Making a Name
Edition: January 2012 - Vol 20 Number 01
Author: Laura Thill
Doug Overturf has always enjoyed a healthy challenge. From the time he graduated with a business degree from the University of Washington in 1968 and began his first sales job with American Hospital Supply (currently Cardinal Health), he has “loved working with customers.”
His introduction to the healthcare industry, in fact, took place during his college days, he points out. “I was a working student,” he says. “I worked as a hospital orderly and loved [developing] relationships with people.” Part of his work involved assisting physicians during their procedures, during which “I would get to know the surgeons,” he recalls. He was hooked from the start.
“American Hospital Supply was a great place to be,” says Overturf, adding that the company treated its salespeople very well. In time, however, American Hospital Supply switched its focus from introducing innovative products from small manufacturers to selling its private-label products. He realized it was a less than perfect fit and left to join Burgen Brunswig Medical (now Cardinal Health). Once again, he grew restless selling products. He missed representing small, niche manufacturers and the innovative product lines they carried. So, again, he left.
“I loved working with customers and asking myself, ‘What do I need to do to turn this guy around?’” he says. But, that wasn’t enough. His wife, Judee, laid it on him straight. “She told me, ‘You’re not manageable!” he says. That was just the reality check he needed. In 1980, with Judee’s help, he founded CoMedical (Seattle, Wash.). His goal was to distance himself from commodities selling. In fact, “I originally didn’t intend to become a distributor,” he points out. “But, I met someone who was selling sharps containers, and had an opportunity to make some money if I stocked his product. I remember meeting him in his hotel room. He had a model of his sharps container carved in wood!” It turned out the plastic boxes designed to house needles were just the items to jumpstart his new business. The Overturfs rented a classroom in a vacated school building – his first warehouse, he laughs.
“I loved selling this product,” says Overturf. “I was calling on hospitals [and insurance companies] that were using ten-cent boxes for needles, and I came to them with $4 plastic containers. I would call on the risk managers, and I loved the challenge of trying to figure out how to sell them on this product.” Indeed, his hospital background helped him to “immediately recognize the need for this product.” Industry-wide concern over the risk of hepatitis B had left a huge impression on healthcare workers. “A needle stick was a big deal in hospitals,” he recalls.
Since CoMedical opened its doors 30+ years ago, the healthcare industry has changed – but the company’s philosophy has remained the same. “There are definitely more filters now,” says Overturf, alluding to the layers reps must penetrate in order to meet with key decision makers at hospitals. But, he and his team – which includes his son, Griff, and his daughter, Alison, who both now run the day-to-day business – continue to focus on relationships. Relationships are the basis for selling products, he points out.
So, it’s no surprise that the folks at CoMedical know how to make it past hospital gatekeepers. “Our philosophy – and this dates back to my days at American – is that when you walk through the front door of the hospital, you should know everyone, from central supply to administration,” he says. “Today, hospitals are less willing to do business with people they don’t know or like. We’re not interested in a lot of geography, but we are interested in going deep in the hospitals.”
Today, CoMedical boasts 10 field reps and a territory that includes Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Alaska. It carries a diversified line of products from a broad range of disciplines, including surgery, anesthesia, respiratory therapy, infusion therapy, woman’s health, interventional radiology, dialysis and critical care – a reflection of the company’s growth over the last three decades.
“That first year and a half in business, we existed by selling whatever product I could get my hands on,” Overturf admits. At the time, his children were young and he was wary of taking risks, he recalls. In fact, perhaps his greatest lesson learned was getting involved early on with a company that produced a low-pressure volumetric controller for IVs. “It was a new technology at the time,” he says. “I borrowed $1,500 against my house – a risk I wouldn’t take again.
“But, I learned from my experience selling the plastic sharps containers that there are small manufacturers out there looking for distributors to sell their products,” he continues. “Another fun product we have carried is a central venous catheter used to administer chemotherapy drugs, which need to be injected into high levels of blood. This has been our life. We deal primarily with small, single-product manufacturers. They want to bring their product to market, and we work to give it life.”
Today, distributors navigating the healthcare industry must be savvier and more creative than in years past, Overturf points out. For one, whereas “all of the products we used to sell were American-made, today the industry is truly global,” he says. “Today, too, hospitals face more challenging problems (e.g., with regard to economic constraints and patient care) and need distributors to bring more creative solutions. Distributors can have a significant impact on patient care and lowering hospital costs.”
A look at the big guys
Overturf is pleased about the way he’s run his business. In fact there are two things he would never change: the company philosophy and its approach to the marketplace. “I’ve always thought we had a sound and good business model,” he says. But, when it comes to hiring – and firing – he wonders if he could have done a better, if not different, job. “When you are a small company, you must look at the big guys,” he says. “There are a lot of things they do right,” he points out, and hiring is one of them.
“It took me a long time to learn to hire well,” he says. “I would have let certain employees go sooner. Running a small business, it’s easy to become personally involved with your employees and hold on to them in spite of poor performance. I have read, ‘You are better off leaving a territory open than filling it with a bad sales rep.’
“We manage our people much more closely now,” he continues. “We work with them and show them how to improve their performance and increase their sales. We work hard to make our salespeople more comfortable [in the field]. We also have become more sophisticated and now provide all of our employees with laptops, an interactive software system for our salespeople, and cell phones.” While this may seem like par for the course to many reps, it’s a far cry from the pager Overturf once had that buzzed to let him know to call in to the office.
“I don’t think most people realize how much work it is to start – and run – your own business,” says Overturf. The first five or six years demand a lot of time and patience, he notes. “There’s no such thing as a vacation. You must work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You have time for your family and your business, and nothing else.
“We work with entrepreneurs and must think like one,” he says. Especially given the constant influx of new products and technologies being introduced to the market, “our life changes all the time. Our vendors need sales, and they need to see them now.” And CoMedical will deliver for many years to come.