Yates Farris: Relationship-builder
His mentor, Bill Jetton, couldn’t do enough for customers
Want to know how to spot Yates Farris in a room?
“Look for the guy who people are gravitating to,” says Dick Moorman, vice president sales, Midmark Corp. “It would be a pretty good chance that would be Yates Farris. Yates is always about you…not about him. It is what endears you to him. He is not fake about his interest in others. He is real, and he really cares. You can feel it when you talk with him. He is the real deal.”
“Yates is someone you really can’t forget,” says Dave Myers, executive vice president, Seneca Medical, Tiffin, Ohio. “First, how many people do you get to meet with a name like ‘Yates?’ Second, Yates has an ability to immediately make you feel comfortable and important to him. He has an amazing smile, a positive attitude, and pays close attention to you during a conversation. Third, he’ll be the guy with a group of people around him.”
Yates Farris, vice president, primary care markets, was recently inducted into the Medical Distribution Hall of Fame – along with IMCO CEO Bill McLaughlin – by Repertoire magazine, sister publication to the Journal of Healthcare Contracting.
Farris was born in Charlotte, N.C., and reared in nearby Bessemer City, N.C. Come draft age, Farris intended to pursue air traffic control and warning. But he was colorblind, so he became a medic instead. In the Air Force, being a medic was more like being an LPN, he explains. “We did everything – worked in the emergency room, sutured, treated lacerations, casting.” Stationed in Turkey, he worked in a 40-bed hospital that supported missile sites near the Soviet border.
After his discharge in 1963, Farris became a sales trainee for NCR Corp. in Charlotte, but he soon discovered that corporate life wasn’t for him. An Air Force buddy had gotten a job at Winchester Surgical Supply, a Charlotte-based med/surg distributor. In February 1964, Farris joined the company.
For a couple of years, he unloaded trucks and picked orders for Winchester. Occasionally, he joined other team members at office setups. He started in the field in 1966 and stayed there for 17 years. In 1983, he became sales manager/vice president, and he remained in that role until Winchester’s owners sold the company to PSS in 1995.
“Sales was kind of what I always wanted to do,” he says. “Even when I was in the Air Force, I knew that. I don’t even know why. But I remember at the time thinking, ‘If I could become a salesman and make $10,000 a year, I would have arrived.’” The Air Force experience as a medic didn’t hurt the young salesman. “I could talk the language,” he says. “I knew how products were used, because I had used them.”
Farris credits much of his success in sales to an experienced, top-performing Winchester rep named Bill Jetton. A U.S. Marine who had seen action in Iwo Jima, Jetton had gained distinction for reaching a million dollars in sales in an all-physician territory. “We’d meet him at 6 a.m. on Saturday mornings, and he would give us two hours of excellent training,” recalls Farris. “He probably did for more for me as a salesperson than anybody ever had.”
It wasn’t just Jetton’s sales technique, but his discipline and philosophy of taking care of customers, that affected Farris. “His idea of customers was, ‘You can’t do enough for them,’” he says. “He knew more about his customers than anybody else knew about theirs. He knew everything they had in their office, where they kept it, how much they used in a month.”
“Winchester was our biggest distributor,” recalls David Allyn, director, corporate social responsibility and medical schools, Welch Allyn, who went to North Carolina after starting his career with the company. “I have to say, there couldn’t have been a better person for me to get to know than Yates. He took me under his wing; made sure I was doing my job, always testing me, pushing me, making sure I was coming in with an order in hand.”
Farris’ influence on the Winchester team was obvious. “You could feel their camaraderie,” says Allyn. “The friendships were more than business relationships. All the reps – even the new guy in Tennessee or in eastern North Carolina – were connected. Everybody looked to Yates as the trusted one; everyone felt comfortable with him at the helm.” And Farris mentored many top-performing reps, including some who ultimately joined Welch Allyn, PSS and other firms.
In 2012, Farris was awarded the Jana Quinn Inspirational Award by Professional Women in Healthcare. One of the nominations came from Phil Childrey, formerly IMCO’s director of equipment development, who had died in a motorcycle accident shortly before Farris received the award. In his nomination, Childrey recalled that he had run across Farris soon after Childrey started working for Midmark in 1989. “I believe Yates deserves to receive this award because of the many ways that he has helped me when he had nothing to gain by doing so,” he wrote.
“Yates was a great sales manager,” says Moorman. “He held his team accountable, yet they wanted to be held accountable, because they could tell Yates was working in their best interests. That is a unique quality/ability/gift/strength that too few people possess.”
Winchester was an IMCO member, and it was through that relationship that Farris and McLaughlin became friends. In fact, Farris served on the IMCO board of directors. “One thing led to another,” he recalls. “I had agreed to come to work for IMCO even before Winchester was sold.” In fact, he gave Winchester six months’ notice; the company was sold to PSS just a couple of months later.
Making the transition to IMCO in 1995 wasn’t difficult for Farris. In fact, it was a move he had looked forward to for some time. Working for IMCO gave him an opportunity to work on a national scale. “I knew a lot of the people in our membership; I thought it was a different challenge.”
The move didn’t disappoint. “I think of all the opportunities I’ve had to work with the various people throughout the country, that I wouldn’t have had if I had stayed in Charlotte. It’s the people in this industry who make it, and this is a small industry. It’s a thrill. We go through changes; but everybody steps up to the plate.”
The mid-1990s was a crucial time for independents. Consolidation was rampant, and national distributors were gobbling up smaller ones. Farris felt he could make a contribution, helping independents remain viable. And he believed that McLaughlin could lead the charge. “Bill was aggressive, and he had already made huge changes in IMCO,” he says.
Looking to the future
Yates Farris “really understands the value of relationships, and makes sure everybody is taking advantage of that,” says David Allyn, director, corporate social responsibility and medical schools, Welch Allyn. “Independents tend to be smaller, and they have a harder time getting the attention of manufacturers,” he says. “Yates has made sure independents were leveraging their value to the manufacturers.”
“His knowledge of the medical market is second to none, and he has led many meetings and focus groups and has shared his vast knowledge with all,” says Dick Moorman, vice president sales, Midmark Corp. “Yates has shown our industry how you should conduct business and how you should conduct yourself. He would always take the time to listen…I mean really listen, to hear what it was you were trying to say. The ability to listen with an open mind and not immediately challenge what you are saying is something we could all learn from Yates.”
Says Dave Myers, executive vice president, Seneca Medical, “Yates’ greatest strength would be helping others, or their businesses, gain visibility into new or different ideas. He always tries to share what’s working in the industry to address a particular issue or challenge, or help make a connection with someone who can help you.
“As an independent, you have to rely on resources outside of your company, and Yates has been that resource for so many companies, including Seneca Medical.”
Farris looks forward to more years of helping independents remain a strong force in the market. “With hospitals buying physician practices, it’s making the customer base smaller,” he acknowledges. “But change always brings opportunities.”
Independent physician distributors may find the going tough, as they typically have little or no relationship with hospital supply chain executives, he says. “But independents will adapt,” he says. They will do so by communicating to supply chain executives whose hospital has just acquired some physician offices that those offices need different type of services than the acute-care hospital.
“Independents are more flexible [than big nationals],” he says. “They can change their operational routine quicker. They’ll survive. Some are already doing different things, diversifying into other markets. There are opportunities everywhere.
“I feel there’s a great future for independents. They may have a different look over the years, but they’ll make it.”