A Job Well Done: Covetrus Leaders Retire and Share Knowledge
As they head toward retirement, three industry veterans and Covetrus leaders share what makes the animal health industry so special.
Among the countless pictures snapped from a recent Covetrus national sales meeting, one in particular captured a bit of history. Within that single frame were three longtime animal health salespeople with combined industry experience of more than 120 years: Ken Parish, Davey Stone, and Lynn Bixler.
Coincidentally, all three sales leaders were closing out the final chapters of their careers this spring and summer. Bixler officially retired April 15; Stone and Parish will retire in June and July. In the following interview, all three were gracious enough to speak with Vet-Advantage about their journeys working in animal health, and perhaps what the future holds for veterinarians and the reps who call on them.
Vet-Advantage: Can each of you walk us through your career journeys; when you started, some stops along the way, and your final roles at Covetrus?
Lynn Bixler: My career goes back to 1986. I started as an outside rep with Fort Dodge Animal Health. A few years later I became a regional manager in Houston, Texas. Then I moved up to Overland Park, Kansas to be the equine marketing manager for a few years. I transitioned to an equine sales trainer, where I handled new hires and all of distribution. I had contacts all over the United States just from training distributors on equine.
We were bought by Pfizer in 2009, and the only job they had for me in the equine division was in New Jersey. I lived in Overland Park, Kansas and had a son in college and a daughter in high school, so I took a severance package. So I was without a job after 25 years. Eventually, all the Butler people – Kim Allen, Kevin Vasquez, Davey Stone and Tony Johnson – invited me up to chat with them. I remember talking to Davey … there was no interview, Davey, all you did was show me your wedding pictures. It was kind of funny.
Davey Stone: (Laughing) I didn’t need to interview you. I knew you.
Bixler: They were so gracious to realign an entire region where I wouldn’t have to move from Kansas and offered me the job. I’ve been with them since as a regional manager. Now we’re called regional directors. As of my last day, April 15, I had 12 people reporting to me with ties to technology and compounding. We had a team built around a team as well. So that was my 36-and-a-half years in the industry.
Stone: I got out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1978 and thought I was going to dental school, but I was in the half of the class that made the top half possible, so I did not get accepted to dental school. My father was a 1950 Auburn graduate, and practiced veterinary medicine in northeast Alabama, Gadsden, for 40 years. A guy that called on him, Lee Smith, was managing a new distribution company in Atlanta, Georgia called the McConnell Company. It was a small distributor that had four sales reps. I went over there and talked to some of the reps. Byrom Dickens was one of those reps. He was an icon in this industry who became my mentor.
They talked me into going to work, but they didn’t have a sales territory for me. So I worked in their warehouse for two years until they had a sales territory open and I went to Tennessee. From 1980 until 1988, I worked my territory in Middle and East Tennessee, North Georgia, and North Alabama. In 1988, Durr-Fillauer Medical bought the McConnell Company, and they asked me to run their sales force, so I went into management. I ran the company until Bergen Brunswig bought Durr-Fillauer Medical in a hostile takeover. They really didn’t know what to do with the animal health business. They asked me to sell the business and I sold it to Butler in 1997 and went to work for the Butler organization on a handshake deal. In May of 1998, the owner and president, Steve Ritt, passed away unfortunately of a heart attack. But I stayed with Butler and we grew that company. Kevin Vasquez was the linchpin. He came in as COO, Howard Deputy was the president, and we turned the company around and built what it was when we merged with Burns Veterinary Supply. I was still part of the executive management team at that point.
Then it was sold to Henry Schein Animal Health, which would be bought by Vets First Choice, which has turned into Covetrus. I was part of the executive management team and ran the marketing department for 18 years. In recent years, I’ve managed the specialty markets for the organization which is the animal welfare group, military, veterinary teaching schools and aquariums, and the research business.
All told, I’ve done this since March of 1978 – 44 years. On June 1, I’ll turn 66 and I decided that would be a great time to retire. Sanna and I recently bought a farm in Granville, Ohio and I will retire on the farm and run it, manage Sanna’s horses and have a good time raising our son Wyatt David.
Ken Parish: In 1976, I went to work for a veterinary hospital as a vet assistant. My ultimate goal was to come back and take that veterinarian’s place in Jacksboro, Texas. So I got a degree at Texas A&M in Biomedical Science, always planning to be a veterinarian. But that was back when if you didn’t have a 3.8 GPA, you didn’t get an interview. I was like Davey – I helped the top half by being part of the bottom half of the class.
A sales representative that called on Jacksboro Veterinary Hospital, JB Pryor, got my name in at several places. I interviewed for Fort Dodge and several different pharmaceutical companies. I got a call from Lone Star Veterinary Supply and got a job on a handshake, packing boxes, phone sales, etc. After three months I got the South Texas position. So in 1984, I moved to San Antonio with my new bride and raised 3 daughters.
