Manufacturers’ Rep George Soutiere to Retire
Edition: October 2003 - Vol 11 Number 10
You know you must be a hell of a rep when someone asks you, “If you die tonight, can I have your territory?”
Yet someone asked that very question of George Soutiere one night during a HIDA trade show, as Soutiere played a furious game of basketball in a mini-basketball court in a sports bar.
Soutiere is the founder of Med Care Associates, an independent rep firm in Candia, N.H. With five salespeople, Med Care covers New England with a variety of products and has been doing so since Soutiere founded the company in 1978.
This fall, Soutiere planned to retire from the business and turn it over to two of his oldest reps and partners – Paul Balsamo and Jack Moran.
Larger than life (“He took up half that court,” recalls Miles Theeman of Affiliated Material Services in Bangor, Maine, speaking of Soutiere at that basketball game in the sports bar), Soutiere brings to selling a love of people, discipline, steadfastness, an implicit understanding of the needs of the vendor and – as everyone who knows him says – a sense of humor.
“George never has a bad day,” says John Moran, vice president of sales for Welch Allyn (and Jack’s dad). “When you work with him, it’s always fun.” That said, Soutiere should probably never wear shorts, he adds.
Soutiere got his first lessons in sales from his father, who sold stationery supplies to small stationers in New England. “Every school vacation, I was on the road with him,” recalls Soutiere. “He traveled eight or 10 states, made 20 calls a day. A real superstar.”
George and Marilyn Monroe
When Soutiere was a sophomore in high school, his dad moved the family from their home in Western Massachusetts across the state to Cape Cod.
As a high school student and collegian, Soutiere worked at a marina in Hyannis. There, he had the opportunity to service the Honey Fitz, which was the Kennedy family’s boat. He’d occasionally gas it up, clean the bathroom and even sell bait to young John Kennedy (called John John back then).
On the Honey Fitz, Soutiere did indeed catch glimpses of the President and Jackie Kennedy, though never together. He recalls Mrs. Kennedy as being tall and elegant. Soutiere also had the opportunity to see Marilyn Monroe, a close “friend” of the President.
Soon after graduating from college in 1968, Soutiere went to work for Kendall (now Tyco Healthcare), selling urologicals, anti-embolism stockings, packs and gowns and other products to hospitals in Maine and New Hampshire. There he met his first mentor – his boss, Cal Jones. “He taught me the process of situation analysis, something I still use in my business today,” recalls Soutiere.
By “situation analysis,” Soutiere simply means the process of identifying a problem, determining the objective and then devising the measures to solve it. He had plenty of opportunities to use the technique in the early 1970s, as the Kendall reps worked to convert hospitals to its new Kerlix dressing.
“I don’t remember all the categories and steps of situation analysis,” says Soutiere. “But I do it instinctively.”
Soutiere worked for Kendall for four years, and then became a rep for Taylor Instrument (later Tycos, now part of Welch Allyn). He actually was Taylor’s first medical-only rep. Until that time, the company’s reps sold its barometers, thermometers, blood pressure monitors and other products into a variety of markets.
His major project at Taylor was selling sphygmomanometers to dentists. In the early 1970s, any dentist who administered Novocain was urged to take the patient’s blood pressure, as Novocain had been implicated in causing blood pressure to rise. Soutiere was successful, selling 2,000 sphygmomanometers to one company – Healthco Dental.
But back then, reps’ compensation was composed primarily of salary, not commission, so even the hardest-working, most successful salesperson might not see much in the way of additional monetary awards. That’s why salespeople jumped around quite often back then, says Soutiere. He did just that, joining Invacare, where he became regional sales manager at age 29.
But Soutiere had another plan in mind – starting his own business as an independent manufacturer’s rep, focusing on the quickly growing home care market, while continuing to sell med/surg supplies to the physician and hospital market.
“At 31 years of age, with my wife’s income being what it was, it was a little scary,” recalls Soutiere. At the time, his wife, Linda, was pregnant with their first child. In the first month of business, he made $79. In the second month, he reached $325. “And I never looked back,” he says.
The idea of building his own business appealed to Soutiere. He liked to travel, and he liked the idea of building a territory spanning multiple states.
“When I started, I traveled seven states,” he says. “I really enjoyed not having a small territory. That’s very confining to me.
“I grew the business by working all of New England and Upstate New York myself, spending a lot of time on the road – sometimes weeks at a time. As the territory grew, I added people once I could justify their income.”
In the early 1980s, home care was hot, and Soutiere jumped into it. But he quickly learned that the market was extremely volatile. For example, the oxygen concentrator business was great from 1980 to about 1984 or 1985, but then Medicare tightened the screws from a reimbursement point of view. And that is Medicare’s pattern, says Soutiere. “The window [for any home care technology] is about 36 months before [Medicare] starts cutting the profit.”
End User Calls
By 1986, Soutiere saw that the home care market was rapidly changing, so he decided to sell his interest in that end of the business to people who worked for him. He retained four or five core hospital and physician product lines.
He took with him a lesson and skill that would differentiate him from many other reps in the field at that time, one that he had first learned at Kendall – that is, – the need to call directly on end users.
“In the early days of the business, I noticed that people in the repping business only called on distributors,” Soutiere says. “They didn’t take leads to the end user and make presentations. That’s one reason I got into the business. I saw a lot of distributors out there doing demos, because they couldn’t rely on the reps.
“Today, that’s something you have to do,” he continues. “But in the 1970s, it wasn’t. And I hope I had some role in changing that market philosophy of independent reps.”
By calling directly on end users, Soutiere believes his products make a direct impression on decision-makers. He considers such calls his way of differentiating his product offerings.
“You can’t generate a sale to an end user by spending your time with distributor reps,” he says.
