An American Sales Story

Leo, Kevin and Jeff Gray: Three generations of salesmen

Salespeople in the medical business are in it for the same reason supply chain executives are – they like the idea of serving people, particularly those in need of healthcare. They like the mission aspect of what they do.

Sometimes it’s generational. As it is with the Gray family – Leo, Kevin and Jeff.

Leo Gray was one of the first salespeople for Merck Sharp & Dohme (now Merck) in the state of California. He was with the company 35 years before he retired in 1987.

His son, Kevin, who today is vice president of supplier relations for Premier health alliance, was a salesman for American Hospital Supply (now Cardinal Health), perhaps the preeminent selling organization of its day, prior to joining the GPO.

And Kevin’s son, Jeff, today has his father’s territory in northern California, selling custom packs for Cardinal Health’s Presource® Products and Services.

A road trip with Dad
“I came from a family of five,” says Kevin Gray. “If there was any trouble at home, you took a road trip with Dad.” Back in the 1950s, those road trips could be lengthy. California was a pretty rural state, he says.

Leo Gray’s clients were varied – doctors’ offices, hospitals, drug stores, even veterinary clinics. “In those days, businesses were small and different; everything was local.” Instead of calling on national chains like Walgreens or CVS, Leo Gray was calling on the local Rexall store. “He had great relationships everywhere he went. You’d go to the pharmacies; they’d all have a soda fountain, and somebody would always offer you a soda. It wasn’t too rough traveling with Dad.”
Free sodas aside, young Gray found certain aspects of his father’s job appealing. “He had a lot of freedom,” he says. Yes, the hours were long, but the job seemed to offer a lot of diversity. “He wore a different hat every hour of the day.” And it was fairly cool that his father’s office was in the family’s house in Sacramento. That’s something that none of the other kids in the neighborhood could say.

“I knew from a pretty young age that I would be in sales,” says Gray. But the path was not altogether straight. An athlete from way back, he played rugby at San Diego State. “I used to think how great it would be to be a [physical education] teacher,” he recalls. He liked the fact that they weren’t sitting in a classroom all day, but instead, might be outside.

While attending San Diego State, he worked as a teacher’s aide in a local high school, and he spoke to the principal and vice principal about his aspirations. Rather than encourage him, they talked him out of teaching. “They told me, ‘There’s no money here; you’ll starve. You like life too much.’” So, when he graduated, he pursued medical sales.

For two years, he sold pharmaceuticals for then-family-owned Allergan, an Orange County-based manufacturer of ophthalmic and dermatologic pharmaceuticals. Though he was happy to be in healthcare and interacting with doctors, he didn’t care for pharmaceutical sales. “There’s no closure to the sale,” he says. The sales rep promotes the drug, but it’s up to the doctor to prescribe it to patients. After two years, he knew he’d had enough. “I started thinking about doing anything but sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for him to go out the back door instead of the front.”

At a San Diego State alumni event, he ran into his old rugby coach, Bob Watkins, who was a recruiter for American Hospital Supply. American had a unique hiring process. “If you were married, they took you and your wife to dinner to see how you handled yourself,” he says. And the ultimate question that American’s managers would ask themselves about a potential hire was this: Is this somebody you would invite to your house for dinner? “That was the deciding factor in the whole process, after going through the interviews.” Gray passed the litmus test.

On to Coeur d’Alene
So in 1976, literally weeks after newlywed Gray moved from San Francisco to Sacramento, he got his territory – Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and parts of North Dakota and South Dakota. His new home: Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “My wife’s family was not real excited about me taking her from California – she is a third-generation Californian – to some foreign country, which is what they considered Idaho.”
But he made the most of it. “It was a great experience. I worked hard.” Eighteen months later, he was transferred to northern California, to cover San Francisco and surrounding areas.

To say he had a rich and varied career at American (which became Baxter in 1985, then Allegiance in 1996, and finally Cardinal Health in 1999) is an understatement. He started with Convertors, selling disposable drapes, gowns and surgical apparel. Then he sold surgical products. Later, he was among Baxter’s first kit salesmen in the country, and helped launch the company’s Custom Sterile business. Then he went into corporate accounts management, which was Baxter’s – and then Allegiance’s – attempt to corral the big company’s vast resources for large hospital and multihospital-system accounts.

He stayed in that position until 1998, then returned to his roots in the surgical business, becoming a cost management consultant for Allegiance’s Procedure-Based Delivery System. PBDS packaged in a single container much of what the OR would need for the entire episode of care for a surgical patient – pre-op, intraoperative and post-op. His job was to sell the concept, help the customer conduct financial due diligence, and then aid with implementation. His territory – northern California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.

In 2003, Gray got a call from a fellow ex-American employee about an opportunity with Premier, which was engaged in making a transition from group purchasing to performance improvement. “I never thought I’d work for a GPO,” he says. But he was impressed with the organization and with the opportunity to serve as a regional vice president, managing people rather than projects. He took the job, and one year later, he assumed the position in supplier relations.

Next generation
The Grays have three sons. The oldest is Kyle, who is in the energy efficiency business; and the youngest is Gavin, who is involved in commercial real estate. It is their middle son – Jeff – who made a decision to get into medical sales. Today, he has the same territory as his father, selling for the same company his father sold for prior to leaving distribution – Cardinal Health. But he got there only after experimenting with a career in California’s wine country.

As a kid, Jeff didn’t really understand his father’s job, though he could see it was difficult and had its share of stress. “He worked late, he worked hard,” he recalls. In the pre-e-mail days, the only way to communicate was via the phone, which meant his father spent many hours catching up on phone calls. And there weren’t any cell phones either. “At Christmas, we’d go skiing in Tahoe,” recalls Jeff. “He’d have to go all the way over to the lodge, and he’d be on the phone till lunch.”

Gray began working in wineries while studying wine and viticulture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He even interviewed with E. & J. Gallo Winery and considered a career there.

“That’s where the fork in the road was,” he says. “I wasn’t really in love with the whole wine industry. It doesn’t suit my personality. Medical sales is cut and dried: ‘Here’s your solution, here’s what we can do for you.’ Wine is subjective.” That’s not to say that he didn’t – or doesn’t – enjoy a good glass of wine now and again. But not as a career.

So he became a recruiter for Maxim Healthcare Services, a medical staffing company. His job was to call hospitals to find out their nursing needs for the day, then fill the slots with professionals with whom Maxim had agreements.

“It was a good testing ground to develop my communication skills,” he says, though the hours were long and irregular, given the need to catch nursing supervisors before shift changes. About 14 months later, he became an accounts manager in the Santa Rosa, Calif., office, selling Maxim’s services to hospitals.
In February 2007, he made the switch to Cardinal Health’s Presource Products and Services, selling custom packs to the OR, cath lab, radiology, labor and delivery, and other departments as needed. As with Maxim, the service Gray sells is mission-critical, and he likes it that way. But Presource is a more complicated sale than Maxim’s, with a longer sales cycle. That’s also to his liking.

Every so often he does call on one of his father’s customers. “Some of them, when I see them, will say, ‘You’re Kevin Gray’s son,’” he says. “But it kind of ages them, so they don’t necessarily like to bring it up.” And since joining Cardinal, Gray has found that while the association with his father might open some doors, only his hard work and superior service will keep them open.

When father and son get together, perhaps over a game of golf, there’s little talk about business. For one thing, as vice president of supplier relations, Kevin Gray is careful not to overstep bounds. But just as important, keeping work out of the conversation makes for a more easy-going round of golf.