Making His Mark: Paul Brennan
Long-time Nutramax National Sales Manager Paul Brennan reflects on his “dream job” as he heads into retirement.
In 2000, Paul Brennan didn’t realize he was interviewing for his dream job. At the time, Brennan was simply selling an ultrasound machine to a veterinarian who had visited his booth at a trade show. But across the aisle, Nutramax Laboratories Owner Dr. Todd Henderson was watching.
“The situation couldn’t have been set up any better,” said Brennan.
Impressed with the ultrasound sale, Henderson wanted to discuss a sales opportunity with Brennan. Nutramax was looking to build a sales force, as all of its sales at the time were going through a master distributor, Clipper. After talking with Henderson and Dr. Bob Henderson, Brennan was impressed with the leadership and vision of the company. “I thought, if I can get in on the ground floor and hire the type of people that I would like for my team, that’s something I’ve always dreamt about.”
Two decades later as the long-time Nutramax sales manager nears retirement, Brennan spoke with Veterinary Advantage on his career, leadership experiences, and the people he inspired along the way.
From human to veterinary medicine
After graduating from Villanova in 1972, Brennan’s career started on the human medical side. He worked for companies such as Midmark and Becton Dickinson. At BD, he earned several awards selling hematology and chemistry equipment, including the President’s Council nine years in a row, and earned National Rep of the Year three consecutive years. Eventually, as the instrument market hit a dry spell due to new laws and regulations, Brennan made the jump to animal health, working for IDEXX. A few years into his job as a manager, Brennan said he got called into a meeting with leadership. “They told me they had good news and bad news. The good news was I was manager of the year. The bad news was, they were looking to go in a different direction and restructure with new management.”
The timing of Brennan’s encounter with Henderson turned out to be perfect. Brennan accepted the job and began work in 2000 for Nutramax.
From the ground up
Before he could build a sales force, Brennan needed to gain experience of his own selling Nutramax’s product line. He was based out of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. His territory consisted of the entire East Coast. One week, Brennan would drive north as far as Connecticut, work with distributors, stay with a friend, then drive back home to South Carolina. The next week he would make his way down the east coast of Florida, stay over the weekend, then work his way up the west coast of Florida before returning home. The following week would be spent relatively local, calling on accounts in the Carolinas. “I think that first year I put something like 100,000 miles on my car,” he said.
When it was time to build out the sales force, Brennan knew he wanted to focus on a mixture of young reps (who had yet to develop any bad selling habits) and veteran reps that were ambitious in creating a winning culture. “I didn’t want the guy who would come in and act like he knows it all because at his company they did it a certain way,” Brennan said. “That’s not who I was looking for.” Brennan wanted a person who might be a year or two out of college, was hungry and would maximize the opportunity in front of him or her. It might involve long hours, nights away from home, and covering multiple state territories.
The first Nutramax representative that Paul hired was Rick Bills, who is now Victor Medical Company’s director of sales. According to Bills, “Paul and I formed an immediate bond – this bond and vision are what ultimately led me to come work for Paul at Nutramax. At the time, Nutramax was still in its infancy and only had the branded products Cosequin and Cosequin Equine in the equine channel. It was truly a wonderful opportunity and an easy decision to join forces and lay the foundation for something special.”
Another one of the first reps to come on board ended up being Paul’s son, Sean, in 2002, covering the southeast part of the country from Florida to Virginia. While a little awkward at first, the two were able to successfully navigate their father-son and rep-manager relationship quite well. “He was in a situation where he didn’t want to let me down,” said Paul. “I went through it before coaching him in basketball. So I understand him and he understands me.”
When Sean, now Nutramax’s east zone sales manager, thinks back to being hired, “He had his name, and I was trying to create my own name in the industry. That’s one of the things he’s always instilled in me is that you’ve got to create your own niche. The expectation was there on his side, I’m sure, but it was even greater for me because I didn’t want to be thought of in the industry only as Paul’s kid.”
As Nutramax expanded its product line, Brennan gradually built out the sales force from four to five reps to 16, with a district manager who still had a territory. Nutramax currently boasts a sales force of 70 people, in no small part to Brennan’s dedication to investing in each individual of the team. Up until a few years ago, Brennan would be on the phone every week with almost every rep. He took a personal approach to leadership and understood that what worked for one rep may not work for another. Each rep would respond differently, and it was up to leadership to figure out the best way to approach each team member.
Brennan was also determined to adapt to the times and has continued to strive to put the best people in the positions to succeed and thrive in an everchanging industry. Brennan didn’t micromanage, but he did evaluate whether each new hire was a fit for the territory. “Sometimes you’re going to have people that may not work out.” For instance, one of his reps was struggling with balancing a large territory and the travel required with time at home with his three kids and wife. Brennan was cognizant of the challenges that this representative faced and asked if he wanted to work in a much smaller territory so he could be home every night. When the rep said yes, Brennan was able to connect him with another company that was a better fit.
