Hard Work Pays Off For A Fulfilling Career

Edition: August 2001 - Vol 9 Number 08
Article#: 1018
Author: Laura Thill

Sometimes it pays to be second, because you try harder,'' says Betty Williams, retired sales rep and manager, whose career spanned 38 years at Nashville Surgical Supply (Nashville), later to be acquired by Durr Fillauer (Montgomery, AL) and, once again, by Bergen Brunswig Medical Corp. (Orange, CA).

From the early 1960s, when there were few women in the medical sales workforce, through the 1990s, when female sales reps and managers continued to be a minority, Williams advanced from manning the switchboard and completing clerical tasks, to becoming a sales rep with a complete territory of her own – ''just like the men,'' she laughs.

By 1997, Williams was leading the pack as director of sales on the physician side of the business, planning sales meetings involving both physician and hospital reps, and encouraging support, communication and an exchange of information between the two groups.

But, for all her effort to succeed in a male-dominated work arena, Williams never lost sight of one driving motivation: ''I wanted to be judged simply by my efforts and the work I did, and not by my being female.''

Switchboards and Clerical

It was 1960 when Williams joined Nashville Surgical Supply full time. Prior to that, she had worked for the company during school holidays and vacations. Her father, Dr. Joe Luckey, was the pharmacist at Nashville Surgical Supply, so it made sense for Williams to join the company until she decided on a more permanent career.

Soon after joining Nashville Surgical, she did consider becoming an airline flight attendant, a move that would have required her to purchase contact lenses. ''By the time I had the money for contact lenses, I was enjoying working at Nashville Surgical,'' says Williams. The career change never took place.

In fact, during her 38-year career, Williams considered employment elsewhere only on one other occasion. The second opportunity for change arose when a friend solicited her to join the accounting department at Nashville-based Parkview Convalescent Center (presently Centennial Hospital) for a nickel more an hour.

''I told my boss that I would be leaving,'' Williams said. ''He offered me a dime more an hour, so I stayed. A dime an hour was a lot then!''

A New Direction

In 1967, Williams made a move that would point her in a whole new direction at Nashville Surgical. At the time, Williams was transferred to the sales department to perform secretarial duties for the sales manager and for buyers in the purchasing department. She soon found herself learning about sales and the products her company sold.

Soon afterward, she advanced to administrative assistant to the vice president and general manager of Nashville Surgical. In the years following, Williams became familiar with the managers and sales reps of most of the manufacturers with whom the distributor did business. In addition, part of Williams' job involved helping newcomer reps learn the ropes. ''Then a light bulb went off,'' says Williams. ''Why was I training others to do the job? Why not me?''

The answer probably was that it was the late 1970s, and only a couple of female reps were calling on large hospitals in Nashville. Still, Williams recalls, she essentially was doing the work without proper compensation. It was time to take on a territory of her own, with enough customers to permit her to earn a full commission and make a good living.

''I wanted to be judged simply by my efforts and the work I did,'' says Williams. ''The numbers don't lie,'' she adds. ''My efforts and abilities would be on a sales chart for the whole company to see, and I would be compensated accordingly.''

But, it wasn't until April 1983 that she was given the go-ahead. ''I think my boss depended on me too much to let me go,'' she laughs.

In her new position, Williams was given a territory with three large Nashville hospitals, as well as a list of 150 physicians – some of whom were retired or even deceased. Still, she persevered and did well with her territory.

No sooner had she gotten comfortable in her new role than Durr Fillauer acquired Nashville Surgical in October 1983. In 1984, Durr Fillauer announced that all sales reps would become either hospital or physician reps, not both.

''I gave up my 150 physicians, gained three more hospital accounts and set out to be the best rep I could be,'' notes Williams. ''Being female, I needed to prove that I could sell as well as a male and be respected and accepted by my customers.''

Williams credits her boss at Nashville Surgical, Oren Williams Jr. (no relationship), for her success at Durr Fillauer. William's foresight into the pending acquisition enabled him to set up Williams well, and her transition to Durr Fillauer went smoothly.

A Pending Retirement

In 1994, Williams was ready to retire – or so she thought. ''I thought I'd been at it long enough,'' she says. ''The business was changing. Everything was switching to prime vendor. I was 54 and had been with the company since I was 20.''

Retirement worked out for a while. Eighteen months later, however, Williams started feeling anxious. ''I was still interested in what was happening in the business,'' she says. ''We don't realize how many people we come in contact with each day at work. When you've been a part of so many people's lives…well, I was ready to return.''

It was now late 1995, and the company had been acquired once more, this time by Bergen Brunswig. Williams was thinking about calling Bergen when Nashville branch manager Terry Cross actually called her, keeping in touch as he would do from time to time. When Williams mentioned her interest in returning to sales, it worked out that Cross had a need for a sales manager.

''Terry needed a manager for the physician side of the business,'' says Williams. ''This was different for me, but I thought I might have something to offer them.''

Now Williams would be overseeing nine male reps, only a few with whom she had worked in her previous position with the company. This time, she was returning as their boss. ''Some of them had little experience in sales and no experience with a female manager,'' Williams says.

In addition, Williams recognized that this was a predominantly young sales force. The few experienced reps would probably be retiring soon. Williams saw an opportunity to plan sales meetings – meetings that could educate and unite both physician and hospital reps.

''I was basically trying to teach and manage at the same time,'' Williams recalls. ''I wanted to make it a learning experience for both groups of reps. I wanted to see the good experience from those with 30 or 40 years in the business passed on to the others.'' Williams planned events and training sessions designed to allow the reps to share information with each other.

In retrospect, it was this teaching and managing experience that Williams perceives as her biggest contribution to health care. ''I taught the reps and got them to teach each other about sales,'' she says. In the end, Williams believes her efforts were responsible for several awards.

''My reps were usually ranked in the top five percent of the country,'' she says. In 1997, a member of her sales team won the President's Cup Award. The prize was a cruise. But the winner's wife was expecting a baby at the time, and he was forced to turn it down. The cruise prize was passed on to the runner up – also a member of Williams' team.

In 1998, Williams was ready to retire again – this time for good. ''It's good to be able to retire feeling you've made a contribution,'' she says. ''And, if anyone needs help retiring, I can help! It was hard the first time around, but now it has really clicked.''

When asked if, given the opportunity, she would change anything about her career, Williams says positively not. ''I loved every day of it,'' she adds. ''I loved taking projects to completion, watching a little seed grow into big business.''

When asked if she has any advice for today's reps, Williams replies: ''There have always been challenges in the field. Back in the 1970s, disposables came out. Then, group purchasing organizations came along.''

The important thing is to build on the efforts of those who come before us – to remember that our success grows from the strong work values and solid reputation that our predecessors established, notes Williams. ''We're all representatives of our company. We always must remember that.''

Editor's note: From the 1970s until the early 1990s, Williams earned the following awards:

• 1991. Hospital Account Manager of Year for Division.

• 1990. Hospital Account Manager of Year for Nashville Branch.

• 1987. Hospital Account Manager of Year for Nashville Branch.

• 1985. Hospital Account Manager of Year for Nashville Branch.

• 1980. Sales Award.

• 1980. Sales Achievement Award.

• 1977. Sales Achievement Award.

Betty Williams welcomes hearing from old acquaintances and may be e-mailed at byotwilliams@home.com.