Lessons Learned

Edition: November 2008 - Vol 16 Number 11
Article#: 3041
Author: Alan Grogan

Editor's Note: Fifty years ago, Lynn Grogan Jr. and his father, Lynn Grogan Sr., left the department store where they worked to start a food distributorship. The business didn't pan out, so they started looking for another business to get into. Without any particular knowledge of the healthcare industry, they bought a small company in Lexington, Ky., that had been selling medical items and vitamins to doctors and chiropractors. They changed its name to Grogan's Healthcare Supply.

"They started the business before the Medicare program existed and just before the age of disposables," says Alan Grogan, Lynn Jr.'s son and owner of Grogan's. "There was never any grand vision about demographics or Baby Boomers. It just seemed like a good business to be in at the time." And so it was. The business grew, and the Grogans moved the shop several times to accommodate its growth.

Lynn Sr. died in 1972, but Lynn Jr. continued to run the business until he retired in 1989. "My father's approach to selling was pretty simple," says Alan Grogan, who began working in the warehouse during summers in 1968. "Establish trust. Never take advantage of that trust. Do what you say you are going to do. Show the same respect to the stockroom guy or the receptionist as you do the CEO. And the rest is easy."

Lynn Grogan Jr. died May 23, 2008. Alan wrote the following essay, which he titled "Lessons Learned," shortly afterward.

Many people who know our company has been around for a while assume I started the business. When I correct that impression by relating that my grandfather and father actually founded the company almost 50 years ago, their responses range from pleasant nostalgia for the dying breed of family enterprise to something approaching wonderment at such a primitive business model.

The recent passing of my father, Lynn Grogan, at age 81 of colon cancer (his last great advice should have been "Get that colonoscopy!", but wasn't because he never belabored the obvious), brings reflection on many parts of his life, his business, his motivations, and the lessons I learned working with him.

When my grandfather and father started in 1960, they had bought a very small company that had been selling medical items (including vitamins) to chiropractors and physicians or anybody else needing what they happened to sell. Coming from the department store business, neither of them had much of a clue about medical products, but they were ready to learn, along with their two other employees. At the time, they didn't realize that the 1960s would give birth to the healthcare product boom, with the introduction of disposables and the launch of Medicare.

From the beginning, my grandfather was the business manager and my father was the sales force. To his retirement in 1989, my father's interest remained there, with the people and the products - not the technology, the system or the ledgers. He hit the road in the early years, calling on many of central and eastern Kentucky's hospitals, nursing homes and physicians. Gradually, newly forged friendships, expanding product knowledge, handshake deals, and dependable service earned the new local company a decent share of the business around the state.

Though running the company after his father's death in 1972, my father remained the sales rep for most of the local hospitals until his retirement in 1989. He gradually but gladly turned over many of the management duties to me soon after I graduated from college in 1977. Not always a recipe for success, but it worked out.

My father was generally a man of few words, so it is hard to point to any particular lessons that he overtly tried to teach. Throughout his life, whatever he thought worthy of teaching was related primarily by example.

Before the age of 30, he lost most use of his left arm due to a spinal infection caused by an abscessed tooth. He had to give up golf and took up tennis. To continue fishing, he rigged up a leather gadget to enable him to crank the reel with his bad arm. Most people he worked with never even noticed what today would be seen as a serious disability. Growing up, I never thought much about his limitations, as he always seemed to manage without complaint.

As with many of his generation who started businesses, the goal was not to build an empire, massage the ego, and certainly not to get rich. The goal was to provide reasonably well for a family, then and for the future, and to provide an opportunity for other families as well, while operating what is still a somewhat simple business in the right way. Old-fashioned maybe, but not a bad lesson to learn.