Selling to vets in the 1970s

Working as a veterinary sales representative involved novel products, travelling and a lot of networking

02 November 2020, at 7:20am

Seeing the remake of the popular television series All Creatures Great and Small brought back memories of my days as a veterinary sales representative – travel­ling from one end of the UK to the other in my trusty Morris 1000 Traveller car provided by the company I worked for, Portex. What was so different back then was the product range. They were new to the veterinary world and I ended up promoting products that were well ahead of their time: they were made out of plastic and were disposable. Who then had heard of a disposable arm-length glove, a dispos­able endotracheal tube and an IV cannula that was pre-packed and sterile ready for one use?

The company was based in Hythe in Kent and was highly respected in the medical world as one of its product innovators, so it was decided they could do the same in the veterinary market. I was the chosen one to do just this, sup­ported by an excellent marketing team back at the ranch and wonderful managing director Wally Crossland.

FIGURE (1) Veterinary colleges became interested in the products. Pictured left to right: John Periam, Don Allen (Portex), Geoff Arthur (Bristol veterinary college), Clifford Formston (RVC) and Wally Crossland (Portex)
FIGURE (1) Veterinary colleges became interested in the products. Pictured left to right: John Periam, Don Allen (Portex), Geoff Arthur (Bristol veterinary college), Clifford Formston (RVC) and Wally Crossland (Portex)

Each Monday I put my sample cases in my car and, with my trusty Labrador, Shelley, by my side, set off to visit another part of the UK. I booked my accommodation the Friday before using my road map and the UK Veterinary Directory which listed all the vets. I preferred to stay more in the country due to having Shelley with me and to visit the rural practices. In those days, small animal practices were just starting to develop – hence the large animal ones were top of the list.

I would normally leave home at about 5am on the Monday and drive to the area I had selected for the week, staying in one hotel and working a clover leaf, each day returning to base. That way, my evenings were more enjoyable as I became part of the local community – often returning when in the area again. I made appointments ahead of time and sometimes did cold calls when passing a practice. My tweed jacket and cords made me look more rural and I had my wellies in the car if needed.

It was often the senior partner who saw me and as I opened my sample case a look of shock would come over him. “What on earth are these items?!” was often the norm. “A disposable endotracheal tube at 21 shillings? I use my red rubber one over and over again. Why do I need to put a glove on – no brucellosis here! And a horse stomach tube made out of plastic? What next?”

In those days my number one rule was “the customer is always right”, until the word “sample” came into the conversation. “Do you mean to say you are giving me a box of arm-length gloves and an endo tube to use with your compliments?” Sometimes a call would result in a visit to a local farm where the gloves were tried out or I was taken to watch surgery on a local Labrador that needed intubation with one of our free plastic ET tubes. Often an order would follow, other than when one of the arm-length gloves decid­ed to split – they improved as the months went on! In fact they became our largest product seller.

My first BVA exhibition followed at Southport when in fact I met for the first time Alf Wight (James Herriot) – he gave me a signed copy of his first book and invited me to visit his practice. He loved what we produced and ordered on a regular basis via his veterinary supplier. In the Herriot museum they have some of our first products on show.

Equestrian conferences followed as we produced more equine products including the popular mare vaginal specu­lum set. I met Stan Cosgrove who was based in Ireland and used to visit him often – he could not support us enough. I spent a whole night with him looking after six donkeys owned by Lady Mactaggart near Cork whilst he put them on drips and tended to their every need in a cold stable. Shel­ley loved her trips to Ireland crossing by ferry to Dublin and meeting Prof Paddy McGeady from the Dublin veterinary college who always spoilt her.

FIGURE (2) John Periam (centre) shares a story with vets on a visit to the Portex headquarters in Kent
FIGURE (2) John Periam (centre) shares a story with vets on a visit to the Portex headquarters in Kent

As the products took off, the veterinary colleges got more interested. I made good friends with Professor Formston from the Royal Veterinary College and Geoff Arthur from the Bristol college (Figure 1). Clifford Formston even invited me to spend two weeks behind the scenes at the Royal Veterinary College at Potters Bar. Our doors at Hythe likewise were always open (Figure 2).

One day I received a phone call from my manager asking me to pop into the office that Friday. “What are you doing on Monday?” he asked. “Well, you are going to the American Embassy in London to get your visa. We want you to go to the Houston veterinary college and then on to Canada to visit the Guelph college.” For the next six years, the world became my oyster and I seemed to be hopping off one aircraft to another the next day whilst still looking after UK sales. I did manage to get another rep on board and he did a lot in the North of England for me.

Of course things changed! I perhaps had one of the best times in selling. Customers became friends and often I would stay over with them. Expense accounts were very good indeed and my colleague in accounts from time to time looked at me in amazement when he saw a dinner for 12 at one of the many conferences I attended.

Where I was lucky was that my manager liked me and he did see some excellent sales returns as a result of my efforts, to such an extent that Portex were able to appoint distributors to stock their range of veterinary products. I also did send some lengthy reports for management that showed them what I was doing on a regular basis. We took on some veterinary advisors also and they helped develop new products with the company’s marketing team.

After some 12 years with the company I moved on to pastures new in the medical sales world. The reason was that the appointed distributors were taking over the bulk of my work and I could see changes within the profession with an emphasis on the pharmaceutical market with many more sales reps around resulting in high pressure sales. I remained good friends with many of those I met. They became my mentors and memories abound of our times together along with many others – too many to mention here.

John is a photojournalist; he worked as a veterinary salesman in the 1960s and still has strong links to the profession through his equestrian work. John is also a regional correspondent for a trade paper for the UK fishing industry.

More from this author