Tom Axelsen: A force of nature
Edition: April 2014 - Vol 22 Number 04
Was Tom Axelsen a “force of nature,” as someone called him? Well, he was a large man – the far side of 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. But he wasn’t overwhelming from that perspective. And it is true that he was a man of the outdoors who, with his wife, Patty, loved hiking, biking, chopping wood, fishing and ocean kayaking. (He had seven kayaks).
But perhaps the most significant force of all was a much quieter one – his presence. “He just had a way about him,” says Dick Grass, account manager, McKesson Medical-Surgical. “When he listened to you, he would make you feel like he wanted to hear what you had to say.”
Axelsen, who called on physicians for McKesson Medical-Surgical in Maine and New Hampshire for 37 years, died suddenly and unexpectedly from an infection on Dec. 28, at the age of 60.
“It’s hard to put into words,” says Kathy Cabana, RN, vaccine and medical supply specialist, InterMed, a large, multispecialty physician practice in Portland, Maine, who worked with Axelsen since joining InterMed 25 years ago. “Not everyone, even with years of experience, can be that person you love to see come through the door. He was just such a presence. [When questions or problems arose], it was always, ‘Check with Tom, Tom will know.’ There was never any doubt Tom would do the right thing by you, and that he knew what he was doing. You would enjoy working through anything with him.”
“I liked him immediately, because he made me feel welcome,” says Sue Mercier, sales support manager, McKesson Medical-Surgical, who first met Axelsen when she started working for Atlantic Healthcare Products (later acquired by McKesson) in 1994. “It can be intimidating when you start a new job, but I never felt that way around Tom. He was tall with an easy manner; low key. He wouldn’t be the loud person in the room, but everyone at his table would be laughing. Once you met him, though, you would want to sit and talk with him. He was funny, but in a subtle way. He also had a serious side, and he lit up when he talked about [his wife] Patty and his family, and you knew from his smile how much they meant to him.”
Axelsen grew up in Portland, Maine, and for three years – 1973 to 1976— worked in marine biology. His job, explains his wife, Patty, was diving into Long Island Sound, sampling the water and fish, to monitor effluent from a power plant. One January, he and a couple of buddies – one of whom didn’t work for the company who employed Axelsen – capsized in the Sound, and drifted for three or four hours on top of the boat. “The company changed a few rules after that,” says Patty Axelsen.
At one point, Axelsen’s father, Bob, told his son, “What you’re doing is a young man’s activity. You won’t be able to do that forever.” And he asked Tom if he had ever thought about sales. Bob had good reason to bring up sales, as he was a hospital rep for Maine Surgical Supply (whose name was changed to Atlantic Healthcare Products in the mid-1980s) at the time.
Tom was open to the idea of sales, and Bob convinced the owner – Philip Dana – to let his son join Maine and launch a physician business. “Tom was a quick learner, and he excelled,” says Grass, who was working in purchasing at the company, and who ultimately joined Axelsen in the field. “Together we started a team of salespeople, which grew. Soon under new management, the name was changed to Atlantic Healthcare Products and would grow to 30 salespeople from Maine to Florida.”
“He was the go-to guy,” for coworkers and family members, taking time to master things like the computer, says Patty Axelsen. “He was willing to share his knowledge with others. “He had an incredible work ethic,” she continues. “He responded to customers quickly; he felt it was important not to leave them hanging.
“He wasn’t a high-pressure salesman; he was a low-key, warm guy,” she continues. “People didn’t feel on guard around him. He really took time to ask them how they were, and he was always positive. I’ve gotten so many sympathy cards from his customers. He was the ultimate professional.”
Axelsen was also organized – in his work and personal life. The first time he and Patty went kayak camping, he displayed pictures of the kayak on his computer screen, and drew up and labeled where all their gear would go.
Say little and listen a lot
When McKesson acquired Atlantic, it outfitted Atlantic with many of the technologies it needed to stay competitive, says Grass. “Tom knew this and excelled with computers, and told his counterparts they better get on board to grow as reps. Tom knew you had to be adaptable to the changing marketplace and technologies. He always seemed to be the go-to guy for product information and advice.
