The Houston Chronicle Business | May 27th, 2014

In 2008, when Milad and Maryana Attalla opened Katy Pharmacy, there were three other independent pharmacies nearby that compounded medicine, a specialized service prescribed by physicians whenever a manufacturer doesn't offer the desired medication in the right dose for their patients. Today, there are at least 13 independent compounding pharmacies in or near Katy, according to the Professional Compounding Centers of America. Milad Attalla said he thinks the key to that kind of growth is personal service.

"Medicine today is such a big business, and at some places the customer is only a number. The way we've managed to grow is to show people that we really care," he said.

John Norton, spokesman for the National Community Pharmacists Association, said the number of independent pharmacies in this country reached an all-time high of 40,000 in 1980. "After the '80s you had big chains like Walgreens and CVS come along and start buying up independent pharmacies," Norton said. "Our numbers plummeted to 23,000, and it's remained stable there to this day." Norton said independent pharmacies distinguish themselves by offering compounding and other services. For the Attallas, it's all about providing better customer service than his competitors.

"When my wife graduated from pharmacy school, she had people calling her to get her to work for them," Milad Attalla said. "It doesn't work like that anymore." Maryana Attalla went to work for a large chain after earning a pharmacy degree from the University of Houston in 2006. But, she said, she wasn't prepared for the disconnect between what she learned in school and what her employer expected. "One day my manager pulled me aside and told me that I was spending too much time talking to customers," she said. "I was told I only had time to fill prescriptions and answer the phone … that was all." "And if she knew of a lower-priced alternative, she wasn't allowed to tell people about it," Milad Attalla said. "My wife's heart was broken."

Attalla, a native of Egypt, had immigrated to this country in 1991. After spending several years working for the Coptic Orthodox Church, he almost became a priest but opted to go into business instead. He was liquidating three furniture stores he owned in 2008 when his wife proposed they open a pharmacy.

The couple opened their first store in August 2008. In addition to compounding medicine, they offered traditionally manufactured medicines, which came to account for about 70 percent of their business. Then came the break-ins. Six times thieves struck Katy Pharmacy in search of narcotics. Milad Attalla said one heist in 2010 cost them $270,000, of which insurance covered only $50,000. So the couple moved the store to its current location on a more visible street corner in Katy. They also installed multiple security lights, alarms and video cameras. Today, Katy Pharmacy employs two other pharmacists in addition to Maryana Attalla and seven technicians. It has had the same employees since 2009.

"One elderly man came in who was taking 24 different medicines," Milad Attalla said. "Twenty-four! My wife talked to his physicians and got that down to seven. That's why we do this."

"I come here because of Maryana," said customer Judy Foland, 72. "She always has time to talk to me, no matter what time I call or when I come in."

A longtime member and volunteer with Saint Mary & Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church in Houston, Milad credits the couple's faith for their business success. "It's all been a gift," he said.

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