Her enthusiasm and drive have kept Cheryl Peterson on a successful course
Cheryl Peterson’s dedication to animal healthcare began long before she joined a mid-size rural veterinary practice in 1979. The Midwest Veterinary Supply sales manager “had a love for animals and was a critter collector from day one.” Growing up, she “had the bug” for everything from horseback riding to nursing wildlife. At one point, she cared for a robin, she confesses. Another time, she convinced a friend to hand over a wild raccoon, which she raised and released at the end of the summer. Her drive and ambition, however, took Peterson from enthusiast to professional, transforming her into the sales consultant she is today.
Brains over brawn
Soon after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1979 and beginning veterinary technician school, Peterson accepted a position at an animal clinic just outside of the Twin Cities. Her hands-on role at the clinic provided a much stronger education than she could have anticipated. “I was introduced to large animals there, from livestock, herds and beef/dairy cattle to swine and sheep,” she recalls. “I was a young, scrawny thing doing chute work.” And, doing it quite successfully, she adds, as the job called for “more skill than brawn.
“I did it all,” Peterson continues. In addition to working with larger animals, she cared for and groomed dogs. In addition, she was a purchaser for the clinic, she often accompanied the veterinarian on calls and even assisted with surgery. “After two years, when the practice opened a satellite clinic in Olivia, Minn., I was sent to run it,” she says. “It was a small practice, but it gave me experience managing staff.”
In 1987, Peterson moved to the Twin Cities, where she became head technician at an equine practice, Minnesota Valley Equine. The clinic’s proximity to a horse race track ensured a constant flow of patients. “We had veterinarians from across the country utilizing the facility,” she says. Her days were busy, but she enjoyed the routine. “I’d wake up and be at the racetrack by 6 a.m., where I would hot-walk the horses (allowing them to cool down),” she recalls. “I wanted to see first hand what was involved working in the racehorse industry.” By 8 a.m., she would be at the clinic, ready to oversee staff and assist with patients.
“I started to wonder if I would enjoy becoming a veterinarian myself,” says Peterson. So, in addition to working full time, she began evening classes. From the start, she boasted near-perfect grades, and within a couple of years was ready to apply for veterinary school. At one point, she left her clinic, moved closer to the University of Minnesota, and took a position in the hematology and chemistry department at the veterinary college. “I worked nights and weekends, and on call,” she says. “I got experience doing blood work, CBCs, chemistries, urinalyses and parasitology, as well as assisting on research projects.”
Nonetheless, as the time approached for Peterson to take the GRE exam, which would qualify her to begin the final leg of veterinary school, she began to fret. Then, in 1988, a trip to the annual Minnesota statewide veterinary convention led to a whole new set of possibilities. Having purchased supplies from Midwest Veterinary Supply through the years, she had an opportunity to meet up with sales rep Steve Krueger. Krueger pointed out that – rather than stressing over GREs and living the “dirt-poor student’s life” – perhaps she would be better suited to sales.
“I met Dr. Flickinger, who owned Midwest Veterinary Supply,” Peterson says. “He looked at me and asked, ‘What do you think about the state of Indiana?’” Before long, she interviewed with the company, joining them soon afterward, in April 1988. “I discovered this was my calling,” she says. “I had always loved teaching others; in fact, my former employer would tell me, ‘You should be a teacher or a veterinarian.’” Working as a veterinary product sales rep offered the best of all worlds.
“From the start, I had so much fun working with Midwest Veterinary Supply,” Peterson reminisces, noting that it wasn’t long before she had her sights on a territory in Minnesota that belonged to a sales rep who was preparing to retire. As fate would have it, before the Minnesota territory became available, another opportunity presented itself in Indiana. Almost immediately, she relocated to oversee a territory that included half of the state. While working that territory, she helped launch a heartworm product manufactured by a company currently known as Novartis – a project that “opened doors for me,” she adds.
“I never did get that veterinary degree,” says Peterson. Instead, her territory grew successfully. In time, she was promoted to regional manager, while she continued to handle her accounts. “My key to succeeding at this has always been communication,” she points out. “Our team’s success is based on how well our group communicates. And, whenever a problem arises, I have always fixed it immediately.”
Today, Peterson serves on the Midwest Veterinary Supply Board as the corporate sales liaison with field sales reps. “My job is to tell corporate management what is going on with the field reps and what they need to get their job done,” she says. “I also let the field reps know, this is what we all need to do in order to get your job done. I’m a big corporate cheerleader.”
But, being successful calls for more than teamwork and efficiency, she continues. “It’s also important to have fun,” she says. “Having fun and feeling like a family is key.” It was important in the early days of her sales career at Midwest Veterinary Supply, and it continues to be so 28 years later. “That’s really how it is: We are family.”
Today’s animal healthcare landscape is quite different from 37 years ago, when Peterson joined the industry as a veterinary technician. “Mixed animal practices have virtually disappeared,” she says. “Today, sales reps have straight equine accounts, swine accounts, cattle/dairy accounts and small animal accounts. And, small animal accounts [comprise] the largest portion of the industry. Nevertheless, sales reps should be prepared to service all types of veterinarians, she adds. “New sales reps should educate themselves about large-animal practices by doing volunteer work,” she recommends. “If reps aren’t comfortable with large-animal accounts, they’ll miss out on this business. “Don’t ever give up,” she advises. “Ask questions and continue calling on these accounts.”
