Professional Story of Joel Gaslin

Joel Gaslin is a kid from Rochester, Minnesota. So I grew up surrounded by doctors and healthcare. This is because the world-famous Mayo Clinic is based there.

My dad is a retired educator, and my mom a retired nurse. Like my friends, the Mayo Clinic influenced my life.

I went off to college at the University of Minnesota thinking that I might want to become a doctor. I earned a degree in biochemistry, and also discovered my aptitude and interests didn’t fit with becoming a doctor.

Falling into Selling and Marketing

Perhaps like you, I didn’t finish school and think, “I’m going to become a sales rep.” I was caught somewhere in between bartending, graduate school in biochemistry, and that still nagging interest in medicine. Quite a kettle of fish there, eh?

For me, and maybe like you, life has a way of presenting forcing functions to speed up decisions. And getting married and having a baby-on-the-way is a sure-fire recipe for growing up. At least in my case.

The career department at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences (CBS) was a Godsend to me during this period. Before I graduated, the department assigned me a career advisor; and never met with the person. Not even once. Luckily, after I graduated, I did.

I wish I could remember this person’s name, but I can’t. What I do remember is that she helped me think about exploring pharmaceutical sales as a career. 

Taking the First Steps

Growing up, a friend of mine’s dad sold pharmaceuticals; but I had no concept of what he did in that role. So, I called him and asked what he did in his job, and it sounded like an interesting career.

I interviewed with a few different companies, passed on moving to Marquette Michigan with Merck. I landed a sales rep job with a small, privately owned Minneapolis-based company called Upsher-Smith Laboratories sixty days before our first daughter, Grace was born on July 22, 1990.

Early Success and a Nagging Question

I have tremendous gratitude for my one-year stint at Upsher-Smith. My family was worried that I might starve as a sales rep because no one in my immediate family did anything like that for a living. 

In short, they taught me how to sell. My first boss, Scott Hussey, told me that a model of primarily using the telephone for finding sales leads, and visiting in-person only with a call plan and objectives works. 

He was right. And 22 years later I used this experience to transition the sales team at Sightpath Medical to a similar model. People in the industry made fun of me behind my back for doing this, but it works and still does to this day.

Back to the story…

In several of my hospital account visits with Upsher-Smith, I saw this same guy getting out of a German sports sedan, wearing a nice suit, carrying a fancy briefcase, and strutting into the doctor’s lounge. I assumed he was a surgeon, but something seemed weird the third time I saw him.

I asked the OR Charge nurse what kind of doctor that guy was? She chuckled and said, “He’s an Eye Guy.” Me: “Oh, you mean an Ophthalmologist?”  A friend of mine’s dad growing up was an Ophthalmologist – The Rochester thing again.) OR Nurse: “No. He sells Intraocular Lens Implants.”

“He’s an Eye Guy”

Huh. I thought, “I gotta see about that.” As luck would have it, turns out a cousin of mine was in that business. I called him, and he told me had just left a manufacturer to start his own company selling Intraocular Lenses (IOLs). He also mentioned that he knew a manufacturer, Storz Instrument Company, was looking for a Sales Rep to sell instruments and a new pharmaceutical product for reversing dilation drops that they were bringing to market.

I interviewed, got the job, and became, “An Eye Guy.” And that has made all the difference in my life and career.  Interestingly, years later, while traveling in Atlanta with a Sightpath Independent Sales Rep, Herb Stewart, we were talking generally about the industry. Herb turned to me and said, “When I die, Joel, on my tombstone, I want it to say, He was an Eye Guy.” Huh.

Of note here, is that a company called Midwest Surgical Services also began in April of 1991. This company will evolve into Sighpath Medical, where I now serve as the President and CEO.

Marketing and selling intersect

In my role at Storz, I became interested in the intersection between marketing and selling. Storz was not a pure Pharma company, so we didn’t hand out the “swag” that doctors expected to receive from reps at that time. So, I got my own swag made locally, and it worked out well.

Seeing a career ahead

Ophthalmology, because of the people and the technology, is a terrifically exciting field. I had some success in my first year in the business, so the company moved my family and me to a territory with more responsibility. Here I learned about marketing and selling Intraocular Lens Implants, and all of the surgical products used for that procedure. 

