Keeping the best Featured

8:00pm EDT July 30, 2006
 The employee was ill. Gravely ill. He had exhausted all of his paid time off. He couldn’t work.

Bob Peterson, president of Columbus Serum Co., didn’t have to make it his concern. After all, he was in the midst of growing his South Columbus veterinary supply distribution business into a $170 million company. Yet, Peterson couldn’t turn a blind eye to his long-term employee’s plight. So he kept that employee on payroll — the entire time he was battling cancer. “We continued to pay him while he was off for two years,” Peterson says. “He tried to come in if he was having a good day, but he just couldn’t work on a regular basis.

“If we hadn’t paid for him, he wouldn’t have had any income.”

Peterson says that the employee eventually filed for disability with Social Security, but even that wouldn’t have been enough to get him through.

Unfortunately, the story does not have a happy ending. The employee died in October 1995. Yet the impact of that one employee’s situation has been profound.

“I made the determination then that we needed to look at getting a better benefit policy in place,” Peterson says.

Today, Columbus Serum offers a whole array of benefits and insurance options — and continues to pay at least two-thirds of every employee’s health care premiums. That’s no small feat in the face of double-digit health insurance increases year after year.

Still, Peterson says, it’s worth every cent.

“You’re only as good as the people you have working for you,” he says. “Woody Hayes said, ‘You win with people.’ I believe that’s true.”

Peterson’s belief has translated into great loyalty and stability within his work force. “We’re fortunate we’ve got a lot of long-term employees here,” Peterson says. “Inside sales, I’d probably say, stay five to seven years. Outside sales ... probably 10 years plus. We’ve got some salespeople who have been here since the early ‘80s. We’ve got a lot of employees that have been here as long as I’ve been here. And I’ve been here 28 years.”

Right off the top of his head, Peterson lists three employees who have been with the company more than 30 years. One of them is his younger brother, Bruce, who holds the title of senior vice president and shares both the leadership and the ownership of Columbus Serum equally with Peterson.

“I think they enjoy working at Columbus Serum,” Peterson says of the long-term employees at his 84-year-old company. “Although we’ve become a fairly good-sized company, we still try to keep that family atmosphere. We’ve been successful; they’ve been successful. I guess successful people like doing what they’re doing, and we’ve really given them no reason to leave.”

What he has given them are plenty of reasons to stay. Here are a few of them.

Radical upgrades in the company’s benefit plan began in the mid-’90s, when both long- and short-term disability insurance were added.

“Having experienced what we had to do for that one employee, we wanted to make it available to others,” Peterson says. “We also improved our life insurance coverage.”

Employees can now get coverage up to double their annual earnings, as well as accidental death and dismemberment insurance. Disease-specific policies for cancer, stroke, heart attack and the like are also available.

“We just had a long-term employee who passed away from cancer in April, and when she was diagnosed with leukemia last fall, she had just taken out a cancer policy through one of the insurance companies,” Peterson says. “And when she went in for her initial round of chemo, she received a check for $30,000. That covered all of her out-of-pocket expenses — and she had some money left over.

“Unfortunately, she had to go back in two more times. But she thanked me, personally, for making that benefit available, although she did pay for it.”

Columbus Serum also offers dental insurance, a 401(k) plan and a flex plan, where pre-tax dollars can be set aside for health-related expenses such as eyeglasses, prescriptions, co-pays, childcare and even for some over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin. But that’s not all.

“Long-term care, we also made that available four or five years ago,” Peterson says. “Assisted living is very costly. You can buy this policy very inexpensively, and it would cover you for however many years you determine, either at home or in an assisted living facility.”

It sounds like a lot to offer employees, but Peterson says he would have it no other way. “That’s how we look out for employees,” he says. “You want to make sure they have the coverage.”

Training and promotions
Peterson also wants to make sure employees have all the tools to succeed, and that means teaching them how to handle change. At a company growing as much as Columbus Serum has in the past few years, change is almost constant.

