For Three Brothers, Work Is a Family Thing

Edition: April 2003 - Vol 11 Number 04
Article#: 1499
Author: Laura Thill

Remember the line from the television program, “Cheers,” ‘where everybody knows your name?’” asks Tony Vernola, vice president of Ocean Medical Supply in Long Island, N.Y. “We aim for that with our customers.” Indeed, that may well explain the success of this small family business, owned by Vernola and his two brothers since its inception in 1986.

Prior to starting their own company, the Vernolas – Nick, now 56, Tony, 51, and Mike, 42 – worked together for a diagnostic products manufacturer. Ocean Medical Supply, whose territory primarily spans Long Island and New York City, was originally intended to be a diagnostic products company as well. To generate cash flow, however, the brothers approached a friend in the physicians’ sales market. “We’d buy from him with a courtesy markup,” Tony explains. “But the physician end of the market advanced so quickly, we decided to stick with it.”

Today, Ocean Medical, an IMCO member, has grown into a 13-person company, with new territories emerging in parts of Connecticut, northern New Jersey and upstate New York. The brothers have, to some degree, divided the workload according to their areas of expertise: Nick, president, oversees sales and management; Michael, secretary/treasurer, runs the shipping/ receiving/inventory side of the business; and Tony deals primarily with customer service and accounting.

“But as a small family-owned business, we all do everything,” Tony says. “We all sell in an emergency. If need be, we’ll take everything in the car and deliver it.”

Family Matters

Anyone who has raised boys knows it’s not all about pats on the back and a loving exchange of words. “Oh sure, people ask us all the time, ‘Don’t you guys fight and disagree?’” says Tony. “Of course we do. But in a family business, you can’t hold a grudge. Everyone must kiss and make up the next day,” he laughs.

“We have tremendous confidence and trust in one another,” Tony adds. “Mike is the compromising one, Nick is stronger-willed and I try to be more analytical. Sometimes, when Nick and I disagree, Mike acts as a good moderator,” Tony explains.

Certainly, in light of Ocean Medical Supply’s 16 years of success, no one can question the brothers’ ability to work so well together. “We’ve never had a down year,” says Tony. “When we started out, we had five or six major competitors. Over the years, many of them were bought out,” he says.

“Ocean Medical chose to remain independent,” Tony continues. “We’ve always been service-oriented and have developed the loyalty of some hard core customers.”

“We tell our customers we’re like an employee of their medical practice,” adds Tony. “Our customers can count on us to get the job done. People call us any time – even at home.”

Family Roots

The Vernola brothers have some deep roots in family-run business, extending much farther back than the 16-year history of Ocean Medical Supply. “My grandfather started with a push cart in the ice business,” recalls Tony. “This was back when ice was used for cooling Broadway theaters.” Fans would blow across tubs loaded with ice blocks to keep the theaters chilled on hot days.

“I’m 51 years old and still remember riding [to jobs] with my dad and playing on the stage where Ed Sullivan performed,” Tony reminisces. Tony’s father and his three brothers eventually took over the ice business, running it successfully until refrigeration and air conditioning became popular.

“We’ve been working together as a family for many years. We know the value of a family business and the type of service a family can offer,” says Tony, “We produced an ad for Ocean Medical Supply at one time that said: ‘It’s not a business thing. It’s a family thing.’” And as a family thing, Ocean Medical Supply genuinely cares about getting to know its customers – and helping its customers get to know the business.

In a recent promotion, Ocean Medical Supply mailed out flyers with photos of the company’s five customer service reps. The promotion borrowed the “Cheers” line that Ocean Medical identifies with, “where everybody knows your name.” These reps have been on the phone for years, but have never met many of the customers,” says Tony.

“During the promotion, customers had an opportunity to match faces to names. Every time a customer called to place an order, we gave [him or her] a hint,” says Tony. “When a customer guessed correctly for all five service reps, we delivered a free breakfast to their company.” The way Tony describes it, keeping abreast of the customers is one of the best parts of the job.

Building the Business

Besides its five customer service reps, Ocean Medical Supply presently employs two field reps, one telemarketer, four people in shipping and receiving, and two delivery people. In addition, the brothers recently hired an outside sales manager. “We have plans to increase our outside sales force,” notes Tony. “We’re also completing more mail orders and look forward to developing our Web site. We really are focused on growing this business,” he adds.

While a good sense of family may have been handed down to the Vernolas through the generations, automatic success was not. “We started out in a space we rented from a friend in real estate,” says Tony, who describes their experience working out of a child’s bedroom in a condo. “I joked that one day we’d expand and move into the master bedroom,” he says.

“Mike wrote punch orders in the bathroom,” says Tony. “The seat was his desk.” But business was strong and within a year, Ocean Medical Supply moved into its first real office. "We were proud to do this so quickly," says Tony.

"We talk about plans for the business," Tony continues. "But we aren't yet focusing on the end of our careers." He adds, "We know we'll keep the business in the family. We have nine daughters and one son among us." As an afterthought, Tony jokes: "Maybe our next step will be to purchase a wedding hall!"

On a thoughtful note he adds, "At this point, all of our childern are young. We have no specific plans yet, but we do know we'll keep this business in the family."