After about 7 years, I joined Hill’s Pet Nutrition. They decided they were going to get into the veterinary distribution business, and they were buying distributors across the nation, to form the first national veterinary supply business. They got pretty far along but ultimately decided they didn’t like the pharmaceutical side, so they spun it off. I stayed on the diet side for another 21 years, finished up as National Sales Director for them and finished my 30 years.
Two months later, I went to work for Kim Allen and Ben Coe at Henry Schein Animal Health. At that time, I was just helping Ben out with strategic accounts. I had a lot of strategic accounts experience with Hill’s Pet Nutrition, as they were starting to develop that whole segment of the industry. Ben Coe moved on from Henry Schein, so I took the VP of Strategic Accounts position. I was on the executive team with Davey. We reported to Kevin Vasquez, Kim Allen and that whole team. The merger with Vet’s First Choice happened, and I’d already declared I was ready to retire in two years. So at that time, I took a step back, and just called on the larger strategic accounts and never looked back. Calling up some of those old customers I’ve known for years has been a good highlight. I’m retiring July 21.
Vet-Advantage: Obviously a lot has changed during your careers. We’d love to get your insights into some of the major trends you’ve seen in veterinary medicine, and how they’ve affected distribution.
Parish: Communication and technology is a big one. With cell phones, being mobile was a huge boost to the industry, both from the vendor side, as well as the sales side communicating with veterinarians. This even includes fax machines, because that was a big change in the industry when that happened. Veterinarians could basically price shop. Of course, now we’re a technology company and the incorporation of Home Delivery (Rx Mgmt) and PIMS continue to evolve and offer new revenue streams and efficiency for the veterinary hospitals.
The categories have also undergone big changes. In the 1980s veterinarians sold a lot of diets before Petco and PetSmart came on board and also sold a lot of large animal business as well before you started having Tractor Supply, and some of the other big box national retailers start expanding. Those are some big changes in the industry that veterinarians had to evolve to. They did evolve, and they did it quite well.
Thinking about some big pharmaceutical changes, I still remember when Vet-Kem used to be the king in flea and tick. That was using chemicals on the animal, chemicals in the yard, chemicals in the house. Ciba-Geigy came out with a product called Program, a prescription item, that set the veterinarians on fire and was a big boon for them financially. Filaribits (Norden) used to be king of heartworm. But Heartgard (ivermectin) came out, and literally crushed Filaribits overnight.
But as I told people during a retirement dinner, this industry is great. It evolves, rolls with the punches, and continues to develop. This is a great industry we’re leaving behind. There’s probably room for an extra 2,000 large animal veterinarians and 5,000 small animal veterinarians across the nation right now. There’s pent-up demand in the industry with pet owners the way they are now.
Bixler: I agree with all of that. For me, I had a hard time getting into the industry, for whatever reason. I didn’t have a background in animal health, and that probably hurt me. But finally, Fort Dodge gave me a chance. The thing that was well noted was they couldn’t believe they’d hired a woman. You’d hear people and the rumblings, “I can’t believe we have a woman on the salesforce.” There were four women in the entire nation out of 150 sales reps, and no female managers, so everyone was watching to make sure you were doing well.
Eventually, a few more female reps would come on board over the years. But early on, I was the only female manager at Fort Dodge for many years. When I came to Henry Schein, I started again as the only female manager. I remember somebody saying, “We just can’t seem to get women to apply for the management jobs.” My response was, “I don’t think you’re looking hard enough.”
Then it just took off. I’d say maybe now we’re half and half. When people ask me, “Do you prefer to hire men or women?” I tell them I like to hire the best person. I look at my team and we’re about half and half, but it wasn’t on purpose. You just go after the best people. I think we had to open our eyes more. It was just the way it was done. I didn’t really realize until other women would say to me, “Thank you for blazing the trail.” Then it hit me – I guess I was a part of that.
Stone: I’ll build on that a little bit. I agree. If you go back and think about how it came to being a male-dominated industry, it was basically farm boys going off to veterinary school. That’s how it really became a male-dominated industry. Lynn, I agree with the ladies like yourself and Kim Allen – you came into the industry and really blazed the trail. I can proudly say that when I was at Durr-Fillauer Medical I hired some of the first distributor reps that were female in the industry out of the 13 that I had. It’s a great evolution of the business and it continues. I am very proud that our company Covetrus has got its eyes on diversity, inclusion and making sure we’re doing the right things. These past two years, we’ve sponsored a diversity scholarship at Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine and helped partially fund another at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.