Since 2000, the company has grown its work force by 67 percent, its sales by 70 percent and its geographical reach by 93 percent. “You’ve got to be able to embrace change,” Peterson says. “There’s so much change that has happened in the last few years, and you have to be able to adapt yourself and be able to take chances.”

Peterson strives to make change as seamless as possible at his company by leaning on technology to ease the added workloads caused by company growth and new regulations. He also makes sure the impact of every possible change is well thought out.

“We’re making decisions for 250 employees and their families,” Peterson says. “We’ve got to be sure we make the right decisions — not only for ourselves but for them. Too many times, people make decisions based on what’s best for their own needs, but you have to take into consideration your employees.

“Bruce and I usually consult with our managers to get feedback from them to make sure (a proposed change) makes sense — or they come forward and make suggestions to us, and we’ll evaluate what they tell us. We have a management team that helps make decisions.”

The team includes both Peterson brothers, Peterson’s son Craig, the CFO and the manager from whichever area would be impacted most by the change.

“If it affects the warehouse, then we’d include the warehouse director of operations, or we’d bring in the inside sales manager if it affects inside sales, or outside sales if it affects outside sales. I’m not sitting up here saying, ‘We’re going to do this.’ I’m getting input from our managers before we do any changes. If they’re not going to buy into it, it’s going to make it a difficult transition. I will add, though, that 99.9 percent of the time they’re in agreement.”

For example, sales reps now have vital information literally at their fingertips thanks to a decision to ramp up technology.

“All our sales representatives carry laptops,” Peterson says. “And they get their sales downloaded every morning along with a current inventory, so if they’re in a doctor’s office, they know if we have products in stock if the doctor or his staff asks.”

Soon, online ordering will be added to the sales reps’ arsenal, as well.

“Most of our competition has online ordering, and we probably have lost some business by not having it,” Peterson says. “We’re testing it right now.

“The communication is just so much quicker than it used to be.”

Peterson’s sales force also benefits from ongoing job training and sales powwows. “We have two sales meetings a year where we have product training, and then we might have conference calls over the year,” he says. “We’ll also have local meetings that our people will attend.

“At the sales meetings, we still talk about how they can better utilize the technology we have made available to them to make them more efficient.”

All of this helps keep his sales force equipped to succeed — and prone to stick around. For those who do, advancement could be in the cards.

“We try to promote from within,” Peterson says. “We’ve gone outside and hired, but I’d say the majority of our promotions are from within. Sometimes the position, like a CFO, [forces] you to basically go outside.”

Good products and big territories
Attracting and keeping good employees is always easier when a company is successful, Peterson says. So positioning within the market is paramount.

“A big key is aligning yourself with the key manufacturers who are going to bring out blockbuster products, because if you don’t have the right products to sell, you’re not going to be successful,” he says. “And if you’re not successful, you’re not going to keep the good people. They’ll go to other companies.

“Right now, we represent all but two of the key manufacturers, so we feel pretty good from that standpoint.”

Columbus Serum’s vendors, which number more than 150, include Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a popular pet food manufacturer owned by Colgate-Palmolive; Frontline Brand Products, makers of flea and tick repellents; Heartguard Plus, known for its heartworm prevention medicine; Pfizer Animal Health; and Abbott Laboratories Animal Health.

“We represent a lot of Fortune 500 companies,” Peterson says. “We’ll never be recognized as the biggest distributor, but we’re usually at the top in growth each year. And in the areas we service, from a marketshare standpoint, we’re usually No. 1, 2 or 3.”

That’s particularly impressive since the company’s reach now extends through 27 states.

“At one time we thought we could stay regional and be successful. But we discovered that we needed to get bigger. There are costs associated with doing business, and if you don’t have enough of a sales base to cover those costs, it’s hard to compete against the current environment we’re competing in.”

It appears that bigger has translated into better for Columbus Serum.

“I think the key thing is getting good people,” Peterson says of his company’s success. “You’re always looking for good employees. That’s always been a challenge.

“Being able to grow the business successfully and seeing people succeed ... that’s been the reward.”

HOW TO REACH: Columbus Serum Co., (614) 444-1155 or