WATFORD CITY — Larry and Debbie Larsen know the benefits and pitfalls of owning a small business in an Oil Patch boomtown.
Despite being flush with new clients and busier than ever, Larry said keeping up can be “a struggle.”
“A lot of times, we just call it controlled chaos,” he said.
Larsen Service Drug is an institution in Watford City, the McKenzie County boomtown that has seen its population quadruple in the past four years primarily because of the surrounding oil and gas exploration.
The Larsens’ business has been in the family since John Larsen, Larry’s dad, first opened the doors 62 years ago. They even have the soda fountain from the original store before it expanded and took over the former clinic space next door.
The family has seen more than one oil boom come and go. This one, Debbie said, came after slower economic times.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Larry said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of areas of the country that would kill to have a business environment like we had — the unemployment and everything else. But, it’s a two-edged sword. We do have the boom, but in a lot of ways, it’s just not all gravy.”
Debbie, a pharmacy technician and a past president of the Watford City Chamber of Commerce, said keeping employees has been one of the drug store’s most difficult issues. She said the store had three longtime employees preparing for retirement right as the oil boom began to take hold at the beginning of the decade.
“That just happened to coincide where it was not only hard to hire a warm body, it was hard to hire anybody with the skills you really needed,” Debbie said. “That proved to be a little challenging. The nature of the workforce right now, they’re not really settled. They tend to come and go so quickly. That’s probably been our biggest challenge with staffing. I think we’ve hired good people, but they aren’t always here to stay. Maybe we thought they were, but they ended up leaving.”
The Larsens did recently get some good help in the form of a familiar face: Larry and Debbie’s daughter, Jenna Wahlstrom.
Wahlstrom is a pharmacist for Larsen Service Drug, so it appears that the business will stay safely in the family for years to come.
“It’s exciting, a little daunting,” Wahlstrom said with a laugh. “It’s big shoes to fill. My grandpa and my dad have created such a wonderful place to work and be. They’re such great bosses.”
However, because she is only in her first year with the business, Wahlstrom said taking over when her dad decides to retire is something that’s quite a ways down the road.
“Someday, that may be something I would step up to,” Wahlstrom said. “I’m wanting to maybe have a family and do some things first.”
Wahlstrom even brought along one of her best friends from pharmacy school, Kelsey Linseth, to work alongside her family. Linseth met her husband in Watford City at Wahlstrom’s wedding.
The friends don’t work together often though. One is usually at the Watford City store while the other operates the Larsens’ New Town drug store that was purchased a few years ago.
Debbie said it left a hole in the New Town community, the population center of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, when its drug store didn’t have a pharmacist.
“We were really happy we were able to provide the service that was needed once they didn’t have it,” Wahlstrom said.
In both locations, Debbie said, she has encountered newcomers who are shocked to have an interaction with the actual pharmacist.
Unlike in some states, the North Dakota Pharmacy Ownership Law of 1963 states that only pharmacies majority owned by a licensed pharmacist or group of pharmacists can operate in the state.
“A lot of these people come from other states and they’re not used to community pharmacies, for the most part,” Debbie said. “That’s been kind of an education that we’ve taken on with new people. They come in and they’re like, ‘I can’t find a pharmacy in a Walmart anywhere.’ … They’re just blown away that they get to talk to the pharmacist. They get to have service. We can fill their prescriptions in minutes.
“That’s been fun for us, to have them experience what a pharmacy should be.”
Watford City is expanding at a rapid pace, driving small businesses like the Larsens’ drug store. The city is expected to hit 10,000 permanent residents soon — the 2010 census counted 1,744 people — and is predicted to grow even larger than that.
Wahlstrom said the oil boom has made for a bittersweet homecoming.
“When I was growing up, it was a much slower pace in Watford, so it’s been a big change,” she said. “But it’s good for business.”