Terry and Mary Roark started Roark's Pharmacy in 1989, and have worked side-by-side at the business since 1999. (Ben Garrett/IH)

“I don’t remember a time that this is not what I wanted to do.”

Those are the words of Oneida pharmacist Terry Roark, from the small office in the rear of his shop on Alberta Street in mid-town Oneida.

It is there, at Roark’s Pharmacy, that Roark and his wife, Mary Ann, have been filling prescriptions and addressing their customers’ needs for almost 30 years. And although, after three decades, Terry Roark does think some about retirement — as people who’ve been at their professional career as long as he has tend to do — he makes it clear that retirement isn’t coming anytime soon.

Rather, the Roarks are still focused on the things that they have prioritized for 29 years. And chief among those is customer service.

Spend some time in conversation with Terry Roark about the pharmacy business, and if he mentions customer service once, chances are he’ll mention it three or four times, or more. It’s a priority he learned from his father, George Roark, who still pumps gas at the service station next door at the age of 94.

“We’re different businesses but we’re the same business,” Roark says of his father, who he grew up working for. “He’s in the retail gasoline business and I’m in the retail drug business, but really we’re both in the customer service business. And the one thing we’ve tried to always do is exceed our patients’ expectations.”

Later, the conversation loops back around to customer service. “If you have a person who comes in and you take care of everything they need in a timely manner, and they know they can call you later on that night if they’re still wondering about something, that leaves a lasting impression,” Roark says. “I have published numbers, our customers can call me at home. You have to be accessible. As pharmacists, we’re still the most accessible healthcare provider in the industry.”

No doubting his direction

Terry Roark may have learned the art of customer service before he learned medicine, as he pumped gas for his father growing up, but he knew pretty early on that he wanted to be a pharmacist. He played golf with another Oneida pharmacist, Danny Cross. And he worked at Cooper’s Drug Store with Joe Monroe. So when he started classes at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he was ready to go to work on his degree. Even though he pursued a liberal arts degree in economics, he was taking all of the pre-pharmacy courses that were available.

It was in pharmacy school that Terry and Mary Roark met. He was from Oneida, Tenn., and had applied to Mercer and South Carolina. She was from Florida and had applied to Mercer and Auburn. He didn’t want to go to UT-Memphis, even though it was one of Tennessee’s premier pharmacy schools, and her dad didn’t want her to go to the University of Florida — even though she still cheers for the Gators (although she cheers for her husband’s beloved Vols the other 11 football games out of the year).

After graduation, Terry and Mary moved back to her home state, and stayed in Florida for seven years. Eventually, though, they decided that if they were going to start a store, it would be easier in Oneida. With the help of men like Don Billingsley and Gerald Pike, Roark’s Pharmacy became a reality in 1989.

‘I’ve never regretted being here’

If Roark revisits the topic of customer service on multiple service, he also drives home another point: he enjoys what he does.

“If you’re at a job you enjoy, it’s not really a job,” he says.

The hours are long and industry regulation is ever increasing, which can be a headache, “but if you are at a place you want to be, it’s not really like working,” he adds.

That doesn’t mean it’s always been easy. Far from it, in fact. Roark is a meticulous records-keeper, and he looks back on his first day in business, back in 1989.

“I filled five prescriptions that day,” he said. “And three of them were my mom’s.”

Early on, in fact, Mary worked at St. Mary’s in downtown Knoxville, making the drive back and forth from Oneida every day. Later, she worked at a Rite Aid pharmacy in Kentucky.

“I go back and look at my Social Security reports and there are some years there isn’t much there,” Roark says.

By 1998, though, Mary Roark was able to join her husband at the Oneida pharmacy full-time. For almost a quarter-century since, they’ve worked side-by-side — she specializes more on the clinical side of things, he enjoys being able to look at the available information and drawing conclusions from the data. She’s quick to say it’s his store — “he gets to be the boss here and I get to be the boss at home,” she laughs — but, together, they’re a team.

“We’ve always worked well with the doctors, and I hope they would say the same thing about us,” Roark says. “I hope they would say that we’ll go out of our way to take care of patients, because that’s the end result. That’s what it comes down to in a small community. You know the people, you go to church with them, you’re in a club with them, you see them on the soccer fields, the baseball fields, the football fields. And they know they can ask you right now, ‘I need something filled; can you take care of it?’ And that’s why we’re here. If we’re not taking care of people, why are we here?”

Help along the way

Besides his wife, Terry Roark mentions a lot of different people who have helped him along his journey as a pharmacist. It was during his first week in business that Steve Jacobs grabbed him from the shop on a Monday night and took him to a Lion’s Club meeting, starting decades of involvement that has allowed him to build a lot of relationships. He also, perhaps surprisingly, mentions all of the other pharmacists in town, crediting Cross and Bill Dunlap with helping him along the way, while also mentioning his relationship with Brent Dunlap at Plateau DrugCenter and Kevin Sexton at Danny’s Drugs, and even the pharmacists at the chains — Walmart and Walgreens.

“Some people look at that as our competitors, but probably our competitors are in Arizona with CVS Caremark and St. Louis with ExpressScripts and things like that,” Roark says. “All of us here, we’re in the same boat, trying to take care of our community.”

He also mentions the younger folks who have come and gone over the years, students who have gotten their start at the pharmacy — people like Dr. Huff’s son, Ben, and Aaron Burchfield.

“We’ve had a lot of kids, and we’ve had some really good techs,” he says. “I’ve never regretted being here. I’ve worked a lot of hours, but it doesn’t seem like work. I’ve really enjoyed helping people.”

Planning for the future

They say “like father, like son,” but neither of the Roarks’ sons, Matt and Mark, followed their parents into the pharmacy business, even though they did spend some time working at the shop as they grew up.

“We had a rule that before they worked for us, they had to work for my dad for three years,” Roark says. “Neither really wanted to work here. They have their own interests they’re pursuing.”

Terry Roark may not necessarily be the easiest boss in the world to work for. He’s proud of his store’s 94 percent customer retention rate, but achieving it demands excellence.

“It gets down to just taking care of the patient, being accountable, and that’s what we try to do,” he says. “They would probably tell you I’m difficult to work with. I expect perfection in myself and everyone else around me. I’m a realist and know that’s not possible, but striving for perfection is what we should always be doing.”

These days, after 29 years of business, Roark’s Pharmacy is getting into the second generation of families. Children of his original customers are also customers, as are the kids he used to coach on the soccer field.

As for retirement? He’s thought about it. “You have to plan,” he says. But he adds, “I’m not ready.” Nicholeah Lay Lewallen does hold down the fort on Saturdays now, giving the Roarks an extra day off. And his most recent vehicle purchase was a truck, so that he can pull an Airstream. “Mary and I want to get out,” he says. “I’m a Civil War buff, and we want to travel and see the Civil War battlefields.” But, despite buying the truck, they haven’t bought the Airstream. And there’s no way he’d consider selling out to a chain pharmacy. So, for the foreseeable future, it’ll be business as usual for Terry and Mary Roark. And that’s okay.

For Roark, it goes back to the philosophy he’s held from day one, the long hours, the tightening regulatory measures and the ever-changing Medicare reimbursement models not withstanding: “If you’re at a job you enjoy, it’s not really a job.”

This story is the March 2018 installment of Business Spotlight, presented by the Scott County Chamber of Commerce on the third week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series.