That was the good news. The bad news? It was in Buffalo , New York. Also, July 2, 1992, two weeks before I was scheduled to begin working in Buffalo, our second daughter, Anne, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota.

During my one year stay in Minnesota with Storz, the first Ophthalmologist that I got to know was Vance Thompson, MD. Vance was not long out of a corneal fellowship and specialized in the relatively new field called, refractive surgery. We became fast friends, he went on to become one of the most famous Ophthalmologists in the world, and remain grateful for all he taught, and continues to teach, me.

Shuffling off to Buffalo

In the third week of July in 1992, Jean and I, with a toddler and newborn in tow moved from our home state of Minnesota, where we’d both lived our entire lives, moved to Buffalo, New York. We didn’t know anyone. Not one person.

During our first weekend in Buffalo, we attended the Erie County Fair (Jean is the Minnesota State Fair’s number one fan). Here we discovered Chiavetta’s Chicken and are still huge fans of it today – if you’re never had it or heard of it, you’re missing out. They sell the marinade online, so do yourself a favor and order some now! You’ll be happy you did.

Once again, I was blessed with success in selling and marketing in my territory. And then one day, I got “the call.”

A quick story to set-up how the “ride-along” came to be

About a month prior to getting ‘the call,” I made an unplanned stop at a hospital in Medina, New York . The cause of this was a call from customer service about a materials management person who was refusing to pay a bill because it was “wrong.”

As it turns out, this guy didn’t want to pay his bill because our competitor was charging him less for a similar, but different, product. I explained the differences in the situation when the products were used, and that ours was stocked as an emergency back-up so it had low volume usage. 

He was unmoved and said, “I still won’t pay until you match their price. And, you shouldn’t stop in to see people without an appointment.”  Here was where the conversation got a little more interesting. 

First, I apologized for stopping in unannounced and invited, but explained that I happened to be driving by the exit for Medina on the New York State Thruway when I got the call from customer service. My intent was to help and resolve a problem – boy was I wrong about that!

Next, I explained again the nuance of the situations where the products were used and because of that, pricing them the same was not possible. Again, he was unmoved and insistent on a price reduction before he’d pay the bill (Perhaps not surprisingly to some of you dear readers, this guy’s predecessor signed the supply agreement and agreed to the pricing long ago.).

Here was when the whole deal went off-the-rails. My exasperated response to him was, “Unfortunately for you, Ioptex doesn’t set our prices.”  He erupted with anger and tossed me out of his office.

On my way out of the hospital and to my car, I received a call from the surgeon, whom I had not met,  that worked at that hospital. He calmly told me not ever to set foot in the hospital again and to learn professional etiquette and schedule appointments. Then, he hung up and, unbeknownst to me, sent a letter to the Vice-President of Sales and Marketing for Storz Instrument Company, Sam Alioto.

Around the same time as these events happened, our son Mike was born on September 20, 1993 in Williamsville, New York. 

The “ride-along” that changed my career

About 10 days after the incident, in the weekly company mail that came from Corporate, was the letter from this surgeon to Sam.  Sam put a handwritten note across it that read, “You’re not a good rep until you get thrown out of an hospital fighting for a higher price. Keep up the great work!”

As a twenty-seven year old husband and father of three small kids, seeing this letter took me on an emotional roller-coaster ride! I wondered, was Sam serious, or am I about to get fired?

Then came a call from Sam’s Admin asking if it was okay if he came to spend time with me in the field in two weeks? I never got fired before, so I didn’t know if this was how it worked, or not?

A wonderful week of learning

When I picked Sam up at the airport, I think he knew I was nervous. Because when he got in the car, the first thing he said, was, “You know, Joel, I don’t come out to ride with people to fire them.” Whew. Boy was I naive and relieved.

I remember on the first call we went on to visit a surgeon I was working to close some new business, I was struck by how at ease and candid Sam was with the surgeon. He spoke to him as a peer, respectfully challenged him about some of the objections he raised, and we came away closer to a sale than when we arrived.