Indeed, this is not an easy business for sales reps to negotiate. “It’s much harder to be a sales rep today than it once was,” says Peterson. Sure, “30 years ago it was hard in the sense that we didn’t have cell phones.” Finding a phone booth, calling in orders, picking up messages and calling back veterinarians late at night (instead of sending an email reply) could be challenging. “Technology has made our job easier,” she says. But, it has also made it more difficult. “It is a dumping ground! Our computer inboxes are always filled, and we really need to know how to sift through it all. Organization is more important than ever.
Thirty years ago, the industry was much less developed, and sales reps and veterinarians didn’t understand flea biology the way they do today, Peterson continues. “Today, veterinarians have more sophisticated technology, which we need to understand. We also need to understand heartworm products, vaccines and more,” making it more important than ever “to really know your customers and understand what products and solutions will best meet their needs,” she explains. “Know which products are important to your customers. Know which products will help them run a successful practice.”
The biggest mistake a sales rep can make is “thinking he or she has all of the answers,” she says. “Sales reps must ask questions, listen to the answers and learn from their peers. It’s important to be mentored.” And be open-minded, she adds: “A sales rep’s first success may come about at a small-town practice, not necessarily in the big city.”
Regardless, be persistent and don’t take anything personally. “I was talking to a veterinarian customer recently who told me that I’m diversified and can work well with people,” she continues. Her secret? “She takes the emotion out of sales, and if things don’t appear to be moving in the right direction, “I work even harder.”
Moving forward, sales reps will need to be increasingly flexible in order to succeed, notes Peterson, especially as the manufacturer base shrinks. “What reps may think is important today could change tomorrow,” she says. “It’s important to know what is best for your customers. Keep an eye on new technology and [be aware of] the best solutions for your customers.” At the same time, it’s also important to know when to “move your cheese” and move on, she adds.
At the end of the day
Midwest Veterinary Supply sales manager Cheryl Peterson’s days are plenty busy managing her sales team and meeting her veterinary customers’ needs. However, at the end of the day, her focus is on her 13-year-old daughter, Emma. “I adopted Emma from China in 2003, when she was nine months old,” she says. “I work hard during the day, but my daughter is the most important thing in my life.”
Juggling home and work life often means getting up at 3 or 4 a.m. in order to catch up with work before waking her daughter at 6 a.m. and getting her to school on time. That’s no problem, says Peterson. “But, my evenings are [dedicated to] Emma’s homework, school events and whatever else she may have going on.”
Does she mind that her daughter doesn’t appear to share her love for horses? Not at all, she says. “I enjoyed owning several horses through the years, but since my daughter doesn’t have the horse bug like I do, I’ve pulled away from all of that. I’ve traded in my horses for my love of gardening, a lake home in Indiana, a condo in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico, where my daughter enjoys surfing!”
Steve Harry, DVM, Dupont Veterinary Clinic, Fort Wayne, Indiana
“I have known Cheryl for many years now and truly value what a great business relationship we have. I have told my staff numerous times that I see Cheryl as a business partner. I don’t think I have ever said that about any other rep.
“Last week at our weekly clinic management meeting, I had brought up the possibility of bringing in a new product and promoting some different combinations. The management team immediately put up their defenses and shot down the ideas. I told them, ‘Wait a second, this came from Cheryl, and we need to reconsider this because Cheryl isn’t just looking out for herself. Cheryl has our back and is thinking about what makes the most sense for DVC. We need to listen and think long term here.’
“I think several things have set Cheryl apart for me. First, I know she has been around a while and, Lord willing, will be here for me in the future. Second, Cheryl works harder than anyone else I know in the business. I appreciate that. Third, and perhaps most importantly, she cares about me and the success of my business. Of course, she wants to make money for herself. But she realizes that working for me, rather than just selling to me, is in both of our best interests in the long term. [I like that] we both value our relationships with the different pharmaceutical reps and want to treat them fairly and with respect. But Cheryl is going to look out for my best business decisions before she concerns herself about what her reps may think. It may occasionally put her in an awkward position, but her loyalty is always first to me, her client. Lastly, Cheryl will go to bat for me with our pharmaceutical reps. She will help work deals behind the scenes and make things happen, saving me time, money and energy.
“I think Cheryl and I both like to be a step ahead of our colleagues (competitors) and, as such, we both like to think outside the box. Doing business like that makes it fun and stimulating to get together for discussions. I don’t view our time together as a duty or a waste of my time. I view it as valuable and motivating. Her energy is contagious for me.
“That’s Cheryl: She works hard. She has my back. She cares about me and my business, for the benefit of us both. She is loyal to me above the vendors we both work with. She is always thinking and helps me plan and strategize. And that’s why I am loyal to her.”
Steve Bales, DVM, practice owner, Bluffton Animal Clinic, Llc, Bluffton, Indiana
“I consider Cheryl a valuable partner in practice, as her pulse is right on target with industry changes. I often bounce ideas off of her, as I know she will give me an honest answer. She is the gold standard of what reps should do for veterinarians and I would fear her if she were not on my team, because it is hard to beat someone who is knowledgeable and operates with the upmost of integrity. In addition:
• She is fully vested in our industry and is the most knowledgeable rep I have ever worked with in 25 years.
• I consider her part of my team. She knows all my staff and helps energize them with little spiffs etc., but mainly by just caring and encouraging me to do more for them.
• She knows pharmaceutical company programs inside and out – probably better than her competitors do!
• She knows how to make things happen.
• She always brings other drug reps with her to ensure we understand details of all products.
• She understands that [her solutions] must benefit the client and the veterinary community first. If it does this, her company will also benefit.
• She is honest and trustworthy, which gives her an incredible amount of credibility.”