Rep Corner: Gary Nance, Still Crazy for sales

Edition: May 2011 - Vol 19 Number 05
Article#: 3721
Author: Laura Thill

Attitude is everything, says Gary Nance. “So, pick a good one!” With 46 years of sales experience in his back pocket, he knows what he’s talking about. So, while 46 years of blood pressure cuffs and ECG monitors may seem like a lifetime to some, the Henry Schein field sales consultant has made his career a colorful and exciting one.

Indeed, his medical products sales career has taken him from the Mexican border to Canada, with a multitude of memories in between. “I have shot pool with Steve Marshall (Cardinal Health) in Alaska and rafted down the Deschutes River with Jeff Rogers (Midmark),” he notes. “Once, in Orlando, I was awakened at midnight by Richard Bernstein, owner of General Medical (now McKesson) to have a manager’s meeting. I have eaten the world’s largest burrito in Tucson with Harry Smith (former regional vice president at General Medical) and lived to tell about it.

“I have worked with some of the finest and most interesting men and women, all of whom have enriched my life,” Nance continues. “Elliot Werber and DeWight Titus have mentored me. And, I suppose I have mentored a few along the way, as well, including Eddie Schnurr, Gore Medical; Mike Radovan, formerly of Thermo Fisher Scientific and now president at Fairway Partners; and Mike Willing, Alere, North America.”

An impatient start

In 1965, Nance was fresh out of school and anxious to start on his career path, he recalls. “I began my career in medical products sales with San Joaquin Surgical, a family-owned distributor in Sacramento,” he says. “I was a pharmaceutical sales rep, known back then as a “detail” man, and a little impatient with my career path. Then I met Emmett Smith, the owner of San Joaquin, who assured me that I would be happy carrying a bag for him. He was so right, and one of the first things I discovered was that I could enter through the back door of physician’s offices when making sales calls … a huge advantage and time saver!”

In time, San Joaquin Surgical was acquired by Scherer Scientific. “The family feel was gone and, most importantly, my customers began groaning about a drop in the service levels,” says Nance. So, in 1973, together with two of his colleagues at Scherer – Mike Kipp and Jay Wright – he left the company and started Sierra Medical Supply. “We acquired the necessary product lines and began an almost heady journey to gain market share,” he recalls. “With the help of some remarkable people, we expanded in the Western states and into the Southwest. Growth was rapid. We had hundreds of employees, but the debt load finally outstripped our resources.” Then, in the early 1980s, Sierra Medical was acquired by F. D. Titus.

The transition did not come easy, he points out. “I recall the usual resistance to change,” he says. “A significant part of my new territory was dominated by Bud Bischoff of Bischoff’s Surgical Supply, who was very well-connected and well-liked in the medical community. I attempted to differentiate my services by talking about new or innovative products and generating what seemed like thousands of pricing proposals.” It called for a delicate price-and-margin balance, he says.

“I was fortunate to receive early sales training from some of the giants in our industry,” Nance continues. “I recall attending the acclaimed rookie sales training in the 1960s offered by George Blowers (Welch Allyn). There I learned the basics of diagnostic instruments, physician lab testing, surgical instruments and general supplies/pharmaceuticals. George Blowers was a former Marine pilot and a taskmaster, so no one ever risked being late or unprepared for his sessions. One morning a rep who was having too much ‘fun’ the night before missed roll call, and Mr. Blowers stopped the session to get the guy out of bed. I eventually established a viable territory by following the basic rules: consistently show up for customers and strive to become a trusted advisor.”

With the help of his grandchildren

For some, adapting to new technology – computers, e-mail and iPhones – can be a challenge. “But with the help of my grandchildren and junior colleagues, like Ryan Hetzel (Henry Schein Medical), I manage pretty well,” says Nance, noting he experiences anxiety when his iPhone isn’t close by.

