Edition: November 2008 - Vol 16 Number 11
Author: Laura Thill
Of the many lessons Erin Lu has learned in her 54 years, two in particular stand out: Success does not come easy, and sometimes one can depend on the kindness of strangers. Today, Lu is the majority owner and president of EKLA Corporation, a woman-owned, minority acute-care medical products business in Naperville, Ill.
In her 13th year of business, Lu has found that being a woman-owned, minority company may open some doors. But once those doors are open, "We must earn our customer's trust by providing excellent services," she says. "We then invent new combinations of value-added goods and services tailored to each customer. This business is like building custom homes. You really have to know what your customers need, and then fill those needs."
A rough beginning
Born and raised in Taiwan, Lu began her early school days with a passion for learning. Unfortunately, her grades did not keep pace. Although she convinced her parents to let her begin first grade a year early, within two years, her low grades and young age convinced her teachers to hold her back. "Hurt and ashamed," Lu persuaded them to allow her to advance to third grade. And, although she was only 7 years old, she learned what it meant to really want something, and what it took to attain that. "I did not have any play time that year," she says. Her parents tutored her and, more importantly, taught her that moving ahead takes extra work. "The key is never to give up," she says. "I have always remembered that."
Indeed, Lu went on to graduate from college with a bachelor's degree in nursing and an R.N. license the following year. After working in a hospital pediatric ward for a couple of years, and watching children die from diseases, such as cancer, she decided to apply to American colleges and pursue a career in medical research. She was accepted at Western Kentucky University and later became the first foreign student accepted into the medical technology program at Vanderbilt University. Within three years, she earned a bachelor's degree in biology/chemistry and medical technology.
But, those were three long, hard years, she recalls. Her limited command of English, together with a heavy Taiwanese accent, made it difficult for her to understand lectures and ask questions. "I taped lectures and listened to them again and again," she says. "I studied eight to 10 hours every day and often sat outside my professors' office to ask them questions before class." The pressure increased when she learned that Vanderbilt's medical technology program would enroll future foreign students based on her performance. "I spent twice as long working in the laboratories as my classmates," says Lu. "But, by the time I graduated, I [did so] with high grades. And, the program has since been open to other foreign students."
In the late 1980s, Lu pursued her MBA degree, had a child and, in 1990, was divorced by her husband. "The next six years were very difficult," she says. "I looked for corporate jobs with my MBA, but received one rejection letter after another. How was I to apply my MBA if no company would hire me? So, I decided I would start my own business." She and her young daughter moved back to Taiwan and, through her cousin, she formed a partnership with an individual there. "My first business involved exporting western lab products to the Far East," she says. "But, within a month after moving back to Taiwan, I knew the business wouldn't make it." Still, she learned a couple of things, which she would apply to future ventures: No matter how well products are made, if they don't sell, you don't have a viable business. Likewise, if you can't collect payment for your products and services, your business isn't worth much.
Three months later, Lu left Taiwan ("I found it was hard for them to accept a divorced business woman with a young child.") and returned to the United States. Her plan was to form a new partnership with a Midwest-based entrepreneur whom her cousin introduced her to. This time, she would tap into her nursing background and knowledge of the acute-care market, and import medical disposables. She settled in the Chicago area, near one of her brothers. Unfortunately, the business lacked a clear direction and plan, and Lu left within a year to start her own distributorship.
It was 1995, and Lu found herself selling gloves from a small warehouse the size of a two-car garage, she admits. Around this time, a glove importer by the name of Don Morris asked her to lunch. "I wondered why he wanted to meet with me," says Lu. "No one knew who I was at that time." What she didn't realize was that her former partner owed Morris a large sum of money for gloves he had purchased, and that Morris wanted to see who would be a partner with such a person! While he was at it, he passed along a bit of advice to Lu for her new business.
"He asked me, 'Don't you think you're too old to start a business?'" she says. "I told him, I could sink or float, and I was going to float." Since she was determined to move forward, Morris took it upon himself to help by providing selling tips and offering to set her up as a distributor.
Her business morphed, and while she lost some major accounts in the non-acute care market, she gradually gained acute care business. "For the next two years, business grew at a snail's pace," says Lu. Then, in 2000, she received a call from longtime sales rep John Schmid. "He was an acute care sales legend," she says. "I had heard his name so many times, but had never met him. His colleagues and competitors all loved him [for his] compassion toward his fellow sales colleagues. John often took young sales rookies under his wing and trained them, and I was [shocked] when he told me he would work with me," she adds.
Schmid introduced Lu to some mid-sized and larger manufacturers and taught her about strategy and tactical sales. He also introduced her to his business colleague and manufacturer rep, Dwight Burnson. "Dwight is very well known in the Midwest area," she says. Nevertheless, he accompanied Lu on every sales call having to do with his products, no matter how small. "He always stands by his products, and taught me the importance of sales integrity," she says.
"I often think about [Morris, Schmid and Burnson] and how much they have helped me," she continues. "Their influence has [shown me] who I want to work with and what kinds of products I want to sell, [as well as] the kind of salesperson I want to be."
A leap forward
In 2001, her new husband and two brothers, all who had gotten involved in the dot-com industry, found themselves out of work when the industry collapsed. "I said to myself, 'I must help them,'" recalls Lu. "I asked them to join EKLA, although I didn't know how long I could afford to keep them.
"This turned out to be the best move I ever made," she continues. "They brought such valuable expertise to the company." Indeed, husband Duncan Campbell provided computer and operational experience, while her brother, Eric Lu, became the financial officer. "Duncan has built EKLA Corporation's operational system from scratch," says Lu. "He has modernized the warehouse and established the IT, quality control and inventory management system. He continually improves EKLA's infrastructure, which has paved the way for our future growth.
"Eric was a mechanical engineer, but he loved managing the finances and learned the ropes within a year," she says. "He did a marvelous job of monitoring our cash flow during crunch times. His attention to details regarding accounts receivable, accounts payable and inventory has made EKLA financially sound." Lu's other brother stayed with the company for a short time, and then returned to Taiwan.
Several years later, Lu hired another valuable teammate, Jim Bui, "who supports every aspect of the business, including data management, software programming, customer service and vendor relations," she says. "Our employees (Bui, Becerra, Youngen and Rivera) are the engine of EKLA. Without them, we will not go anywhere."
Most recently, Jeff Prendergast joined the company as a field sales rep, notes Lu. "I first met Jeff on a hospital call," she recalls. "The hospital's purchasing office had moved, and Jeff helped me [locate] it. I've always remembered his kindness." Today, he leads EKLA's sales team. "His knowledge and experience about medical products are impressive, and his selling style is creative. He will be the one to move EKLA to the next level."
Today, EKLA reps continue to call on Midwest customers in the acute care and alternate care markets, and the company reaches out to additional customers in 40 other states. Lu plans to continue to market niche, innovative products "that bring true value and benefit to our customers and their patients," she says.
Meanwhile, she concedes that although starting her own distributorship has been a challenge, it is one she has welcomed. "When I was studying for my MBA, my dream was to own my own business," she says. "I knew I could not be happy working at a 9-to-5 job, where I might watch the clock. Sure enough, not one day has passed where I haven't worked at least 10 or 14 hours. But, I've never had to watch the clock!"