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Equipment Refurbisher Takes a Shine to Virtual Team Players

May 06, 1997|NICK SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lloyd Henry, founder and president of Biotech Marketing Inc., which buys and sells used and refurbished hospital equipment, likes to hire people without meeting them.

"The important thing to me is, does the person relate on a personal basis over the phone?" Henry says. "Often, I'm more convinced by what I hear than what I see. After five or six phone conversations, you can tell what people are made of."

That's good, because Henry rarely sees his employees, except for his wife, Anita, who handles marketing and customer service from their company headquarters in their Margate, Fla., home. The rest of his staff is in Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis and Los Angeles.

"You don't have time to make money if you sit around in meetings telling each other how great everyone is," says Henry, whose company's sales are close to $10 million a year.

Managing employees remotely is fast becoming one of the true business art forms of the '90s. A decade of corporate downsizing has left hundreds of thousands of middle-aged, tech-savvy professionals looking for new ways to work and live. Many of them are reluctant to relocate and are looking for home-based job opportunities.

"After the last five years of corporate layoffs, a lot of people are finding the best way to excel is to work on their own terms," said Tom Miller, vice president of the New York-based Emerging Technologies Research Group, which studies the impact of technology and work on culture.

"Many of these people are tempted by the ease of computer networking to break out of the corporate rat race and consult. From a management perspective, the key is to find people who are good self-starters," Miller said.

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Entrepreneurs such as Henry, who buys used equipment from hospitals, then refurbishes it and resells it to other hospitals, are hungry to hire mature and independent employees. But putting together a virtual team is not as easy as it sounds.

"We've had a few personnel changes," said Henry, who started the business four years ago after burning out as a financial consultant who spent months on the road. "Some of our people just couldn't keep up with the learning curve and didn't pan out. All were laid off by larger organizations and didn't realize that working remotely by yourself takes a tremendous amount of discipline."

Henry said more difficult than managing remote employees is managing customers' expectations.

"They're used to salespeople coming around to take them out to lunch," Henry said. "We don't do that, but we do provide a much higher level of service. We can have an engineer on the phone in a minute."

For all the media coverage about sophisticated technology, the plain old telephone--with a host of services--is the backbone of Biotech Marketing's infrastructure. A toll-free number is answered at Margate's headquarters. His monthly phone bill averages $3,000 to $4,000.

Conference calls among the field representative, customer or vendor and Margate headquarters are common. Any office can forward calls to another; any office can also patch another office into a call when needed.

Henry and his wife have seven incoming lines; other staffers have two or three lines each. Henry generates price quotes and faxes or e-mails them to field reps. The reps all have personal computers and color printers to create presentations.

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It's a plain-vanilla setup with the advantages of a quick start-up, a short learning curve for employees and no need for a high-tech network manager or Internet guru.

"Many of our customers are rural hospitals, so the bulk of sales work is done over the phone," Henry said. "One customer is located 80 miles from the nearest McDonald's."

Henry said his system is set up to provide customers with up-to-the-minute responses on product availability, pricing and delivery.

Researcher Miller said that while companies like Biotech Marketing gain efficiency with electronic communications, "anyone who says that remote work is the same as working together is fooling themselves."

He says remote workers miss "the water-cooler interaction."

But Henry says his secret of success is "hiring professional, mature people."

"We're all 45 years old or older. We've been through the rat race. Now we're at a point in our lives where we want to look at the quality of life. Our associate in Denver, for instance, loves to ski. There's no reason he can't work thousands of miles from our main office here in Florida."

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Jane Applegate returns next week. You can reach Nick Sullivan at www.smalloffice.com

* LEARNING CURVE: Entrepreneur John Gill turned a vision into a stainless-steel, moneymaking reality. D2

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