Megamergers are roiling the pharmacy business, but one of the biggest players is betting on smaller pacts to help power its growth.

On a conference call with analysts on Thursday, executives from Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., which runs a pharmacy chain rivaled in size only by CVS Health Corp., emphasized a partnership strategy as a key to driving more customers into its stores.

Partnerships “enable us to quickly align our products, services and people to the needs of the rapidly changing and integrated omnichannel marketplace,” Chief Executive Officer Stefano Pessina said on the call. A collaborative mindset “is vital for our growth.”

Walgreens said late Wednesday that it plans to open at least 600 medical testing locations run by Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings in its drugstores. Earlier this month, it teamed up with subscription service Birchbox Inc. to test beauty spaces in 11 stores. It also has a pilot project with grocery giant Kroger Co.

The drugstore operator is cinching such agreements as rivals bulk up. CVS hopes to close in coming weeks on its acquisition of Aetna Inc., a deal designed to push more of the insurer’s customers into its drugstores. And Cigna Corp. is swallowing up pharmacy-benefits manager Express Scripts Holding Co.

For its fourth quarter, Walgreens posted growing prescription sales, driven by its recent acquisition of 1,932 Rite Aid Corp. stores. But same-store U.S. retail sales fell 1.9 percent.

Pessina, who has spoken in the past about bringing together pieces of the medical supply chain, was careful not to rule out a big deal.

“We have never excluded any M&A activity,” Pessina said toward the end of the call. But any such deals would have to be “really value-creating for our shareholders.”



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