Throughout the week, I watched this happen over-and-over. Also, Sam asked me about my goals, my family, and praised me on how quickly I’d turned around an underperforming territory.

When I let Sam off at the airport, before he got out of the car, he turned to me and said, “Don’t buy the house you’re thinking about. I’d like you to move your family to St. Louis (Corporate Office), you’ll become a Marketing Product Manager, learn to run a business, work alongside smart people, and take a little bit of a paycut to gain the experience.”

The last part of that sentence, about the pay cut, kind of slipped by me at the time. Even so, we took the assignment, moved to St. Louis, and I became the Marketing Product Manager for Surgical Instruments and Disposables.

Being a Marketing Product Manager taught me how to sell

The Yin and Yang of being a Marketing Product Manager, is that you have all of the responsibility of bringing in a number, but no authority over anyone to help you get there. Sort of like being a sales rep.

Our time in St. Louis was terrific for our family. The 1993 Sales Rep comp plan paid enough for us to put a downpayment on our first home, and we were excited. The work was invigorating, exhausting, the kids were loads of fun, and we loved every minute of it.

On July 7, 1995, our son, Ben, was born in Creve Couer, Missouri. We now had four kids under the age of five born in three different states. We were done with having babies, but not moving!

You’re pretty good at running the market leader, how are you with starting something?

During my time as a Product Manager at Storz, I worked with a lot of terrific people. My closest friend was the ENT Instrument Product Manager, Kevin Burke.

Being the ENT Product Manager at a company focused on Ophthalmology, was challenging. As a result, Kevin left to join XOMED Surgical in Jacksonville, Florida in the early part of 1996.

When he arrived there, a member of the executive team told Kevin they were looking to add an instrument product line sometime later in the year. They wanted  to supplement a collection of minor eye related disposable products they had. 

Kevin called me in the fall of 1996 and asked if I’d be interested in talking to them about the job. At first, I wasn’t. 

Then  the VP of Sales and Marketing, Mark Fletcher, called me and laid out his vision for what they were building, This was my first exposure to a Private Equity owned company and how they functioned.

Mark hooked me with a final question: “You’re doing well running the market leader, how do you feel about building something big from small?” That’s what I like!

Living in Florida and Private Equity

When we arrived in Florida, we were lucky enough to find a home a couple of blocks from the beach in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. It was 15 minutes from the office, and being from Minnesota, we were in heaven.

For about a year, the work was great. We went through the decision of sourcing products, buying a company, or signing a distribution arrangement to expand the ENT instrument line first. After signing a distribution agreement, I then went to work on sourcing instruments for Ophthalmology directly from manufacturers in Germany.

It was an exciting time. But at about the one-year mark, Warburg Pincus changed the entire senior management team, and I began working for a man I didn’t like, and I don’t think he liked me either. 

About three months after this change, Warburg took the company public for their liquidity event and I received a modest sum of money for my options. I remain grateful for this windfall, because it opened my eyes to what is possible.

I finished the projects I went there to do, launched the lines, and a made a decision to leave. In hindsight, how I walked out the door in July of 1997 with no guarantee of anything, and a wife and four small kids dependent on me still boggles my mind.

Southeast Surgical Services, Boss Instruments, and Precision Lens

As it always does, everything worked out. If you remember earlier in the story, I wrote about my cousin, Paul Ehlen, starting an IOL distribution company called Precision Lens and a mobile cataract services company called Midwest Surgical Services with his business partner, Ken Cameron.

Before I left XOMED, I called Paul and asked him if I might sell IOLs down in Florida for them as an Independent Rep. He made a few calls, got the necessary approvals, and I got started.

If you also think back to the beginning of the story, I wrote about growing up in Rochester, Minnesota. The home of the Mayo Clinic. 

The Mayo Clinic has a large presence in Jacksonville, Florida, too. It was my lucky day, and a surgeon I knew from Minnesota was now practicing at Mayo Jacksonville! Tim Schneider was kind enough to start using all of my products. And he even encouraged the other surgeons to do the same! 

To this day, I remain grateful to Tim for the way he supported my family and me.