“Tom and I became great friends from the get-go,” continues Grass. “I never met anyone who could tell a joke like Tom, and he had a lot of them. Tom was easy to know. He had a way of making you feel special and interesting. I think this was one of the many reasons he was such a successful salesman.”
Axelsen knew another secret to sales success, says Grass: “Say little and listen a lot. Listen to what the customer wants, then try to make it happen.”
He combined that with a strong work ethic and love of what he did. “He was very organized, and would study a product before taking it to the customer,” says Grass. “He loved to show and tell a product, and he carried many with him. He always thought his customers needed a reason to see him, so he would be prepared to show product or give information that was news to them – and maybe a joke or two.”
McKesson account manager John Foster recalls meeting Axelsen when Foster started driving a truck for Maine Surgical Supply in the early 1980s. When Foster became a field rep, management had him ride with Axelsen. “They probably had me work with him because they wanted everyone to be like Tom,” he says.
Axelsen’s strength as a sales rep? “Follow-up,” says Foster. “No one was better. If a customer had a question or wanted information on a new product, Tom would find it that same day. And his customers loved him.”
Axelsen was even-keeled, says Foster. “He never got upset.” And with fellow reps, he was generous. “I can’t tell you how many times I called him with questions” when McKesson shifted to a computer system. “He was a great colleague.”
Loved what he did
“Tom took each day as it came,” says Mercier. He was never rattled. He handled any problem straight on until it was resolved. If you looked in his car as he traveled throughout the day, you saw how being so organized and on top of everything allowed him to excel in his career.
“He was the first to learn about new products, technologies and equipment, so he could be knowledgeable and prepared on his sales calls,” she continues. “His customers loved him, as can be attested by their long-time loyalty over the years. Many physicians, office managers and nurses sought him out when they moved to a new practice or location.”
Axelsen was considered a leader by his peers, continues Mercier. “He was well-respected and had close relationships with his customers as well as the manufacturer reps in his territory.”
If Axelsen had a secret to success, it was this: He liked what he did, and it showed. “He approached selling as offering solutions and value to his customers,” says Mercier. “He listened carefully to his customers to find solutions that met their practices’ needs. Whether he was selling one box of gloves or coordinating a $250,000 new-practice set-up order, he treated all his customers with the utmost professionalism.”
‘A true gentleman’
“Tom was a true gentleman, never pushy, always respectful,” says Cabana. He was able to work easily with the many strong personalities he encountered among his clients.
“He was happy to help us with any ordering question, large or small; would research products for us, and was just always there for us. He was fun to work with, too. Always had a good story to tell about his buddies.
“He just had that innate sense of what was needed,” continues Cabana. “He helped me be better at my job. He liked to teach me the tricks of the online system, and how to use it to its fullest. I think of him so many times now and thank him for his help.”
Axelsen was an invaluable resource in 2008, when InterMed combined several internal medicine, OB/GYN and pediatrics groups – which had been in four separate locations – into a single building in Portland. The practice added an ambulatory surgery unit at the time as well. “Tom was indispensable in the process of obtaining equipment, cabinetry and supplies for four floors of office space,” says Cabana. “He knew his stuff, and he worked really well with the other vendors [such as Welch Allyn and Midmark]. I don’t think it could have happened as smoothly without Tom being the ‘clerk of the works.’”
“I wasn’t with Tom when he was selling, but so many of the cards I got [from customers] said he was such a gentleman,” says Patty Axelsen. “He was an authentic person. He had a warm smile, an air of confidence. But he was non-threatening; it was like having a friend walk in. [His customers] soon learned he was confident but not arrogant, and that they could depend on him. He was just an authentic person, and they could sense that from his smile. He was trying to build a relationship with them, not make a quick sale.”
“Tom was a professional in every sense of the word,” says Mary Grimaldi, clinical assistant, InterMed. “He was not an aggressive person, was always very pleasant and helpful, without any stressors. If he said he would do something, he did it effectively and efficiently. Tom was well-respected by the entire company, very competent in his profession. He was trusted by all who knew him.”
Says Sue Mercier, “We are richer for having someone like Tom in the medical products industry because he cared. He cared about his customers, he cared about what he sold, and he cared about his colleagues.”