Another change I saw that’s worth noting was the specialization of veterinarians. My dad did everything from small to large animals. Whatever walked through the door, he was treating. Now, people are highly educated in certain sciences, such as oncology, ophthalmology, surgery, internal medicine, equine medicine, etc. I’ve watched specialization and the education of veterinarians grow and evolve and it makes me so proud of our industry.
The other thing that I’m proud of is watching our veterinarians. Over these 45 years, there have been a lot of companies that have come into our industry with a goal of taking income and value away from veterinarians. In my early years veterinarians never really wanted to fight to keep it, but in the past several years, veterinarians and the management of veterinary practices have begun to fight for their business, and to own the client-patient relationship. They’re fighting for their business, they’re fighting for their prescription management, the right to specialty compounding to improve medical outcomes. Veterinarians want to be involved in a B2C business with client communications.
We’re in a perfect position. I say this without reservation as a guy who’s tried to help veterinarians make money for almost 45 years, our company is better positioned than anybody in the industry to be able to do that. We have more tools to help them. Everything we do is encompassed around the veterinarian. We’ll never violate that trust. And I think veterinarians finally see and believe that.
Vet-Advantage: What’s keeping veterinarians up at night? And how can companies like Covetrus help?
Parish: Two things. First, the big boxes and the [large online retailers] of the world. And second, veterinarians getting adequate help. Veterinarians need more associates to come in, and then for the associates to buy them out. So work/life balance, and how are we going to manage the fact that veterinarians make a huge portion of their income on retail, and big box retailers are after that?
Stone: I would agree with you, Ken. Also, I think veterinarians, their own physical health, mental health of themselves and their staff is concerning in our space. The stress that comes along with coming out of school with debt, going into practice and trying to deal with that emotionally. I applaud Not One More Vet and other organizations that
are working on this.
When I call on these universities, I can see they’re actively training and putting people in place to be able to counsel students all through school so they don’t come out and have unrealistic expectations. I do think, as an industry, one thing we can help solve is the debt some of these kids come out of school with. I think the average debt is around $160,000 to $170,000, and then they have to try to find a job that can help pay that down.
So I think that’s what keeps veterinarians up. They’re great people, they want to heal the suffering of God’s creatures, and that’s why they went into veterinary medicine. We just have to make sure, as an industry, we keep them profitable and protect the business that a lot of competitors want to chip away. Like Ken mentioned, the big boxes, and other companies who are not in the business could get into this space and be a big threat to veterinarians.
But Covetrus really does have more tools to help a veterinarian be more profitable than I’ve seen in the 45 years I’ve been doing this. If I’d had these tools 45 years ago, it would have been unbelievable. It’s good to see the industry and our company evolve to reach out to customers and help them compared to what we in distribution did for years, which was just load the customer up with product before the next guy could load them up. Now that’s not the case. We do consultative selling at the core and partner with the customer to help them have a profitable practice.
Parish: Henry Schein was the first that wanted to be a service-oriented company. Some of the other people in the industry just want the consumable business. We’re thinking about trying to play chess two moves from now, and how we can protect veterinarians from big box retailers. We’re not aligning with them. We have no inclination for that. We want to keep everything within the veterinarian. As Davey said, if I had to start over, I’d go right back to work for Covetrus, because I think they have answers and they’re working in the veterinarian’s best interest.
Bixler: I recently read a post on social media from a veterinarian I know. She said she just came back from a leave of absence because she’d had a bully. The bully talked about her on Facebook daily. Unfortunately, I think a pet may have died after surgery, but those things happen. And this person took it upon themselves to bash her all over social media. It really got to her and she actually had to take a leave of absence to get her head back on straight because she just felt defeated and beat down. When I read it, it broke my heart, because I know veterinarians work so hard to take care of these animals, and then you’ve got somebody out there being a bully just like in grade school, only worse. When I tell people the suicide rate for veterinarians is quite high, they don’t get it. Veterinarians care so much, and they can’t always help. Things happen sometimes, but they take these things so personal. Like Ken said, right now they can’t staff adequately. They’re turning down customers, because they just don’t have enough workers. There are so many things that people don’t realize. If I hear one of my friends bought something from an online pharmacy, other than a veterinarian, I get a little out of control. I tell them, “Call your vet.”
Stone: The other thing our industry should be proud of is that less animals are being euthanized. If I’m not mistaken, when I first started getting involved in the animal welfare spaces, 2.5 million dogs and cats were euthanized on an annual basis in this country. That’s just awful. What the industry has done is phenomenal. I think it’s less than 1 million now. It’s still a lot, but it’s less than half of what it was. Education, spay and neuter programs and veterinarians working closer with animal welfare organizations have helped. Pets are rescued, spayed and neutered, and placed into loving homes. When that happens, these pets find their way back to the veterinarian, which is our business. It’s the right thing to do, and the industry recognizes that. We should be proud.