Howard Kurtz, B.A. '74
Ann Bisantz, M.S. '91 & B.S. '89
James Ailinger, D.D.S '25
Henry A. Panasci Jr., B.S. '52
|The Panasci Panache
Henry Panasci Jr., '52, former CEO of one of the nation's largest drugstore chains, has a new career in the venture capital business
According to Henry A. Panasci Jr., B.S. '52 & B.A. '48, former chair and CEO of Fay's Incorporated, a diversified specialty retail chain he cofounded with his father, his career in the pharmacy business got off to an early start.
"My father was a pharmacist, and I started working in his drugstore when I was seven years old. They didn't have any child labor laws then or at least none that he was aware of."
Henry A. Panasci Jr., in Syracuse, N.Y., offices of Cygnus Management Group LLC, approaches each work day with gusto.
(Click to view larger image.)
Photo: Dave Revette
Panasci's chores included keeping the penny candy supplies neatly displayed, assembling sections of the Sunday newspapers and counting the number of magazines received to be sure the order was correct.
"At seven, my father trusted me because I was very proficient at math," he says. It was an aptitude that has served him well throughout his life as a successful businessman. By the time Fay's Drugs merged with Eckerd Drugs in 1996, the chain had expanded to 275 drugstore locations, with more than $1 billion in revenues. A very active UB alumnus, Panasci was honored with the UB Alumni Association's 1998 Samuel P. Capen Award for contributions to the university influencing its growth and improvement during a May 1 ceremony.
Panasci's family moved to Buffalo when he was 14; again he worked with his father in a drugstore. He entered UB, graduated with a chemistry degree in 1948 and soon landed a job in a chem lab at a steel company. It didn't last long: To the gregarious Panasci, accustomed to daily interaction with customers in the drugstore, the chem lab was just too quiet.
"I didn't see any people for what seemed like months at a time, so I decided that wasn't for me," he smiles, a dapper man in a finely tailored, charcoal-gray, pin-striped business suit brightened by a flower-print silk tie in shades of yellow. "As a result, I went back to UB, matriculated in pharmacy school and got my shingle. All those years going through high school and seven years of college I worked in chain drugstores, and I developed a taste for that type of operation. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
When his uncle, Carl Panasci, opened a small chain of drugstores called Carls Drugs, Panasci worked for him for a time. Then he left Carls and took a position as general manager of a drugstore chain in Erie, Pa., to gain more experience in business and finance.
Soon Panasci decided it was time to go into business for himself. Together with his father, Henry A. Panasci Sr., Panasci opened the first Fay's Drug Store in Fairmount, N.Y., in October 1958. Choosing a name for the company, he recalls, was their first challenge. The name had to fit certain criteria: It couldn't be too long (to save on sign costs no small consideration, in those days) and it had to be memorable enough to stick in people's minds.
"We wanted a name that was short and catchy; we didn't think Panasci's Pharmacy had much of a ring," he says. "So we named it Fay's Drugs, after my wife, Faye. It was a good choice. My sign cost a lot less than it would have if we had called it something else."
The store was an "overwhelming" success, according to Panasci, performing "beyond our wildest expectations." On the basis of that achievement, the Panascis opened a second store, in Baldwinsville, N.Y., managed by one of Henry Jr.'s classmates from UB, Daniel Herrmann, B.S. '52. But for a time, that store struggled.
"To solve the problem," Panasci says, "we decided to open a third store more or less go for broke. That store was a home run. So was the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh after that, we just couldn't miss."
Eventually, the corporation branched out into other areas: a chain of automotive supply stores called "Wheels"; a discount book/office supply store chain, "The Paper Cutter." With so much success, why stop?
"People often ask why our board decided to sell Fay's," Panasci says. "The answer is that the chain drugstore business was going through consolidation. In order to effectively compete, you had to be one of the largest. We felt the timing to get out was propitious."
Since selling Fay's, Panasci has been chair of Cygnus Management Group LLC, a venture capital organization and consulting company in Syracuse, N.Y. Occasionally, people who don't know about his new business ask him what he is doing "now that he is retired." Panasci, who loves his work, is quick to set them straight.
"I can honestly say that I look forward to going to work each morning. It's exciting. It revs up the juices. I always try to keep ahead so I don't get stale. I call selling Fay's a 'commencement.' I'm just as excited about my venture capital business as I was about my last career."
A man of seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, Panasci currently serves as a director on a number of boards, including that of the New York City Opera. He is also a trustee of Syracuse's Everson Museum of Art and a former chairman of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. His love affair with the arts dates back even earlier than the beginning of his pharmaceutical career.
"The first opera I heard was when I was in my mother's womb," he says. "My parents loved opera. My dad knew and sang most of the popular Italian arias. It's incredible how much he knew about opera! Every Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera was broadcast on the radio, as it still is today, and I would hear it when I worked with my dad. So I was introduced to it almost by osmosis."
He has fond memories of the seven years he spent at UB.
"The University of Buffalo provided me with the opportunity to go to a great university and to go on and do what I did," he says. "UB was charming. It seemed to me that we had access to everything: If we wanted to see a professor on a Saturday or Sunday, he'd be willing to see us. And he had access to us: If he wanted us to do some lab work, or do a demonstration, no one would disappoint him. I was at UB in 1945 and the war was on. I don't think there were 20 men on campus. There were perhaps 300 to 400 females. It was a very interesting experience."
Panasci also remembers Samuel Capen, who was by then nearing the end of his 28-year tenure, describing him as a man "who looked the part of a university chancellor."
"I knew Dr. Capen, and he was part of the charm of the university," he says. "He was a great, friendly man, but he looked so stern. He was a handsome man, imposing and intimidating. Did I ever think I would receive an award named after him? No, not at all."
Paula Meseroll is a Syracuse-area freelance writer
| Samuel P. Capen Award|
||The most prestigious award of the UB Alumni Association is named for the elegant and eloquent Samuel P. Capen, the university's first full-time chancellor who fostered intellectual rigor and championed academic freedom. During his long tenure, from 1922 to 1950, the university's programs grew in number and complexity. Since 1959, the Capen Award has recognized meritorious contributions to the university and its family.
Notable Quotes by Samuel P. Capen