Start With One

Sales

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How Penn Veterinary Supply’s Steve Denhardt helped build a territory, and sales team, on his way to a fulfilling career in animal health sales.

When Steve Denhardt was 24 years old, he got the career opportunity of a lifetime. Penn Veterinary Supply was looking for a young, ambitious sales rep to start a new territory a few states away from the company’s geographic base. There was risk, sure. But the potential was hard to pass up.

And Denhardt is thankful every day that the family-owned distributor took a chance on him. Denhardt, now associate sales director for Penn Veterinary Supply, celebrated 20 years with the company this past summer.


That Penn Veterinary Supply’s late owner Rich Sexton and the leadership team chose him was humbling even then, Denhardt said. “When you’re that age, your perception is different than what it is as you get older,” he said. “But I knew I had a job to do, and I knew that the ownership and leadership at that time was willing to connect me to any resource I needed.”

Steve Denhardt headshot

After training in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Denhardt immediately went into action. He knew he had his work cut out for him in the Sunshine state. He would need to network and gain access to the veterinary clinics, then explain to prospective clients why his business card said Penn Veterinary Supply and what he was doing in Florida. He admits it was a slow process at first. He traveled the state, sometimes sleeping on friends’ couches as he’d visit veterinary clinics in different towns.

“It wasn’t about me educating the veterinarians first; it was first getting the permission to understand what they were doing and what was important to them when they were selecting their distributors,” Denhardt said. “Then hopefully we would find common ground.”

The first year was a mix of highs and lows. He remembers his first client fondly. Dr. Jay Goebel at Spring Run Animal Hospital was kind and patient with the young rep. By the end of their discussion, Denhardt was excited by how Dr. Goble resonated with Penn Veterinary Supply being a family-owned business that focused on the private veterinarian. “I left there with just an extraordinary amount of confidence,” he said.

Those feelings would be dampened a bit the following weeks with multiple doors shut in his face. In fact, through the first year, Denhardt worked hard to gain 15 accounts. At times he wondered if he had made the right decision to go into animal health sales and was worried that he was letting Sexton and the leadership team down. Yet through the rejections Denhardt learned perseverance and honed the questions and approach to the conversations he would have with prospective clients.

Several vendor reps were instrumental in helping a young Denhardt develop and expand his territory. “They helped me just by going into sales calls with them,” he said. While the more seasoned vendor rep would discuss products and services with the veterinarians, Denhardt would observe and watch for the doctor’s cues. “I tried to be perceptive in those sales calls so I would know what was important to the veterinarians.”

After the first year, something clicked. Denhardt said he had an “explosion” of interest in year two. Penn Veterinary Supply grew so quickly in Florida that they were able to bring in another sales rep for the area. Denhardt began to solidify a new goal for the territory – to have enough clients to justify a warehouse in the state. Within a few short years, the vision became a reality, as the company expanded to Jacksonville, Florida and opened a warehouse to support its growing customer base.

It was around this time that Denhardt was given the opportunity to become the regional manager and hire nine of his own reps. “That was probably one of the most rewarding experiences professionally of my life.”

Sales leadership wasn’t something Denhardt thought he would enjoy at first. As a rep he was happy just serving his customers. But as he started to hire the people to work in the state and pass the baton over, he realized how fulfilling it could be to guide a rep toward a larger goal. Indeed, there was something just as gratifying celebrating a team member who had just closed a deal vs. shaking the hand of a veterinarian for one’s own sales portfolio.

“It was one of the most surprising, rewarding transitions of my life,” Denhardt said. “You feel proud when you see those moments where the people that are reporting to you are learning, the light bulb is going off, and the smiles across their faces when something big happens.”

Connections

Success in today’s market looks different than it did when Denhardt got his start 20 years ago. “So much has changed,” he said. “I never had to do what our reps are doing today. I never had to work in this environment.”

Twenty years ago, distributor and vendor reps had a lot more access to clients, and more face-to-face time. Reps were often invited back to the doctor’s office, where they would sit in a comfortable chair while the two parties talked for 20 to 30 minutes about life and business. But those types of interactions are more infrequent, and the way reps connect with customers has evolved. The clinics are giving reps time, but the time looks different. Some clinics only want to interact digitally, yet reps must still provide clear value – and do it quickly. Reps are selling more than just products, Denhardt said. Veterinarians come to them for things like software solutions, HR solutions, and marketing advice.

Today’s veterinary clinics have a lot of choices. Should they expand to multiple locations or focus on a single location? And what will the owners eventually do when it is time to retire? As an industry veteran, Denhardt has a lot of veterinarian friends nearing or at retirement age. Selling to a corporate entity is certainly an option, but so too is handing the reigns to an associate.

The journey along the way, and being a guide for these private veterinarians, is something that continues to motivate Denhardt. “We can guide them towards those goals, whatever they may be. What’s their mark on the world going to be? They have choices now that they never had before.”

Denhardt said he is fortunate to have mentors at Penn Veterinary Supply that truly care about his success. “The people who spent time with me had, when I joined the company, 20-plus years of experience already in the industry,” he said. “So many of them would sit down and talk to me, and truly try to connect at a genuine level. I think that’s what you get when you work for a family-owned business. That’s what keeps me here, and it’s what keeps me hungry every day – the fact that the people across our company truly care for one another.”

Now as one of two associate sales directors for the company alongside Stephanie Washburn, Denhardt said he wants to honor what was given to him when he was new in the industry by investing in the younger reps who work as part of his sales team. “We’ve recently expanded in North Carolina, and I love nothing more than getting out into the field, working with our people, understanding, asking them about their family, and what their interests are,” he said.

 

Learn from the best

Denhardt said he tries to develop himself as a leader by constantly asking questions and learning from the people around him. He will sometimes find himself in a room with three people who have 75 years plus of experience and tries to make the most of those discussions. “Those are people that I try to learn from, and get my energy from.”

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