A Lesson in Good Business Leads to Half a Century of Success

Edition: November 2001 - Vol 9 Number 11
Article#: 1092
Author: Laura Thill

The market changes and companies adapt, but some tricks-of-the-trade that were passed along 40, 50, even 60 years ago are still valuable today.

Paul Kaliner, president of Delaware Valley Surgical (Boothwyn, PA), attributes much of his company's success to the sound business guidance of his uncle and company founder, Bernard ''Bunny'' Kaliner. The elder Kaliner, who retired in 1981, passed away last August 17. But, the same good sense that got his company off to a solid start in 1950 continues to propel Paul Kaliner as he forges ahead in a new century.

''When the company was in its infancy,'' says Kaliner, ''my uncle had a sound business mind. He was very good operationally and taught me the good sense of knowing when it was right to take a risk.''

After purchasing first his uncle's shares of the company in 1981, and then his father's shares in 1989, Kaliner began to run the business less conservatively when it came to taking risks. ''I took risks to expand the business,'' he says. ''We entered new territories and acquired new companies.'' Indeed, the business, which originally was confined to Philadelphia, expanded to cover half of Pennsylvania, half of New Jersey, all of Delaware, and the eastern shore of Maryland.

''My uncle never stood in my way,'' reflects Kaliner. ''Ironically, he was less reluctant about my taking risks than my father was.''

Late Hours Lead to New Career

Bernard Kaliner took charge of Delaware Valley Surgical in 1950 because he found pharmacy, his current profession, becoming too consuming. ''Back then, pharmacists saw a lot of opportunity, but they also disliked the long hours involved in running a local pharmacy,'' says Kaliner. ''You were open seven days a week and into the nights.''

Clarence Kaliner was a pharmacist as well. Between them, the brothers owned two drugstores. Bernard sold his and invested in Delaware Valley Surgical. Three years later, Clarence joined his brother and remained the only sales rep until many years later, when Paul Kaliner came on board. Clarence Kaliner retired in 1989.

Paul Kaliner's willingness to take risks, coupled with his uncle's good business sense, paid off – most of the time. Unfortunately, one of the company's customers, the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation (AHERF), filed for bankruptcy in July 1998, causing Delaware Valley Surgical to suffer about a $1 million loss.

But – and perhaps this is where Bernard Kaliner's valuable good management sense paid off most critically – Delaware Valley Surgical rallied and survived the backset. ''I was most proud of our management and employees,'' Kaliner reflects. ''You learn a lot more from distressing periods than from good times.

Delaware Valley Surgical learned that it was well managed. ''We didn't have to lay anyone off,'' Kaliner states. ''We stuck together as a company and came through it.''

Today, Delaware Valley Surgical boasts a team of about 48 – a big leap from the original group, which included Bernard, Clarence and three employees. Of course, with this growth has come a tighter sense of management. ''There still is a good degree of autonomy for our reps,'' says Kaliner, referring to the company's reputation for permitting reps to make their own decisions in dealing with service issues. ''However, we manage a little more closely since we've grown,'' he continues. ''We have a sales manager now and we do set sales goals. As our overhead has grown, we've felt a greater need to keep a closer watch on things – but not necessarily be too hands-on.''

A Double Loss

The death of Bernard Kaliner was not the only loss that Delaware Valley Surgical and the industry in general experienced. Jack Merkel, 75, formally of Merkel and Sons (Willmington, DE), passed away suddenly from leukemia less than a week after Bernard, on August 23. Merkel was a respected figure in health care for over 50 years.

Merkel and Sons played a key role in the expansion of Delaware Valley Surgical. ''Jack Merkel and a significant portion of his staff joined our company about eight years ago, enabling us to expand into Delaware and Maryland,'' says Kaliner.

''Jack had tremendous dedication,'' Kaliner reflects. ''Like my father, he was a consummate salesperson. I considered him a good friend, both when we were competitors and working together.''

An Original Starline Member

Delaware Valley Surgical was an original Starline member, says Kaliner, and remains a member today both of Starline and its parent organization, NDC. ''These groups have been a tremendous source of support for us,'' he says. ''People like Ron Fleitz of Starline and Jim Stover of NDC have a wealth of information.'' Kaliner doesn't hesitate to add that Delaware Valley Surgical was named Starline Distributor of the Year in 2000.''This was the third time we won this award,'' he says.

A Look Ahead

Is there a chance that Delaware Valley Surgical might be sold in the years to come? Not likely. ''I really enjoy this business,'' says Kaliner. ''We have long-term employees and we intend to stay in the business and grow it where opportunities present themselves.

Naturally, Kaliner never loses sight of his uncle's keen sense of business. ''We'd like to continue to expand,'' he notes. ''But, we do things methodically around here.'' Some lessons never lose their value.