For all these reasons, Soutiere has urged manufacturers to send their leads his way, so he can make the call, all the while remaining as invisible as possible to the end user. “I want the distributor to get credit for the sale,” he says.
It’s a formula that has worked.
Strong Ties to Distributor Reps
“The key to Med Care’s success was our strong relationship with the distributor sales reps,” says Soutiere. “With that relationship, we were able to grow the business at a much faster rate. There was always a great deal of trust between the dealer reps and what I was willing to do for them, which made success much faster and longer lasting.
“People come and go in this business, and many times manufacturers don’t get the penetration they deserve,” he says. “You must always be available day or night and be ready for anything – a presentation, repair or customer complaint. You have to be ready to travel anywhere, never putting a price on the call.
“Success is measured by what you’re willing to do for anyone.”
Hard work has been just part of Soutiere’s success. A terrific attitude is another.
“There’s a charisma about him,” says Steve Martin, vice president of vendor relations for PSS in Jacksonville, Fla. The two met at an Atlantic Healthcare Products sales meeting in 1992. (Located in Westbrook, Maine, Atlantic was purchased by McKessonHBOC, now McKesson Medical-Surgical, in August 1998.) Martin was a Kodak rep at the time. Even though Soutiere was not representing Kodak, he invited Martin to join him and others at dinner and a night on the town. “He brought me into the fold of the industry,” says Martin. Later, Martin joined Atlantic Healthcare, where Soutiere did, indeed, call on him.
“When you deal with George, you feel like you’re dealing with someone who’s honest and fair, and will work with you in a partnership, not just try to make the relationship work to his best interest,” says Martin.
“When he’s in front of the customer, he has the ability to make [the customer] like him,” says Paul Balsamo. “And to develop a relationship. A big part of sales is getting to know your customers. George has that quality.”
And if the customer resists, Soutiere persists, adds Balsamo. “He keeps probing, and finds out what the customer wants or what the objection is. Then he handles it.”
According to John Moran, “George has a great ability to eliminate the clutter and focus on what’s positive. That’s what drives him. He doesn’t let situations get him down; he just keeps on driving forward. He’s very jovial. And he’s a fantastic sports fan. He’s a nut about the Red Sox. Besides his attitude, he has a great understanding of the vendor. When he’s in front of the vendor, he’s able to put himself in their shoes. That’s why he has a lot of following from vendors.”
Jack Moran adds: “Nothing ever throws him for a big loop. He wakes up every day the happiest guy in the world. I’ve never seen him negative about any situation. Ever.
“He has a strong ability to read a customer and he’s very good at taking the time to listen to people. He’s got a tremendous amount of interest in other people. More so than other people I’ve met.
“When you go on a call with him to a doctor’s office, he’ll end up talking to everybody in the waiting room, even other sales reps,” says Jack Moran. So while other reps are contemplating their presentation or schedule, Soutiere is learning everything he can about the people in the waiting room.
Jack Moran admires another trait in Soutiere – he treats all people the same, whether he’s speaking to a cardiologist, someone in the boardroom of a big manufacturer or a manufacturer operating out of a garage. “He acts the same way with the manufacturer in the garage as he would with the national sales manager for our biggest client, sitting at the Four Seasons.
“He’s always very consistent with the way he treats people. Those are the impressions I hope to remember,” says Jack Moran.
It’s that trait that Neal Weingart still appreciates. Weingart is an owner of Ameri-can Diagnostic Corp., Hauppauge, N.Y.
“We started working together more than 15 years ago,” says Weingart. “There were a handful of reps in the early days of American Diagnostic who were instrumental in the success of this company. George was one of them. And I’ll be grateful for that forever.”
The George Soutiere Room
Over the years, Weingart and Soutiere have become good friends. In fact, many in the industry recognize the guest room in Weingart’s house on Long Island as the George Soutiere Room. It’s where Soutiere stays when on Long Island. It’s equipped with a television and a remote, so Soutiere can tune in to ESPN.
“A lot of vendors wouldn’t do business with us” when Affiliated began targeting the physician market in the early 1980s, adds Miles Theeman. A subsidiary of Eastern Maine Healthcare, the company had been focused primarily on the hospital. Some manufacturers were nervous about alienating their existing distributors;
others were just unwilling to take on new istributors. “But George offered us every line he had,” says Theeman.
“He was one of the two or three who allowed us to get started. He gave us legitimacy, he got us product, he in-serviced our reps. He treated us like we had been a customer for 15 years. And over time, that relationship has continued to grow.
“To the extent we could, we’ve always followed him.”
When Soutiere takes on a new line, Affiliated always gives him a hearing. “We know he’ll be supportive of our reps and our clients,” says Theeman.
That reliability is what Theeman values most. “He has never failed us,” he says. “I can’t think of a major issue where George has ever disappointed us. He’s been there for us. You can’t ask for more than that.
“George Soutiere treats us like we’re the only client he has. And he treats our customers like they’re our best client.”
One thing that Theeman particularly admires about Soutiere is his attitude toward life. “George takes what he does seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously. I’ve tried to pass that on to my reps. I’ve tried to live my life that way.”
Looking for the Good
“You can always have a bad day, but I look for something good that happens. That’s always been my focus. I’ve also always said that if I have enough time with someone, I’ll sell them something,” says Soutiere.
Soutiere says he’s too hungry to retire. After the handoff of Med Care is completed this fall, he may sell real estate. “But I’d still like to have the opportunity down the road to help a manufacturer who’s looking to build a sales force or to help a manufacturer become a distributor-related company.
“My wife Linda, who’s been behind me for the whole 34 years, would like to have me around a little more, but business actually makes me hungry,” he says.
“I want all my friends and acquaintances to be able to visit me in York Harbor, Maine or keep in touch by e-mail.” Soutiere’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.