “Her skill is rallying people behind a purpose.”

When McKesson bought—a year after its $3-billion purchase of Rexall from Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz—it outbid a number of traditional retail rivals. While the two sides didn’t release the terms of the deal, Arsenault says its early backers saw their investment increase by tenfold. McKillican remained CEO at until 2019, when McKesson named her head of all Canadian retail operations, including Rexall and the independent pharmacies. She became CEO the following year.

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The parent company doesn’t break out the Canadian unit’s financials, but it does report revenue and profit for its international division, made up of Canadian and European operations. McKesson recently sold off its holdings in Europe, and the company plans to make significant investments across all its Canadian business lines.

McKillican will be the one leading the charge. “The pandemic showed the dedication of our teams, their willingness to go above and beyond, including to drive all night to get medicine to a small town. My job is to support that effort,” she says. “With our people, and our resources, there’s an enormous opportunity to improve the whole health care experience.”

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