To round out scraping a living together, I became an Independent Regional Manager for Boss Instruments and also imported my own instruments from the contacts I had made building the lines for XOMED.

Finally, I formed a company called Southeast Surgical Services to begin offering mobile cataract services to the northern Florida and Southern Georgia markets. About two months into getting this going, I received another called that altered the trajectory of my life.

The Precision Lens Days

On May 6th, 1998 Paul Ehlen called me and asked me if I’d like to move back to Minnesota to help him run Precision Lens? His partner, Ken Cameron, wanted to leave, and he was busy running Midwest Surgical Services.

After some negotiation, we came to an agreement. Most of the terms were on paper, but one that would turn out to be significant and acrimonious later, was a “handshake” deal to become a partner after a year.

So, for a final time, the Joel and Jean Gaslin family of six, packed up our belongings, and moved back home to Minnesota. Yes. From Florida. 

Professionally and personally, there is no person, outside of my immediate family, who influenced me more than Paul Ehlen. I owe him a debt of gratitude for teaching me through example that being of service, creative thinking, and doing what you said you were going to do when you said you’d do it, are the cardinal tenets of business success.

Over a couple of years, we put together a great group of people: Joe Elkjer, Chris Johnson, Pete Gosz, Chris Reichert, Pat Reichert, and Patrick McConachie on the management and sales side. With Linda Norling, Ellen Gnan, and Jackie Corah making sure that everything got done the way it was supposed to and that we were all where we needed to be when we needed to be there. That part wasn’t easy, I’m sure…

When I first arrived at Precision Lens in June of 1998, it was a collection of a several independent sales reps (Two of whom were having an affair and one of them was married), doing what they wanted and producing enough to make everyone happy.

For the first six-months, Paul was busy at Midwest Surgical, I looked after the independent reps as much as anyone could, and assumed the responsibility for the accounts Ken Cameron used to manage. 

Jean, the kids, and I settled in Eden Prairie, Minnesota on August 17, 1998 and we still live in the same house today.

Building relationships

There are many surgeons I worked with during my 11 1/2 years at Precision Lens, and none did more for me than Curt Wischmeier, MD. Curt was “Ken Cameron’s guy” and Paul told me right away that he didn’t think Curt liked him very much so I’d be on my own in trying to build a relationship there.

Dr. Wischmeier practiced and lived in Aberdeen, South Dakota. He is a terrifically smart man who is kind, generous to all, and a true gentleman. He is also an avid wine collector. Now keep in mind that this was 1998 so there wasn’t internet shipping and all of that stuff to be build a collection. It was work, especially in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

After Ken introduced me to Dr. Wischmeier during his farewell tour, I sensed that we connected on the wine angle because I told him my Father-in-law was in the wine business. I always made it a point to call him once a month, and also send handwritten notes asking if there was anything he needed.

One day, he called and asked if there were any way that I had a way to get a few cases of a certain wine he was seeking. He assured me that he wasn’t’t asking me to pay for it, only to help him find it.

Luckily, I found him 8 cases of it, he sent me check, and I delivered it to him in one of his satellite offices. My son, Mike, rode with me for the delivery and I wrote more about this story of this trip here.

After this, my business seemed to take off. I stopped looking for ways to sell my products to people, and instead sought to help them solve their problems. It comes to the old saying that there’s not a lot of traffic on the extra mile.

Precision Lens hits its stride

At about this same time one of the companies we distributed for bought a smaller IOL Divison of a large Pharma company that had little market share. The company developed a new IOL technology that demonstrated improved contrast sensitivity that had a positive impact in patients reaction time in low light conditions.

The problem was, they weren’t selling many because they cost more than the standard IOL. This was the first time I crafted a message and invited my customer into a story to help them solve their problem.

In Minnesota and the upper Midwest, reaction time in low-light, slippery conditions are common much of the year. So what I did was wrote story about how the way this lens worked was like antilock brakes on your car in the winter. You don’t really know why or how they do what they do, you just know you stop quicker. 

That’s what the aspheric properties of this IOL did for patients. They didn’t know why they were seeing better, but they were and doctors could talk to them about it because it was on the fad approved labeling.

