Affirming the Value of Distribution
Patterson’s Doug Jones said the industry has played a critical role in keeping veterinary clinics open and viable amid the pandemic.
Prior to the end of February and early March, business for much of the animal health industry was humming along. “We were in a great place as an industry with rapid expansion,” said Doug Jones, President of the Patterson Companion Animal Group. “Certainly, the fundamentals looked good.”
However, with the arrival of COVID-19, the economy ground to a halt, leaving veterinary practices and their supplier partners, scrambling for everything from PPE products to e-commerce, telehealth, or effective social distancing measures to keep the doors open. “We entered a pace of rapid decision-making with very rapid news flow,” Jones said.
In an early June interview with Veterinary Advantage, Jones discussed several topics related to COVID-19, including how it affected the day-to-day lives of Patterson’s internal and external sales forces, how the pandemic could change the future of distribution, and the questions the veterinary community will have to answer in the coming weeks and months as restrictions are eased.
Veterinary Advantage: Tell us about how COVID-19 has affected Patterson; in particular, your sales reps and their activities since mid-March when this pandemic forced many stay-at-home orders across the country.
Doug Jones: I’ll use a word that I’ve said to my team quite a bit, and it’s simply, “Wow.” Prior to the end of February to early March, we were in a great place as an industry with rapid expansion. Certainly, the fundamentals looked good. With COVID-19 arriving, we entered a pace of rapid decision-making with very rapid news flow. I’m sure like lots of companies and even lots of hospitals, we met every day, including Saturday and Sunday, as an overall Patterson leadership team and also as an animal health leadership team.
One of the most important things that we did right away was set our guiding principles for making decisions across a range of things. First and foremost we were going to make decisions that looked out for the health and safety of our employees. Our second criteria was that as an essential business, we were going to make decisions so that our clinics maintained their business continuity and continuity of safety for their employees. And then lastly, an important overarching goal was that we would be good citizens of the country by not adding to the spread of COVID-19.
We had many meetings the week of March 9. By that Thursday-Friday, we had essentially pulled our representatives from the field. Our inside people and corporate office personnel transitioned very rapidly to a work-from-home mode in less than 48 hours. We stayed in that mode primarily over the phone and digitally until the week of May 18, as some states started opening. I think, like many companies, we had a spreadsheet. We used resources like the AVMA. We were in constant contact with them and other agencies getting legal guidance and public health official guidance.
We started under strict conditions allowing our field personnel – our reps but also service technicians and equipment specialists – back into the field. I think Patterson is a little bit unique in that way compared to our competition. We’ve got a number of different roles in the field. But based off state and local guidance, we started entering the field.
As for the conditions, we are 100% appointment only. We became very old school again. It’s not a casual event amid a pandemic to show up at somebody’s hospital. We put all of our employees through sanitation training, PPE usage training, and then provided them with Level 2 cloth masks and cleaning supplies. That was a rapid transition.
In addition, we really changed the way we did things. Most hospitals went to curbside service to bring in animals and not have exposure to the public. We did the same thing with our service technicians. If a piece of equipment was light enough to be placed outside the door by appointment, we did curbside pickup to go pick up a piece of equipment – an autoclave, a digital plate, etc. – and we’d either repair in our van or repair at home, sanitize the equipment and drop it off again. There are many adaptations like that that we’ve executed in the last three-plus months.
Veterinary Advantage: As you go through an exercise like this, how do you think it changes or potentially changes Patterson’s future? What about the future of distribution, and the way you interact with customers?
Jones: It affirms the value of distribution. Relative to what we at Patterson are trying to do, to be value-added, we will pick, pack and ship supplies to you, but we will do a lot of other services such as equipment or technology, financial services, etc.
I think distribution’s value is going to go up. Talking with some of the senior people in our company, I think potentially how a clinic sees outsiders will start to look like pre-1984. If you remember when Frontline and Advantage were launched, prior to that, there really weren’t large manufacturer sales forces. The distributor sales force was the sales force that the hospitals saw and valued. Obviously there has been an explosion in the value that clinics offer with their services, and I think that certainly has a lot more people walking into the practice. We’ve told our team we deliver great value, we deliver a wide range of value and we’re going to strive to be that indispensable partner with hospitals. If we can do that, then our value goes up, our access goes up, and I think we’ll see some rationalization to access to the hospital.
Veterinary Advantage: Distribution has been essential to practices through this, and I think they recognize that as well. Can you talk a little bit about the reengagement of the reps? What is the future look like in the next month, two months, three months of getting the outside sales reps reengaged with the customers? And the same with your inside sales team – how will they be deployed? Are you seeing a willingness from customers to allow your salespeople back into practices?
Jones: We’re being cautious. Like many decisions and issues we’re looking at, we really try and collect as much data as possible. We are tracking where our people go, what hospitals they visit every day. So we do that from a duty to do good contract tracing as testing increases in this environment. We’ve had representatives that have gone into hospitals where we discover after the fact that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19. We run a pretty rigorous process with a nurse triage company that assesses exposure, and we’re very deliberate about that.
One of the nice things about doing contact tracing is we’ve been able to see what patterns are happening and how often hospitals want to see us since May 18. As each week has gone by, we have nearly doubled the number of calls or visits we’ve made.
There are certainly hospitals that don’t want to see outsiders yet, and we 100% respect those wishes. I’ve asked our team about the calls they are making and how the clinics are doing. The feedback has been tremendous. We’re hearing that the calls are very deliberate, very purposeful. In some cases, they’re longer than normal.
What we’re going to be doing for customers in the future isn’t exactly what we were doing early February 2020. It’s going to be very interesting to watch. Our phone team has been very active. That’s certainly a mode that has been helpful. I think all of the teams have stepped up, but certainly, our inside sales team has transitioned to work from home, and that’s definitely different as it is for all of us, but they have really thrived in making sure the hospitals have what they need, because it’s a difficult delivery environment.
UPS is incredibly challenged. FedEx is challenged. We all have absenteeism where people are taking leaves, taking care of sick relatives, or they don’t have childcare options. One thing that’s just amazing pre-COVID regarding UPS, 70% of their volume was business, and 30% was residential. In a very short period of time, that has flipped to 70% residential parcel delivery and only 30% business. All of their routing has been upset. They’ve done a tremendous job. I know brown trucks are rolling through my neighborhood every day.
Everyone has had to adapt, and I think it’s a testament to the links in the chain, from Patterson all the way to the hospital. We are still seeing veterinary visits growing even during the pandemic, and that’s a great testament to the veterinary profession, their staffs, the vet tech community – they’ve done a wonderful job. We’ve all got a lot of reasons to be proud of the business and calling that we’re in.
To listen to the full interview, visit vet-advantage.com/podcast.
About Doug Jones
Doug Jones has spent the last 4.5 years as the President of the Patterson Companion Animal Group. Prior to joining Patterson, Jones spent seven years with Merial North America where he served as head of Merial’s U.S. Pets Sales and National Accounts teams, and most recently as President of Merial North America. Jones was also a key member of the Sanofi North American Regional Strategic Management Committee.
Earlier in his career, Jones was a business consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and The North Highland Company executing commercial projects across a variety of industries and functional disciplines. He holds an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University and an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin.
He enjoys spending time outside with his wife of 23 years, Susan, and sons Brent (18) and Dean (16). Their dog Maisy is a recent COVID-19 pet adoption and keeps the entire family entertained.
Photo Credits: istockphoto.com/Phynart Studio