The Test of Time

Edition: April 2014 - Vol 22 Number 04
Article#: 4474
Author: Laura Thill

After 42 years, selling medical products and “taking care of his customers’ needs” hasn’t gotten old for Steve Keipper. “Helping people solve problems and do things better – that is what’s gotten me out of bed every morning,” says the McKesson Medical-Surgical sales rep. “There’s not another industry quite so diverse as the medical products industry. I’ve always enjoyed what I do.” As the industry has consolidated, “eight business cards later, I’m still calling on the same customers – and many, many more,” he adds.

And yet so much has changed, he continues. Reps used to be trained to “provide service and take care of problems” – literally, Keipper recalls. “From the beginning, we were trained to fix tables and change the stylus on an EKG,” he explains. “We delivered tables off the truck and hung blood pressure monitors on the wall. This was expected of us. We were there to provide service and take care of problems.” And while sales reps continue to be taught to provide excellent service for their customers, today’s high-tech devices simply can’t be “taken apart and fixed” as they once could, he notes.

It’s little surprise Keipper developed such enthusiasm for – and devotion to – his career in medical products sales. He evolved in the shadow of “industry forerunners and forward-thinkers who knew how to train reps,” he says, while tipping his hat to the late George Blowers (Welch Allyn), who offered training seminars at Camp Sagamore in the Andirondack Mountains of New York State. “Sales reps would attend these seminars for two weeks,” he says. “We had to sign up well in advance to get a reservation. George would have manufacturers come in and teach us how to use the equipment.”

One step at a time

After graduating with a marketing/advertising degree from Purdue University in 1971, Keipper began his career with Shell Oil. A year later, he moved with his wife, Patsy, to Grand Rapids, Mich. and joined The Kendall Company. “I sold disposable O.R. draping products to surgeons,” he says. “I remember showing them how to drape with this new synthetic spun, woven material. Until then, doctors had been using a heavy muslin material. This was a whole new technique.”

In 1974, Keipper transitioned from manufacturer rep to distributor rep, and worked for White and White Medical Supplies for the next 18 years. Again, there was a strong emphasis on training, he recalls. “We had a sales meeting the third Friday of every month, and manufacturer reps would come in and train us,” he says.

White and White was eventually acquired by Stuart Medical and in 1992, “14 [of us] sales reps from White and White/Stuart went to work for Colonial Hospital Supply,” says Keipper. Within two years, Colonial was sold to Bergen Brunswig, which in turn was sold to Allegiance Hospital Supply, later acquired by Cardinal Health. It wasn’t until 2010 that Keipper decided it was time to make a change. However, his customers were not so quick to let him go. “In 2010, I joined PSS,” he says. “Literally hundreds of my customers came with me.” He was thrilled to have their support, he adds. However, “they all had different computers, different inventory systems and different SKU numbers!”

A new age

Longtime sales reps such as Keipper have “seen it all” when it comes to the evolution – and explosion – of medical device and office technology. “In the early days, we would carry a huge binder around like a bible,” he says. “We would flip through huge green bar printouts to look up an item and its price.

But that all changed. “We began to punch our orders (a five- or six-number catalog order and the quantity) into a telephone system. We used a high tech model 745 Silent 700 by Texas Instruments. This was considered a world-class computerized wiz bang gadget of the day in 1978! We would connect the phone to the machine, and it would make little giggle sounds, like a fax machine does today. We would take the 700 to Meijer Thrifty Acres grocery stores over the noon hour. We used the pay phones there because the phone cord was long enough to reach the 700 sitting in the grocery cart. It would transmit our orders and print them on a roll of thermal paper, forward and backwards, at the lightning fast rate of 30 characters per second. This was the absolute highest form of communication on the planet, and everyone I showed this thing to thought I was Bill Gates!”

Sure, compared to the Bell 43 transmitters that hospitals were using, Keipper’s TI was “slim,” he says. But laptop computers were just around the corner and it would be a while before sales reps adapted to them. “When laptops and email first came out, we didn’t know what to do with them,” he says. “We affectionately called them our little blue night lights.” That’s not to say they weren’t on board with new technology.

“We weren’t just learning this from the younger reps,” he says. “We were leading. When I was in my 40s, I returned to school at our local college and took classes in Excel.” And, he and his contemporaries have been on board with smartphones and tablets from the get-go, he says. “Today, you are shut down without them. They have made our days faster; we can accomplish so much more now.”

It’s been no different in the field, he continues. “I have always looked for the new products and technologies,” says Keipper. “I’ve always been interested in the new diagnostic tools – new testing, devices and instruments – that can help physicians and nursing staff do their job better. This has always kept me interested in medical products sales.”

Find the answers

There’s no doubt the rapid advances in medical technology have kept sales reps like Keipper on their toes. The industry has become increasingly more complicated, he says. This is particularly apparent to him when he mentors new sales reps. “I tell new reps they need to be organized,” he says. “They need to establish a library of products and technology and know where to find the answers. And they shouldn’t be in a hurry. There are over 100,000 products and they keep changing. I tell new sales reps, ‘You need to get to know the top 30 manufacturers – and their products – inside and out.’ That said, in the beginning, you can’t possibly know all the answers to your customers’ questions. It can take between three to five years for a new sales rep to sort it all out.

“However, if they do not know the answer to a customer’s request, reps need to find that answer and get back to their customer promptly,” he continues. “This industry is based on sales and service. Reps need to keep coming back to their customers.”

Sales reps must also know when to step away and take time for their families, he points out. “I have always had an office at home, and I’ve had to know when to shut that door and take some family time,” he says. “Family must always come first.” For Keipper, that means helping his wife, Patsy, raise their two sons, Eric and Troy, including cheering them on through years of travel hockey, soccer games and golf tournaments. Today, his family has grown to include two daughters-in-law and twin 8-year-old grandsons who continue the family ice hockey tradition.

Retirement is not in Keipper’s vocabulary – at least not yet. “George Burns said it best,” he jokes. “‘Retire to what?’ I like what I do too much to retire any time soon. I would miss helping my customers solve their problems and select the right instrumentation. And I would miss the relationships I have built, both with my customers and my fellow sales reps. These are relationships that have withstood the test of time.”