Tony Vernola: Taking the Plunge

Edition: September 2012 - Vol 20 Number 09
Article#: 4071
Author: Laura Thill

Tony Vernola’s not afraid to dive in over his head. Whether he’s managing medical products sales or exploring historical shipwrecks, the Henry Schein Medical regional sales manager is confident that his acute awareness of his surroundings will see him through. For years, he has indulged his passion for deep sea diving – an experience that has made him a better salesperson and a better manager, he points out.

From TV to reality

Growing up, as a special treat, Vernola and his brother would get to stay up late to watch one of their favorite programs. “My dad would allow my brother, Nick, and me to stay up late to watch a program called Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges as Mike Nelson, a SCUBA Adventurer,” he recalls. “My fascination [with deep sea diving] began then.” Several years later, while a member of the Brooklyn, N.Y. Flatbush Boys Club, where he would go to swim, 15-year-old Vernola took note of a sign posted stating that a local scuba instructor was bringing his equipment to the pool. It was an opportunity for him and the other young boys to try SCUBA. “I signed on immediately,” he says.

“I remember putting on the gear and going under water,” says Vernola. “It felt like slow motion, waiting to take that first breath. You are underwater and inhale. Like magic, instead of getting a mouthful of water, you get air. Then still in slow motion, you exhale and take another breath of more air. All of a sudden, you realize that you are actually breathing underwater. You never forget your first breath underwater.” Today, an advanced diver and PADI-certified instructor (Professional Association of Dive Instructors), Vernola tells his students, “You are about to do something that will stamp this moment in your memory forever.”

Still, not many take their first impression of scuba diving to the same level as Vernola. Indeed, becoming a PADI-certified instructor is a rigorous process, he explains. “The entry level to scuba diving, [referred to as] open water diver, is a simple and enjoyable process,” he says. “To progress to an advanced diver level, you must complete five additional adventure diving courses, such as deep diving and underwater navigation. As you progress to more advanced types of diving, you learn more about different types of dive gear and different mixes of the gas that you breathe. The main risk is decompression sickness, which is easily avoided by following some basic principles and maintaining awareness. You also need to constantly update your knowledge base, just as in sales.”

Becoming certified as an open water diving instructor is yet another challenge, says Vernola, who is on call to teach at two dive centers in Long Island, N.Y. First, one must align with a certifying agency, he explains, noting that his affiliate, the Professional Association of Dive Instructors, is the largest certifying agency in the world. “The process of becoming an instructor is quite rigorous,” he points out. “I have often said it was the most difficult thing I ever accomplished. You need a working knowledge of physics and gas laws, physiology and the effects of pressure on the human body, [as well as] all of the PADI standards that apply to safe diving. You are also required to demonstrate the ability to teach, from beginners to dive-master-level divers. The process took me over six months to prepare for.”

The final exam, administered by the highest level of PADI examiners over a period of two days, involves a written and practical portion. Test takers must demonstrate their teaching skills, personal diving skills and rescue abilities – both in a pool and in open water. “I enjoy introducing this wonderful sport to new folks that are interested, including many youngsters,” he says. “As an instructor, you are always guiding newer divers on every dive. A rep on my team, Abe Lobel, just signed on to be certified after listening to some of my stories.”

While it’s common to have nervous students, Vernola has yet to have one panic or put themselves – or him – in danger. “The reason is simple,” he says. “The PADI training system is amazing. When followed, [it ensures we] avoid these types of situations. Every basic skill review begins in the pool or in confined water, shallow enough to stand in. An example would be regulator and mask removal, and recovery underwater. Once confident, the student moves to deeper water in the pool, and ultimately the skill reviewed in Open Water. When given the confidence to deal with these remote possibilities, should the need arise, [one’s] skill kicks in.” In this way, students avoid panicky situations, which are dangerous for everyone, he points out.

Deep sea diving can be a wondrous experience, notes Vernola, who dives in the Caribbean at least once a year, including cave diving, and off the coast of Long Island from May through November. “Long Island is surrounded by many historical shipwrecks,” he says. There are cruise ships, like the Andrea Doria, and even U-boats from World War II. While I have not been on these, I have been on such wrecks as the San Diego, a U.S. warship sunk by a German mine during the First World War. It contains artifacts, such as rifles and ammunition, utensils, etc. I have also been on many merchant wrecks that were sunk in the 1800s.

“Recently, I completed a trip to Truk (Chuuk) in the Federated States of Micronesia (South Pacific),” he continues. “I explored the remains of a Japanese fleet sunk during World War II by the U.S. Navy in Operation Hailstorm, in Truk Lagoon, in up to 230 feet of water. I was with 12 other divers, and we spent eight days living aboard a ship, penetrating wrecks and viewing artifacts, from tanks and airplanes to rooms full of china and bottles.” They also saw human remains. “Everything is treated with the respect and dignity. I was moved by the horrors of war. You need to remember that people lost their lives. At the time of the war, they were the enemy. But in reality, they were someone’s son, brother or father.”

Planning for success

Scuba diving and working in sales are more similar than one might imagine, says Vernola. “There is a saying in scuba,” he says. “Plan your dive, dive your plan. Planning is essential to a successful dive, just like a sales call.

“In teaching and managing scuba students, we are cognizant of the value of proper preparation to deal with any given scenario, which is exactly what we face each day as sales professionals,” he continues. “In scuba, our physical life depends on this. In sales, our livelihood depends on this. We must mentally rehearse all scenarios and be prepared to deal with them effectively, before they happen. We also need to maintain our professional knowledge. A constant awareness of what is going on all around us is also vitally important.”

Vernola drives home this point in a note he sent to his team before a recent diving trip: “When I first started to learn about diving, my instructor said that he would approach me under water and, using appropriate hand signals, ask, ‘Within 300 PSI, how much air do you have in your tank?’ He followed up by telling me that if I had to look at the gauge attached to my tank, it was too late.

“You may wonder how you would know without looking at a gauge,” his note continues. “In real life, in your craft or profession, you need to develop a sense of what is happening around you at all times. In diving, you know how much air you start out with, how deep you have been diving and for how long. With this sense of what is happening around you, you should know where you stand at all times. Your gauge is there to confirm when you need it. Sales is no different. You usually learn about lost accounts by reading a morning report. You walk into a long time customer that buys a major piece of equipment from someone else, and he tells you, ‘I did not know that you sell that item.’

“Guess what? You ran out of air, because you waited to read it on your gauge. Don’t let this happen. Develop your sense and senses. Know what is happening with your customers, your partners, your territory and most of all, your family, at all times. That is the air in your tank. It will never run out if you pay attention.”

Joining Team Schein

Before he joined the Schein family, Vernola and his brothers, Nick and Mike, were longtime owners of Ocean Medical Supply, a Long Island-based distributorship started in 1986. “In 2008, after 22 years in business, in order to remain relevant to the market that we serve, we decided to join Henry Schein Inc. Many of our independent physician customers had begun the process of aligning with IDNs in our area, making it increasingly more difficult to sustain the relationships. We had known and respected Schein for many years and like Ocean Medical, Henry Schein headquarters was on Long Island, so it was a good fit.”

What Vernola likes most about working with Henry Schein is the culture. “Everyone that I deal with shares a vision to bring a successful outcome to all that we serve,” he points out. “Henry Schein is focused on giving back to the community. I am in the fortunate position to put this at the forefront of what I do daily. In particular, I am dedicated to bringing services to our growing network of community health centers and the underserved population. I have behind me a dedicated team of experts to address any possible need.”