“Obviously technology has had a major impact on our business, especially at the end-user level,” he continues. “So much instrumentation today wasn’t available five or ten years ago. I see medicine changing from treating illness to maintaining wellness, and gerontology has become a core discipline of healthcare in our rapidly aging population of baby boomers. I recently read an exciting piece that medical researchers are actually growing replacement body parts by using a patient’s own cells, and that it won’t be long before surgeons routinely install replacement body parts.

“Keeping up with the changes is challenging but vital in today’s marketplace,” he says. “I discovered long ago that my manufacturing partners are the best source for learning about new products/services through joint sales calls and webinars. When I started in the business, I didn’t have access to the physician/decision-maker as I do today, because I’m in constant contact via personal e-mails and cell calls. Also, today’s physicians are more business-savvy than their predecessors. Of course, the emergence of group purchasing organizations (GPOs) has also changed the landscape of medical products distribution. My company, Henry Schein, works diligently to provide access to the major contracts and to provide intelligence as to what GPO is a good fit for each practice/specialty.”

A relationship business

Not unlike his counterparts, Nance knows that, above all, successful medical products sales begins with great customer relationships. “With a few exceptions, most of the physicians with whom I established business relationships when I started are now retired,” he says. But, retired or not, his customers have remained an intricate part of his life. “There have been physicians/friends who have been at my wedding and my home,” he points out. “Back in the 1970s, I set up Dr. Bruce Bob in his new OB/GYN practice. Today, he is still going strong and will deliver my first great granddaughter this spring.

“Fortunately, few of my customers have experienced the so-called bad times,” he continues. “I suppose if that ever happens, with the help of my company I will try to offer solutions to deal with the situation. For the last several years I have nurtured a culture of business referrals. That is, I’m constantly asking for referrals from my customers. I’ve found that people like helping other people in business and the vast majority of referrals I get end up as customers. I learned from Scott Fanning (former vice president of sales and marketing for Midmark Corp., and founder of 95% Share Marketing) years ago that we are in a relationship business.”

That said, one never can thank his or her customers enough, says Nance. “It’s hard to compete with the pharmaceutical manufacturers given all the perks they can furnish,” he points out. “I’ve found that simple gestures, from the heart, are the best way to thank customers. Peaches, when in season, work well,” he explains, noting that his sales manager, Bryant Jackson, also enjoys them. “One of my young colleagues recently told me he was taking homemade cookies to his customers. Old school? Yes. Outdated? Absolutely not! I am now embarking on a new way to thank my most valued customers. Recently, I joined the Sutter Club, a venerable Sacramento institution, with the idea that I can thank customers by inviting them to dinners, wine tastings and golf tournaments. Since I don’t play golf, I plan to caddy.”

Nothing else he’d rather be doing

The fact that healthcare has been a dependable industry – one that has provided Nance with a steady income and the means to provide for his large family – has been an incentive for him to continue in the business for so many years. But his motivation stems from that and much more. “My customers are highly educated and great to be around,” he explains. “My colleagues are remarkable people and my manufacturer partners are always there to help me with the challenges of doing business in a competitive market. Every morning I ask myself if there is anything I would rather be doing, and the answer is a resounding ‘NO!’ My strategy is simple: attitude is everything. I also try to remain faithful to an exercise program at the gym, which keeps me positive.”

That said, balancing work with family has always been a challenge for him, particularly since he “loves my family and loves what I’m doing,” he points out. “I have always tried to be available for my family. Raising four sons, something was always afoot! Now that my wife, Missy, and I have eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, we are constantly organizing fun events. Honestly, this is the best time of my life. I believe I finally have gotten the hang of it: Put people first, money second and things last.

“My zone manager, Mike McCarthy, has said at our sales meetings, ‘Gary has probably forgotten more than most have learned.’ I’m not sure this speaks very well about my memory. But, I am sure of this: When you stop learning, you stop. I don’t have many hobbies, except for cooking (which brings people together) and contemporary art, so I plan to keep on learning.

“I think it would be very cool to be a sales rep at age 80,” says Nance. “After that, who knows? The Henry Schein Cares Foundation has been an inspiring model of caring and charity for me. If I ever do retire, I have considered volunteerism as an avocation.”