“I’ve had a unique relationship where people would actually come to me and say, ‘I’m getting this offer from such and such company. What do you think I should do?’” Brennan would sit down with them and review the pluses and minuses of the opportunity, ala the Ben Franklin system. Rick Bills, the second outside sales rep hired by Nutramax, said, “Over the years, I had several career opportunities presented to me. In each of those situations, I felt comfortable enough to discuss those opportunities with Paul. Even though Paul was my boss and mentor, he got the big picture – he wanted what was best for myself, my family, and my career path. I have always appreciated Paul’s insights, leadership, and ability to motivate. These were characteristics that I will always associate with Paul.”
Brennan made it clear to anyone he ever interviewed that he wasn’t interested in what they would do for him in the first three months at the company. “I’m interested in how much you’re going to grow, develop, and better yourself,” he said. “Where are you going to be a year from now, two years from now? And that’s one thing I tried to do, especially with the younger people: Look for constant growth and development so that a year or two in the job, they can look back to the day they were hired and recognize how far they’ve come.”
One of those success stories is Tom Murrell, who will succeed Brennan as national sales manager. Murrell has been with Nutramax for 16 years. “You always knew what his expectations were,” Murrell said of Brennan. “You would do everything you possibly could to deliver on those expectations because of the type of leader he was, and he would do everything within his power to help you deliver on those expectations.”
Brennan showed that he was willing to support his reps and help them navigate issues with customers. Six months into Murrell’s tenure with Nutramax, a customer called Brennan to complain about how Murrell handled something.
“[Brennan] called me and said: ‘Look, I’m going to send you a letter from the customer; I want you to read it, but I want you to calm down after you read it. And then I want you to write a response, going point by point through the letter.’” Murrell did as instructed, and Brennan talked through the points with him before they sent the response. Within a short window of time, Murrell’s relationship with the customer was not only restored but excellent.
“Paul listened to what our customer had to say,” Murrell said. “But he was also smart enough, and experienced enough, to know that there is always another side to the story. He was willing to not react to customers, but give his sales reps the benefit of the doubt and protect them. That’s how he handles tough situations. He looked out for both the customer and the sales rep.”
A successful legacy
A year ago, Brennan approached Nutramax leadership about his retirement, and how best to transition leadership of the sales force he had built. His idea – which ownership supported – was to promote from within. Brennan went to Dr. Henderson and David Moore (Nutramax vice president of sales), and they approved and endorsed his “exit strategy” plan. “The key to every sales organization is to have its people believe in the system and buy into the company culture,” said Brennan. “It’s very important to understand that you must know where you’ve been in order to know where you’re going. With the number of quality people that we have in the Nutramax organization, it was very important to me that we continue to promote from within the company.”
Brennan put a plan together in 2020 to do just that. He took three long-time district managers and promoted them into zone managers – Mike Kelly as central zone manager, Sean Brennan the east zone manager, and John Sowada as the west zone manager. Brennan then set up eight more district managers reporting to the zone managers, separating the country into 11 districts; four in the East, four in the Midwest, and three on the West Coast. Meanwhile, Murrell shadowed Brennan for a year. And in 2021, Murrell took the reigns while Brennan works as a senior advisor. “It’s a great team in place,” said Brennan. “And David Moore as VP of sales is an incredible leader. He is one of the hardest working people I have ever come across in the industry.”
The “after-work” life
With the organization moving forward and in good hands, Brennan is ready to spend more time with family, especially his wife, Trish, with whom he has shared 44 fun-filled and glorious years. “She has been a rock for our family and has really done an excellent job in raising our children and taking care of all of our home needs for all of these years, while I have been up and down the road,” Brennan said. He and his wife are also excited to be able to spend more time with their grandchildren, Mac and Mary Elizabeth (in whom Paul sees a little bit of himself). In addition to Sean, Paul has two other sons, Kyle, who is an educator, and PJ, who is in the foodservice industry. Brennan also hopes to travel a little, and focus on a passion that many in the industry know all too well – golf.
“I just want to say that I couldn’t be happier with how everything turned out,” Brennan said. “I’m so proud of the work we’ve done and to have worked for an ethical company like Nutramax.”
“You definitely wanted Paul on your team”
Kevin Speltz, president of Clipper Distributing, has interacted with Paul Brennan professionally and personally for over 20 years.
Professional, Speltz said Brennan “has a real knack” for identifying young talent. “Over the years he has hired a number of salespeople with no experience in our industry. Under his direction, a large percentage of them have developed into exceptional sales reps. A number of them have been hired by other companies in the industry, and a number of them have stayed with Nutramax. Paul is definitely leaving a legacy of talent that he has helped, identified, and nurtured.”
Brennan has contacts throughout the entire industry, and always had his finger on what changes were happening, Speltz said. “He was able to take advantage of numerous opportunities that he recognized before others. Paul has worked well with distribution and has earned their support and trust.”
Personally, Speltz has gotten to observe Brennan play a few holes of golf over the years, and that it is his passion is clearly evident. “While he may not be the longest hitter, he is one of the straightest. Combined with a phenomenal short game, Paul frequently had lower scores than many of the people he played against.”
Speltz said it was always fun to watch a big hitter play a par 5 against Brennan. “The big hitter would drive 100 yards farther, yet bogey the hole, while Paul would keep hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway and par it with a good chip and 2-foot putt. If you were playing a scramble tournament, you definitely wanted Paul on your team.”