We. Smoked. Sales. With. Tecnis. IOL. Absolutely killed it, and never looked back.

Strategic planning pays off

In the early days, Paul and I met with our accountant and business advisor, Jack Amundson, each year to do strategic planning. The first year, I listened, and didn’t say much.

In year two, things changed. If you recall, I wrote earlier about a “handshake” part of my negotiated arrangement to come and join Paul at Precision Lens.

After the risks I took, it was important to me that I be a partner, and not an employee. Call it ego or whatever you want, but I think it was self preservation. In hindsight, it was definitely ego, and I regret it.

The handshake was that Paul agreed to explore partnership after one year of seeing if we were a “fit.” Unfortunately, in that year, he had a couple of bad business partnership breakups, and wanted to maintain full control.

Instead, he agreed to pay me the percentage he was planning to sell me of the net income of the company over what it was making today for as long as I wanted to stay. My base salary and benefits were good, 

I understood why he felt like he did, because I saw the bad blood with his partners, it seemed like a reasonable plan, and I was grateful for the opportunity. In the end, I made a lot of money, and the arrangement also planted the seeds of the demise of our relationship.

Speaking up and articulating a vision

During the second strategic planning meeting, with a new compensation model in-place, I became more active in the planning process. For example, Paul suggested that he was fine with keeping what we had, and his income remaining what it was for the foreseeable future. 

That didn’t work for me because if that happened, my income didn’t grow.

My response to this statement was, “If the company doesn’t grow, we’re going backwards.” Jack agreed and said, “Where do you see us going, Joel?” I said, “I believe we can become the gatekeeper to new ophthalmic technologies sold to the Ophthalmologists in the seven states that we cover.”

Growth and breaking bad

As time passed, Paul made similar compensation arrangements with the rest of the team. Each iteration caused his “take” to remain the same, and mine to get smaller as a percentage, but expand in dollars because we were growing so fast.

I was always willing to have my percentage shrink, but it was never enough those who came-in behind me. The environment became “Lord of the Flies” like as everyone knew what everyone else was making. 

This, I believe, was the fatal mistake. Humans, especially sales reps, aren’t wired to accept a situation as it is and be grateful. We always want, if he’s got more, what the other guy has. 

For me, it wasn’t that. I recognized and believed that Paul started the business and should always make the most. Regardless of how much he worked.

What I wanted, was to remove the uncertainty that his mercurial nature might one day lead to him taking away “the deal.” And eventually, one day came. And he blew up “The Deal.”

Moving on from Precision Lens

I wrote and article for the Success Magazine Blog called, “Ten Things I Learned When I was Knocked From My White Horse” about what happened after “The Deal” was rescinded, so I won’t go into it here. It was shared more than 35,000 times, so there are many people who can relate to enduring a knockdown blow.

There’s still more to come on the conflict with Paul Ehlen and me. And what’s also true is that today we enjoy a solid, and somewhat guarded, friendship. 

It took two to Tango. I recognize my part in what happened, I forgive him, and I believe he forgives me. My version of the past is gratitude for the good times we had, the relationships built along the way, and all I learned working with Paul and the other people at Precision Lens.

Sightpath Medical

The bad partnership breakup I referred to for Paul Ehlen earlier, was when he and his partners sold Midwest Surgical Services (MSS) to Laser Vision Centers (LVCI). It was two against one, and Paul maybe lost the battle, but ultimately won the war. 

That is, if money is measuring stick for winning in business. And make no mistake, it is.

When Paul sold MSS, he took cash, and also signed long-term consulting arrangements for Precision Lens to remain the agent for the services provided by LVCI and MSS in the states we covered. Also, Precision Lens remained the supplier to MSS of all cataract products that we distributed – regardless of where they were used.

It was a brilliant strategy. And I believe no one, except Paul, saw where it might go. It probably seemed like an easy “give” in a negotiation.

This arrangement went on for fifteen years, and the supply aspect remains to this day. MSS and LVCI were later combined into one entity called, Sightpath Medical (SPM).

The story doesn’t end here. If you’d like to be updated as new stories, ideas, strategies are posted on this blog, please fill in your name and email below.

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