An MD&DI March 1997 Column
He laughs as he says it, but Duane Hopper is serious when he compares the medical device marketplace to the game of musical chairs. For the president, COO, and CEO of Graphic Controls Corp. (Buffalo, NY), change and uncertainty represent not threats but opportunities. The goal he sets for his company, Hopper says, "is to make sure we're sitting down when the music stops."
For Graphic Controls, he explains, "it's a matter of trying to identify which way the market is going, and to be ready to respond when that flux, that change, occurs. A lot of people in this business are not happy with the way things have changed in the last five years. But I think it's an opportunity for them to gain market share and faster growth."
For many decades, Graphic Controls was a straightforward industrial printing company, selling charts for recording pressure, temperature, and similar parameters for various process industries. Then, just over 20 years ago, it began to branch into medical applications.
Graphic Controls was still predominantly an industrial business when Hopper joined the company as medical marketing manager in 1988, after more than a decade spent in medical marketing and manufacturing positions at Zimmer, Ohmeda, and other device companies. Within six months, he was named general manager of the medical business.
In 1992, medical sales exceeded industrial sales for the first time. In the same year, Hopper was promoted to his present posts, and medical sales quickly accelerated. Today, he says, following the 1996 purchase of Devon Industries, a Chatsworth, CA, producer of disposable hospital supplies, Graphic Controls "has primarily a medical orientation, with $200 million-plus in medical sales and about $60 million on the industrial side."
Through a combination of in-house development and acquisition, Graphic Controls has built on its medical charts by adding such product lines as diagnostic and monitoring electrodes and catheters and a variety of consumable surgical products.
Given how Graphic Controls has, as Hopper puts it, "evolved rather spectacularly in the last few years into a primarily medical company," a degree of culture shock was inevitable. "The entire cultural background of the company has changed," he acknowledges, "from a slower-growth industrial business to a very fast-paced medical business."
For Hopper, this kind of rapid transition seems to come naturally. It's a fortunate trait in dealing with the current health-care marketplace. To succeed in it, Hopper asserts, companies have to be able to change as quickly as it does. For example, five years ago, Graphic Controls relied largely on a direct sales force and shipped its products directly to the end-user. But as the just-in-time shipment concept began to take hold among customers, they started to ask the company to work through distributors.
"We made a decision that the market is changing, and we have to change with it," Hopper recalls. "The customer wants us to go through distribution, we said, so let's do it. And let's not stop there, but make sure that distributors regard us as a very good partner, and service them so they realize we're embracing the concept." Rapid growth will remain Hopper's imperative for his company for the foreseeable future, to be fueled by both product development and acquisition. Eventually, he hopes, the company will be publicly held to enable it to grow still faster.
Keeping up with steady change can be exhausting, but for Hopper the rewards of setting challenging goals amply repay the effort. "Many times we will have discussions about how fast paced the changes have been and about how tiring it sometimes is," he reflects, "but it is very satisfying to most of us to hit the goals that we have collectively set."