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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014

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In Marketplace

Thomas Volkmann, owner of Laabs, Inc., in front of Laabs' original drug bottles and pharmacy shelving.

In Marketplace

The professional pharmacy and physician's supply still serves doctors and patients after 113 yea

In Marketplace

A plaque hanging in the pharmacy commemorates Laabs' contribution to the Milwaukee Public Museum's "Streets of Old Milwaukee" exhibit.

In Marketplace

Laabs has a distinctive presence on North 27 Street.

In Marketplace

A picture of Laabs, Inc. in the original location of the historic pharmacy and laboratory.

Laabs pharmacy still serves Milwaukee after 113 years


Laabs, Inc., 911 N. 27th St., is a pharmacy as well as a medical and laboratory supply company. Its neon window signs, which state curious things like "Sick Room Supplies," stand out clearly on busy 27th Street, just north of Kilbourn Avenue.

In addition to being an independent, professional pharmacy – and the other two supply divisions – Laabs is a place people go for home health care needs.

Otto Laabs started the company when he opened a pharmacy in 1898 on Vliet Street with the motto "Medical Service to the Doctor and His Patient." At the time, the sidewalks were wood and Vliet was unpaved.

It is Otto Laabs' drugstore that is included in the Milwaukee Public Museum's "Streets of Old Milwaukee" exhibit. The display features drug bottles from the store, and others are still in Laabs' current location on the original store's wood shelving.

Laabs changed with the times, presumably extending its services to female physicians, and also growing its chemical and laboratory supply aspects. Laabs ships medical supplies all over the country.

Thomas Volkmann is the current owner of Laabs, Inc. He started working for the company in 1974, after graduating from MSOE with an engineering degree. Tom Volkmann's father, Edgar, was a pharmacist who started working for Otto Laabs in the '30s.

Edgar bought the company after Laabs retired in the '40s. Volkmann and other family business partners became owners of Laabs in 1983, and Volkmann the sole owner after his cousin died, around 2000.

Laabs relocated from their original location when the plan for an interstate spur included razing all the homes and businesses on part of Vliet Street. The highway project was never completed, but Laabs' physician customers followed them to the new space on 27th Street – formerly an A & P grocery store – and continued to stop by for medical equipment and lab testing supplies on their way to and from hospital rounds.

Laabs used to be a larger operation, including having an alternative health care department and a home health care division. The latter split off from the company and relocated to 35th Street.

The durable medical goods (wheelchairs, walkers, canes, etc.) aspect of the pharmacy remains, but has been reduced, since there are now other companies that specialize only in these kinds of supplies. Major changes in laboratory operations and the medical field as a whole have meant that physicians no longer secure most of their own testing equipment.

"Business is tough," says Volkmann.

It's been difficult for Laabs to get enough customers, due in part to the ubiquity of large chain pharmacies. At one time, Laabs had another pharmacy until a Walgreens opened across the street.

Laabs went from four pharmacists down to one full-timer, and currently has about a dozen employees, down from about 20.

"What was once a very profitable business is now 'just getting by,'" says Brian Tessmann, manager of the chemicals and laboratory supplies division of Laabs, Inc.

Tessmann has worked 28 years for Laabs. He started working directly for Volkmann before he owned the company, when Volkmann was the chemicals and lab supplies manager. Tessmann grew up in Milwaukee, attending Wisconsin Lutheran High and UW-Platteville, then to MATC where he graduated with a degree in photography. Tessmann first developed a working knowledge of chemicals from his father, who worked 25 years for Allen-Bradley and later started his own consulting firm.

A large part of the Laabs' business was selling raw materials to hobbyists, and they used to supply chemicals to local schools for science classes, too. "But kids aren't interested in chemistry anymore," Tessmann says.

When asked which is currently the most successful aspect of the company, Tessmann said his department, but jokingly added that each area head would probably claim the same.

Volkmann will only say that things are more competitive in the physician supply area now and that some months are better than others. "We're going to continue. We just keep going," he says.

According to Tessmann, there are very few people in Laabs' immediate area who have private health insurance anymore. Much of the pharmacy's revenue is based on reimbursements from various government agencies, and profits are slim.

"The pharmacy makes maybe three dollars on a $300 prescription," says Tessmann.

But despite economic struggles, the employees seem friendly and upbeat. A plaque on the wall in the pharmacy area from E. R. Squibb and Sons Pharmaceuticals (now Bristol-Myers Squibb) states that Laabs filled its two millionth prescription in 1975. While Volkmann and his staff were trying to estimate how many prescriptions their historic pharmacy has filled to date, the pharmacist waved a prescription over his head and called out, "Add one more to the figure!"


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