RepCorner: J.R. Barnes, A State of Mind

Edition: March 2013 - Vol 21 Number 03
Article#: 4211
Author: Laura Thill

A lot can change in 40 years. But, for Cardinal Health sales rep J.R. Barnes, long-term success and happiness have depended largely on one thing: attitude. “Enthusiasm is a state of mind,” he points out. “Each morning, we all have a decision to make: Will this be a good day or a bad day?” For the past 40 years, Barnes has chosen to make it a good one. “That’s not to say we don’t all have bad days,” he says. “But, if you have a good attitude about yourself, your company, your product and your customers – well, that goes a long way.” As does a smile, he adds. “Smiling is contagious!” And few would dispute the value of leaving customers with a smile on their face.

Indeed, throughout his career, Barnes has worked hard to build relationships and make his customers happy. And, as one might imagine, he’s also focused on keeping abreast of multiple changes in the industry, from evolving trends and customer expectations to constant enhancements in technology.

Jumping in

Medical products have been a part of Barnes’ life from the time he was in high school. In 1969, his uncle, Bob Barnes, a branch manager for Birmingham, Ala.-based Durr (later Durr Fillauer, then Durr Medical, then Bergen Medical, then Allegiance Healthcare, now Cardinal Health), secured Barnes a part-time job in the company’s warehouse. “At that time, I was very young and had no idea what I wanted to do,” he admits. But, he knew one thing: “I was always a people person,” he says. So it figures that working in sales was his destiny. Following a year of college, he joined the National Guard for about six months. Afterward, he returned to Durr, where he worked his way through the warehouse and customer service, eventually becoming a top Durr sales representative for six years in a row.

When sales rep Buddy Dortch became a branch manager, “I inherited his territory,” Barnes recalls. Back then, there was less sales training, he points out. “We would wait for a territory to open up and then we just jumped right in.” Still, he couldn’t have gotten off to such a strong start without Dortch’s mentorship, he notes. “I had already learned the products from working in the warehouse and customer service department. But, Buddy helped me learn the ropes,” he adds, referring to the ins and outs of reaching out to – and working with – customers. Whereas today sales reps are trained in sales technique, “back then, we didn’t learn this until after we got into the field.”

In some ways, being a sales rep in the 1970s was simpler than it is today, Barnes points out. In some ways, it was more challenging. For one, there was less competition with regard to holding on to one’s customers. “If you had the relationships, you didn’t have to worry about someone coming in and stealing your business by cutting the price by a nickel,” he says. That said, one of his first lessons was that sales is not an 8-to-5 job. “It wasn’t unusual for sales reps to put in 18-hour days. Without computers, we might spend three or four hours alone writing up an order for a larger hospital.”

Indeed, computers and other technology – and the speed and convenience they came to offer – have been just one change Barnes has witnessed over the years. With the growth in GPOs, the nature of customer relationships has evolved, he points out. And, reimbursement has also been a major pressure point, particularly in the last 25 years, he notes. “Everyone [from distributors to physicians] has had to tighten their belt and look for ways to cut costs, so it has not been easy to keep patient care primary. I have seen physician practices that haven’t been able to cope with this and have gone under.” Which is why sales reps must continue to help physician customers maintain their profitability while providing excellent patient care, he adds.

While Barnes has a lot of respect for constantly changing technology and its impact on the industry, he admits it’s taken some diligence on his part to stay on top of it all. “It hasn’t been easy!” he says. “When I began, we used green-bar paper. Then fax machines and Bell 43’s and portable phones came out. The technology has continued to change steadily over the years, but especially in the last 10 or 15 years, it has blown up. Today, so much more is done [via] the Internet.”

So, while it has been a lot to learn, it has made reps’ jobs easier. “Without all of this technology, we’d be working 26-hour days!” he says. “My largest customer averages 30 P.O.’s each day.” This alone could consume much of one’s day, he points out. Computers have also made it so much easier for reps to track their customers’ orders and fill their needs, he adds. “And, like everything else, once you learn how to use new technology, it becomes second nature.”

Change is constant

In the course of 40 years, Barnes has seen quite a few customers. “My territory has changed dramatically over the years,” he points out, noting that this has contributed to an often-changing customer base. “In 1973, with my first territory, I called on both hospital and physician customers. Since then, we’ve had territory alignments and adjustments.” Indeed, at one point he sold products to all markets, including long-term care. When Bergen was acquired by Allegiance, he began selling solely to hospitals. Later, he was asked to sell exclusively to physicians. Today, he continues to work with physicians, and also services a long-term-care facility.

Still, he has managed to build many long-term relationships, from hospital administrators and nurses and physicians to distributor reps and manufacturer partners. Indeed, maintaining friendships with vendor reps has been invaluable, he notes. “It’s important for distributor sales reps to recognize the role of the manufacturer rep and develop that relationship. We can both help each other.”

Thirty or 40 years ago, people tended to stick with the same job or career throughout their lifetime, whereas today it’s more common for people to change jobs, says Barnes. With so many sales reps coming and going, it can be more challenging to build these relationships. But, reps should never underestimate the value of these friendships, he notes. New reps have the technology know-how, while more seasoned reps can offer product and sales experience. “It’s absolutely a two-way street,” he says – one he has no immediate plans to veer from.

“My motivation has always been to make each day a good one [by] helping my customers,” he says. And although he has not worked so long and hard in this industry for personal gain, receiving the Repertoire/HIDA Excellence in Sales Award in 2003 made him realize how nice it is to have one’s efforts recognized. It makes it all that much more worthwhile to continue doing one’s job to the best of one’s ability, he explains. (Visit to see the October 2003 article about Barnes receiving the fourth annual Repertoire/HIDA Excellence in Sales Award.)

Yet, if there is bit of advice Barnes can pass along to newcomers to medical products sales, it’s this: “Make time for your family and your faith.” As important as it is to work hard and make your customers happy, nothing can undermine the value of family.