Following Doctors’ Orders

High-end wheelchairs drive this company’s growth

by Holly Hungerford

medicalstore_lead_0004Since 2006, Chris Henry has been the owner of The Medical Store, a medical equipment dealer with locations in South Burlington and Barre. He bought the business from the founder, Maureen Henry, who’s also his mother.

Many young boys grow up with a dog. Not Chris Henry. “I was 10 years old when my mother opened the business, so I’ve lived and breathed it all my life,” he says.“The business” is The Medical Store, which his mother, Maureen Henry, launched in 1983. A former nurse, she had been doing customer service in the medical equipment industry for 10 years. When the company she was working for went out of business, she briefly contemplated returning to nursing. Instead, supported by her husband, John Henry, a manager at IBM, she opened the store in South Burlington.

The business grew and Maureen opened a branch in Barre in 1992. Like the rest of his family, Chris worked at the South Burlington store through high school and summers during college. He recalls with a laugh, “When I was 15 years old I was training drivers, but they had to drive because I didn’t have my license!”

Following graduation in 1994 from West Virginia University with a degree in business management, Henry was encouraged by his parents to gain experience elsewhere. He spent three years working for a bank and struggling with a career selling life insurance. In 1997 he returned to The Medical Store to spend time in billing, marketing, and operations management, getting a feel for the many aspects of the business.

Still unsure if he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the medical equipment industry and anxious to experience life outside of Vermont, he left the state — although not the medical equipment business — in 2002. “My brother, Kevin, now an attorney in Burlington, was living in D.C.,” he says. “I was going down there, interviewing for jobs, staying with him for months at a time.”

An opportunity finally arose with The Med Group, a group-purchasing organization that included The Medical Store. “I had a good relationship with the president and CEO of the company,” says Henry. “I interviewed for the Northeast regional manager position and got it.”

Henry’s territory covered New England south through Virginia and north to Michigan. He worked with some 60 independent stores, making sure they took advantage of group purchasing and the products and services The Med Group offers. Working with businesses of all sizes, Henry gained a good idea of “how to be successful and how to be unsuccessful,” he says — knowledge that has stood him in good stead.

On the road Monday through Thursday, he loved it — at least for the first three years. “It was my third overnight in the Philadelphia airport,” he recalls, “and I decided I’d pretty much had enough.” The timing was opportune, as his parents were ready to retire.

In February 2006, Henry returned to Vermont. “I felt so much more confident,” he says. “I had a vision of what I thought I could do here. I presented my mother with a proposal for taking over and she immediately accepted.” It took about a year to work out the details of the transition.

The South Burlington store is housed in a 10,000-square-foot building on Airport Parkway. It sells medical equipment ranging from wheelchairs, beds, and walkers, to wrist and knee braces, compression garments, and sleep therapy products. Complex rehabilitation equipment makes up 50 percent of the store’s sales, says Henry. “High-end wheelchairs — both power and manual — for people with spinal cord injuries and degenerative illnesses: This is the engine behind our company and our growth.”

And grow it has. Since Henry took over in April 2007, the company has experienced 30 percent growth. “There’s a danger to growing that quickly,” he cautions. “We found that out pretty fast in areas we didn’t anticipate. Our service department was a little overloaded and struggled for a bit.”

That was a big worry, because service represents a large part of The Medical Store’s income. Complex rehab equipment requires servicing to keep it functioning efficiently and effectively. Unlike other businesses where customers bring their products in to be fixed, service staff at The Medical Store make house calls to do the work. Henry is concerned that he may not be able to continue servicing products in this way for much longer.

“The changes in health care have been such that they’re forcing us to eliminate some of the services we’ve provided for people in the past,” he explains. “More and more we’re asking people to bring their equipment in to be repaired, which is a huge issue for many people. It’s not as easy for them to get to us as it is for us to get to them.”

Faced with costs that go up and reimbursement that goes down, Henry has had to become smarter and more efficient, using technology to his advantage and making sure there is enough profit on each sale to cover its servicing down the road. “You’re never reimbursed for the service it takes, so we have to do well on the sale of equipment,” he says, adding, “Like many in the health care industry, we have received numerous rate cuts from both state and federal programs as well as from private insurance. Our goal is to adapt to smaller margins and become more efficient within our business practices.”

Becoming more efficient does not mean letting any of the 19 full-time and two part-time employees go, Henry says. “We have the best staff in the area as far as selling and servicing complex rehab equipment.”

One of those employees is his older sister, Kirsten Hanson. Hanson started work at the store in 1995. A 1990 graduate of Trinity College with a bachelor of arts in psychology, she had just had her second child. She stayed home with her first son, but found it didn’t work financially. When her mother needed help at the store, she jumped right in. “I was ready; I wanted to,” she says, admitting that there were times earlier in her life when that was the last thing she wanted to do.

“In college I wanted to save the world,” she recalls. Indeed, she did her best to do so in the three years she worked at the Baird Center for Children & Families supervising the long-term residential care program. Although no longer working in human services, she draws on her training and experience regularly. “I use psychology every day with customers and staff,” she says.

Today Hanson is the customer service manager. She is also a certified compression fitter for compression garments. “The truth of the matter is, I have my hands in just about everything,” she reveals with a laugh.

Hanson has developed a close relationship with physical therapists in the area, often going to PT offices to measure and fit patients for compression garments and holding a weekly burn clinic at Fletcher Allen Health Care for patients there who need such garments. Compression therapy has become well-used in recent years, but when it arrived on the scene, Hanson worked very closely with two physical therapists at Fletcher Allen to educate them — and herself — about these garments. “Justine Dee, Cindy Dion, and I were all learning together,” Hanson says. “We took care of one patient at a time.”

“She has established herself as the most knowledgeable person in the area in regard to compression therapy and has really developed a niche in that business,” says Henry.

Vivian Desaliers, who suffers from primary lymphedema in her leg, is one of Hanson’s customers. She has been traveling to South Burlington from the south shore of Montreal since 2003. “I was very disappointed with the service in the store I was going to in Montreal,” she says. She called Jobst, a manufacturer of compression garments, which referred her to The Medical Store. “From the beginning I have received excellent service, especially from Kirsten. She is professional and gives good advice about choosing the right garment for me.”

It’s not always easy for family members to work together, but Henry and Hanson are fortunate. Says Hanson, “We have such a good working relationship, it feels like a partnership, not an older sister working for a younger brother.”

Henry concurs. “Kirsten is a huge support on a daily basis — if she leaves, I’m leaving!” he says, joking. There was a time in the 1990s when the whole family worked in the business. “There were five of us,” recalls Henry, referring to his parents, himself and his and two siblings. “The problem was that you work with each other all day and then you go home and it’s right there. That was too much.”

One new family member has joined the group at The Medical Store: Carol Henry, Chris’ wife of six months and a graphic designer. She recently redid the company’s logo and works on creating ads. The couple knew each other when they attended South Burlington High School, but it wasn’t until they reconnected after college that they began to develop a friendship. They bought a house in Williston in 2008, and in August of last year were married in the Caribbean. “We like to travel,” says Henry.

Unlike his days with The Med Group, this traveling is for fun. •