It’s a Tough Battle

Edition: April 2003 - Vol 11 Number 04
Article#: 1502
Author: Repertoire

It’s tough being a small guy in a big guy’s world. But some distributors, such as TriMedCo in Atlanta, don’t let that get them down. In fact, they question whether it really is a big guy’s world after all.

TriMedCo, which operates out of a one-story, 10,000-square-foot facility in downtown Atlanta, has been a family affair for 27 years. That’s how long ago Jim Sizemore, a retired Air Force vet, and a partner founded the company. Today, Sizemore’s son –Jim Jr. – and a partner, Tom Thompson, own it.

The Three Jims

After retiring from the Air Force, Jim Sr. took a job in the anesthesia department at Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta. One of his vendor reps – Jim White – persuaded Sizemore to join him in starting a specialty dealer of their own, focusing on anesthesia and respiratory products. They did so, with a third partner – another Jim – Jim Evans. (The company was called TriMedCo in recognition of the three partners.)

Sizemore’s son, Jim Jr., began working in the company when he was young, pulling orders and later, delivering products on the company truck. When a sales territory opened, he took it. And when the elder Sizemore and his partner were ready to retire, they found a willing buyer for the company in Jim Jr. and Thompson.

TriMedCo had already been changing at the time of the sale. Its traditional hospital market was becoming tougher and tougher to penetrate, explains Jim Jr. “The prime vendor contractors have always been our Goliath,” he says. What’s more, GPOs, especially Columbia (now HCA), were making it increasingly more difficult for TriMedCo to sell to hospitals.

Consequently, TriMedCo tried (and continues to do so today) to find hospitals with some leeway in their purchasing practices. In addition, as a specialty distributor, TriMedCo chose to sell products that lay under the radar of the big GPOs.

Seven or eight years ago, the company made a decision to expand to the EMS and outpatient surgery markets. The decision made a big difference in TriMedCo’s course. In fact, aproximately 35 percent of its business is now in the EMS market. And the transition has been fairly painless.

“We had to bring on some new lines, such as cervical collars,” says Sizemore. “But we already had the respiratory products that that market needed. And our salespeople didn’t need much additional training to sell to the EMS market.”

True, tapping into the vast numbers of EMS operations was time-consuming, says Sizemore. Most counties operate their own EMS operations, so it’s a matter of finding where they are. But the payoff has been great. “As you build relationships with these people and maintain your service levels, you find they are loyal,” says Sizemore And, he adds, “they’re not locked in to GPOs.”

Surgery centers were a natural extension of TriMedCo’s core product line (respiratory and anesthesia). Centers for plastic surgery have proven to be an especially busy market for the company.

Each of TriMedCo’s five sales reps sell into all three markets – hospitals, EMS and surgery centers. The company’s territory encompasses Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.

The Independents’ Advantage

When asked how a small company such as TriMedCo can fight national respiratory or general-line suppliers, Sizemore responds with one word: Service.

“What’s always kept us strong has been our level of service,” he says. “Being a small company, with 11 employees, we’ve always had a more personal approach to doing business.” Customers calling in are likely to get the same person at the other end of the line today as they did last week or last month. “We always knew that to compete with the big guys, we needed to offer added value, so service is something we’ve always emphasized,” he says.

TriMedCo did have a prime vendor contract in the past with Crawford Long Hospital of Emory University in Atlanta, to whom it provided just-in-time delivery. But today, it focuses on providing once-a-week or twice-a-week deliveries of anesthesia and respiratory supplies. Still, “If there’s enough business, we always keep an open mind to providing daily delivery,” says Sizemore.

TriMedCo has identified another potential source of growth: government business. Sizemore signed a contract with the federal government to provide incentive spirometers to base hospitals in 12 Midwest and Western states. “And I’m constantly on the lookout for bids for state government contracts, as well as municipalities and counties.” And Sizemore continues to look for IDNs that contract on their own, independent of a GPO.

In fact, TriMedCo has signed two substantial respiratory contracts with Promina, an Atlanta-based IDN comprising 16 hospitals, and is working on another.

“We’re out there competing with the companies we’ve always competed with,” says Sizemore. Some of those competitors have disappeared, having gotten swallowed up in acquisitions and roll-ups. But that’s not in TriMedCo’s future.

“We’ve looked at the big guys, seen consolidation among specialty distributors, but we never want to give up our autonomy.”