No Choice But to Succeed

Edition: March 2002 - Vol 10 Number 03
Article#: 1186
Author: Laura Thill

When Al Borchardt agreed to try his skill in the medical products industry in 1965, the name of the game was ''fold or succeed,'' he says. With a young, growing family at home, Borchardt saw no choice but to make certain he came out a winner.

Long hours, a tough work ethic and intense goals (''I always wanted to own my own business,'' he says) helped Borchardt rocket from a bottom-of-the-totem-pole sales rep to the head of Midland Medical – a medical products distributor that presently generates 15 million in revenue – and recipient of the HIDA 2001 Industry Award of Distinction.

A Career by Chance Borchardt admits he ended up in the medical industry by chance. His uncle, Cal Singer, was a Midwest sales manager for the St. Louis-based Aloe, a division of Brunswick and one of the two largest independent distributors (along with American Hospital Supply) in the 1950s through the early 1970s. In the mid-sixties, near the time Borchardt was graduating from the University of Omaha, Singer invited him and his wife out to dinner and literally talked him into working for Aloe. ''It was a straight commission job and I was broke,'' Borchardt recalls. ''The first year was tough, but I had a wife, a two-year-old and a baby on the way. Still, this move turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me,'' he says.

In 1965, when Borchardt joined Aloe as a sales rep in Billings, MT, his territory spanned Eastern Montana, Northeastern Wyoming and Western South Dakota – a mere 1,500 or 1,600 miles to cover weekly. ''At that point, the speed limit was anything your car could handle,'' recalls Borchardt, whose Chevy Impala pushed an impressive 85 mph to 100 mph. ''I would call on anyone who could use any kind of med/surg products,'' Borchardt adds. ''Hospitals, physicians – even vets!''

Borchardt considers his early days in medical sales an exciting time, when cutting edge disposable technology and one-piece IVs were first introduced.

Aloe owned the Monoject syringe line at that time, and Borchardt remembers converting a number of hospitals from standard to disposable needle systems. ''Back then, it was common for physicians to sharpen needles over and over,'' says Borchardt. ''It was difficult for them to buy into the idea of using a needle only once.''

In 1967, Borchardt was transferred to Omaha. A year later, Aloe's Argyle division introduced a one-piece IV cannula. In the early 1960s, C.R. Bard had begun manufacturing an intra-cath – similar to a spinal needle but with a catheter intact, recalls Borchardt. ''The problem was, the doctors would forget and try to withdraw the catheter when the needle was still in place. The cannula could enter the body, reach the heart and kill the patient.''

In 1968, Aloe introduced a one-piece cannula that fit over the needle. The needle was longer than the cannula, and hence could be withdrawn while leaving the catheter in place. Because the catheter was one piece, says Borchardt, it couldn't break off and the cannula couldn't travel into the body.

A Different Game Working as a sales rep 35 years ago was quite a different game from the one played by today's reps. ''Reps would set up shop in a hospital and stay 24 hours to service different shifts,'' Borchardt says. And, purchasing agents were scarce back then, he recalls. ''You'd talk to nurses and doctors on different floors. If there was a purchasing agent, you'd catch him on the way out to get a PO,'' says Borchardt. ''That was fun!'' he laughs.

At one point, says Borchardt, one of his hospital customers was in the process of remodeling and ordered 50 electric beds. He got the order, but it wasn't signed, which was common back then.

Aloe gave Borchardt a choice: Either get the order signed, or back it up with your own cash. ''So, I took the PO to a bank and got the money,'' says Borchardt. ''Aloe's PO manager was shocked, but he agreed to accept the order – at which point I returned the money to the bank,'' he recalls.

From Rep to Owner In 1970, Borchardt found himself conducting a large portion of his business at the 350-bed Bryan Hospital in Lincoln, NE. At that time, there was no purchasing agent at Bryan. Rather, the hospital administrator handled this area. ''His name was Eugene Edwards,'' says Borchardt. ''Eugene would see the reps in his office on Wednesdays from 11 to 12 noon. He would sign orders, while at the same time pick your brain. It was a way for him to see what other hospitals were doing.''

Borchardt recalls one such meeting on a particular Wednesday morning at 11:30. ''The phone rang and Eugene told the caller: 'You want to talk to the guy sitting here.'

The caller turned out to be Joe Hannigan, says Borchardt. ''Joe wanted to start a medical supply company and was looking for a partner,'' he says. I always wanted my own business, Borchardt emphasizes. Wasting no time, he raced over to Hannigan's store in his '67 Chevy. ''When I first met Joe, I never would have guessed it was him,'' laughs Borchardt. ''He had on a torn shirt and said to me, 'I'm Joe Hannigan. Are you that high-powered peddler?'''

But, Borchardt sensed how dynamic Hannigan was, and the pair agreed on a handshake to start a new medical supply venture, Midland Medical. Hannigan supplied the financial backing while Borchardt supplied the sales.

Business got off to a solid start: Borchardt's previous hospital customers followed him, as well as some experienced reps, including Clint Mutchit and Borchardt's uncle, Cal Singer.

In 1979, Borchardt bought out Hannigan. ''Again, there was no written contract,'' notes Borchardt. ''Everything was done on a handshake. Joe sold me the building as well, charging only the price they had agreed on 10 years earlier,'' he says.

Presently, Midland Medical employs 10 sales reps and services hospitals, physician offices and long-term care facilities. In addition, the company has two distribution centers:
•        The original 10,000-square-foot warehouse, which once was used for stockless hospital purchasing in Fremont, NE. It presently services Northeastern Nebraska, Eastern South Dakota and Northwestern Iowa.
•        The second warehouse – a 40,000-square-foot building – is located in Lincoln, NE.

Today, Midland Medical has expanded to include such territories as Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado. They have been an IMCO member since 1985 and are very active in the organization.

Plans to Sell? ''Selling this company would be like selling part of my family,'' says Borchardt. ''My wife – a banker – asked me what I don't like about money,'' he jokes. But, about five years ago, when an offer presented itself, he could not accept it.

''After all, this company is like family,'' stresses Borchardt, who firmly believes in hiring family and friends. ''In 32 years, there have only been three people whom I didn't know personally when I hired them,'' he says. ''And, those three people stayed with us until their retirement.''

A perfect example of the strong bonds cultivated at Midland Medical would have to be Mrs. Wave Hansen, notes Borchardt, who insists his story is not complete without mentioning her. Hansen worked as a central supply supervisor and part-time purchaser for Edwards at Bryan Hospital. ''She would review products with me and encourage me to spend more time in the emergency room. That's where I gained much of my firsthand experience about the products I was selling,'' says Borchardt.

After her retirement, Hansen joined Midland Medical part-time. ''Today, she's still with Midland Medical, and she's in her eighties!'' exclaims Borchardt. If that's not family, what is?