The Family That Works

Edition: July 2001 - Vol 9 Number 07
Article#: 1006
Author: Laura Thill

Selling a family business may signal trouble for some families, but for others, it can represent new opportunities. Such has been the case for the Hilton family. Herb Hilton and his sons have made the move from owning a small family-owned company to being part of a large national distributor, and they have discovered success with both.

In 1959, Herb Hilton went to work for Bischoff's Surgical Supply in Oakland, CA. His father-in-law, Fred (Bud) Bischoff, was a partner in the company, which had been started by his dad. Nine years later, the Bischoff partnership sold the business to Houston-based Intermedco. Soon afterwards, Hilton relocated to Orlando, where he remained for three years until his next transfer — to Houston. Five years later, in 1980, he left Intermedco to begin his own Houston-based company, Hilton Surgical Supply (HSS).

When asked why he elected to begin his own business, Hilton's response is simple: ''I was ready to leave and do my own thing.''

''When Intermedco transferred us to Florida, we went happily,'' says Hilton. ''Later, when Intermedco transferred us to Houston, we went happily.'' With his children growing older, however, it was becoming harder to uproot. At that point, Hilton knew the right thing was to stay put and strike out on his own.

After the first year, Hilton's wife, Barbara, retired from her nursing career to join HSS as a sales rep. For 15 years, the company serviced physicians in the Houston area, and in that time became a member of the CIDA buying group. ''We never had a written mission statement,'' says Hilton, ''but if we had, it would have been that we wanted to serve our customers better than anyone else, make our customers happy and make a profit.''

The Hiltons' business prospered and allowed them to raise three sons: Dan, Doug and Brad. A good deal of the company's success, says Hilton, can be attributed to Barbara who took the time to ''introduce us to the twentieth century by implementing our computer system.''

After completing college, all three of Hilton's sons, as well as brother-in-law Bill Bischoff, joined HSS. (Bill eventually left and went to work for Taylor Medical, Beaumont, TX). In time, it became clear to Hilton that a small family business could not support so many members comfortably. In 1995, the Hiltons decided to sell HSS to Taylor Medical. Soon afterward, in 1996, Taylor Medical was acquired by PSS.

A Good Fit

PSS and HSS were a good fit, says Hilton, referring to the two companies' philosophies. ''I'm just happy we didn't end up anywhere else.''

''We both want to service the heck out of our customer,'' Hilton continues. We want to sell as much to that customer as possible. We want to hire and retain good people. And, of course, we want to make money.''

Houston-based PSS sales manager Clint Bennett concurs with Hilton. Both the Hiltons and PSS are foremost concerned with ''keeping the customer in mind with every decision,'' says Bennett. ''In addition, Herb has passed on phenomenal organizational skills and work ethics to his sons. This has been key to their success.''

Bennett adds, ''People buy from people they trust. It's a small thing, but being there for people when you say you will is very important.''

Since joining PSS, Hilton has stayed in Houston. But, his sons have been quite adventurous.

Over the years, son Dan has relocated to Philadelphia, and then gone to work for Group Practice Service Corp, a Malvern, PA-based outsource management company, which necessitated a move back to Houston. Four years later, he returned to PSS, a move that has allowed him to remain in Houston. Today, Dan is Certified in Medical Sales (CMS) and ''well on his way to joining the Challengers - the top 50 sales reps at PSS,'' notes Hilton.

Doug, at one point, transferred to Indianapolis where he worked a year before transferring to PSS' Houston office. He currently is CMS and has been a Challenger for the past two years.

Brad has had to relocate the most, says Hilton. His career with PSS has taken him to Rochester, Warham, MA, Dallas, Jackson and Jacksonville, FL. Today, he is vice president of operations for Gulf South Medical Supply in Jacksonville, the long-term-care division of PSS World Medical.

''The biggest transition any of us has made (in joining PSS) is that we are now small cogs on a big wheel, as opposed to big cogs on a small wheel,'' says Hilton. However, he continues, PSS has allowed the Hiltons to run their territories ''as if they were our own small business,'' enabling the family to retain a good degree of autonomy.

Change is Good

The Hiltons have enjoyed the changes they've encountered since joining PSS. Dan was able to temporarily step back from his role as branch sales leader to work as vice president of sales for managed ancillary services for large medical groups. Today, he has returned to sales to manage a successful territory. Similarly, Doug was able to experience the role of branch sales leader before returning to his job as a sales rep.

Brad has enjoyed several career changes, says Hilton. He worked as a branch ops leader at three PSS locations before assuming his current position with Gulf South.

Hilton also makes mention of two brothers-in-law who work at PSS: Bill Bischoff runs a sales territory in Houston, and Bob Bischoff works a sales territory in Montana.

Hilton, now 59, has found his career to be nothing but fulfilling. His accomplishments are numerous, including roles as HIDA region 4 director, chairman of the HIDA Trade Show, PSS Challenger, and a member of the CEO Roundtable (the top 25 sales reps at PSS). Now, Hilton feels fortunate to have gotten away from the pressure of managing his own business and return to a career in sales. His wife, Barbara, is enjoying retirement.

As for his sons, Hilton anticipates continued and growing success with PSS. ''I envision both Dan and Doug to continue as successful sales reps, and I can only imagine that Brad will continue in upper management with Gulf South,'' he says.

Being small cogs on a big wheel has its advantages after all.