or Ed Kuklenski, it simply was
time. After a 17-year career in group purchasing it was time to do something
So he ended his run last year as senior vice president of
shareholder services at Shawnee Mission, KS-based Child Health Corporation
of America, a long-time Premier Inc. shareholder organization, with
virtually nothing professional or work-related to fill his time, save for
figuring out what to do next.
Kuklenski didn’t have to wait long. Last fall he was
contacted by a well-known recruiter. By November, he was installed as the
new president and CEO of Suture Express, the Lenexa, KS-based specialty
distributor of suture and wound closure products.
In addition to his nearly two decades of experience in
healthcare group purchasing, Kuklenski co-founded FoodBuy, a national
group-buying company focused on the food service industry, where he serves
on the board of directors. His background also includes various sales,
marketing and general management positions at Baxter International Inc. and
American Hospital Supply Corp. (now part of Cardinal Health Inc.)
Kuklenski recently took time out of his busy schedule to
field a number of questions from Healthcare Purchasing News Senior
Editor Rick Dana Barlow about his plans for Suture Express, how he fits into
the company’s future and what his group purchasing expertise contributes to
HPN: You’re a long-time group purchasing guy with about two
decades of experience behind you, as well as nearly a decade in sales. What
attracted you about running a distributor – and one with such a specialized
KUKLENSKI: I know this will sound cliché but it was the
people and the opportunity to lead an organization that is truly making a
difference. When I first walked into Suture Express’ offices I was impressed
by the enthusiasm everyone had for the company, their customers and what
they were doing. It struck me that the employees at Suture Express didn’t
view the company as a distributor but rather a problem solver. They shared
with me numerous stories about customers calling Suture Express thanking
them for relieving their pain dealing with backorders, pricing
discrepancies, delivery issues, etc. It was apparent these folks had a
passion for what they were doing and loved the company.
Initially, I didn’t have an appreciation for just how broken
the supply chain is for wound closure – suture and endo – products and how
well positioned Suture Express is to capitalize on the opportunity. I’ve
learned that focusing on a specialized product line is what differentiates
Suture Express from all of the other players. Our mantra is, ‘Complete
When you joined Suture Express last fall you said you
received a call about the position, intimating you didn’t actively pursue
it. Why do you think they called you?
That is correct. When I received the call from the recruiter
at Heidrick & Struggles regarding the CEO position at Suture Express I
wasn’t actively pursuing job opportunities. I had recently concluded a
seventeen year career with Child Health Corporation of America (CHCA). My
plans were to take a year or so off to determine what I wanted to do with
the second half of my life.
Dennis Jordan, one of the founders of Suture Express,
contacted me and indicated that an equity acquisition group was taking a
majority interest in the company. He informed me that two of the founding
partners, Joe Robinson and Hank Miller, were retiring and asked if he could
submit my name as a potential candidate for the position. Based on my
background and industry experience the team at Suture Express expressed
their support for me to be the CEO. The opportunity to join something as
special and unique as Suture Express was just too tempting to remain on the
You work with guys like Jim Vaughn [vice president of sales]
and Dennis Jordan [vice president of operations], former hospital materials
management directors, both of whom you characterize as helped to
revolutionize healthcare distribution. How did they do that? And what do you
expect to contribute to that?
I believe Jim Vaughn and Dennis Jordan have revolutionized
healthcare distribution in a similar fashion to how Herb Kelleher, founder,
Southwest Airlines, revolutionized the airline industry. Herb saw an
industry that charged irrational prices, provided poor service, had lost
touch with the customer, overcomplicated simple functions, underutilized its
resources and was controlled by a handful of big players. In a nutshell, no
pun intended, he saw an industry that was broken and was determined to fix
As hospital-based supply chain mangers, Jim and Dennis saw
the same issues with the distribution of wound closure products. They
experienced first-hand the frustration and pain associated with chasing down
backorders, carrying costly inventory, reconciling price discrepancies,
identifying product codes, dealing with returns and trying to understand all
of the different distributor markups/fees/delivery charges, etc. They also
saw a system that was broken and were equally determined to fix it.
Against high odds for success, Herb launched Southwest
Airlines with a few simple goals: Be the ‘Fun Airline’ and deliver the
highest On Time Arrivals at the lowest possible airfares. He had a passion
for simplifying, standardizing and automating every aspect of the operation.
Herb was relentless about eliminating or reducing unnecessary costs and
providing a fun work environment and passenger experience. All of this was
done while instilling a very human and personal approach to an industry that
had lost touch with its customers.
Jim and Dennis, along with Joe Robinson and Hank Miller,
also launched Suture Express against high odds and with a simple mission:
Eliminate all of the hassles and be ‘Complete, Fast and Cheap.’ This meant a
complete order delivered tomorrow morning at the lowest prices in the
industry, period! As Jim likes to say, ‘What don’t you understand about what
we do?’ Like Herb, they were relentless about challenging the status quo,
eliminating costs and simplifying processes. Their commitment to excellence,
attention to detail and focus on wound closure products are the key to our
success. It doesn’t hurt that they exude enthusiasm and passion for our
mission which is contagious.
As you can see, I’ve been dealt a great hand. Dennis, Jim,
Hank, Joe and the rest of the team at Suture Express have done the heavy
lifting and built a tremendous company. The core is solid and positioned for
growth. I expect to prod and poke around the edges to continue to move the
needle regarding quality improvement and new business opportunities. I’m
also focused on institutionalizing the founder’s knowledge throughout the
organization so that we will continue to operate in a manner consistent with
the high standards they set.
You’ve been in place for six months now. Has it been all you
expected? What did you expect to find when you started and how has that
changed now that the honeymoon period is over?
It’s been everything I expected, plus some. I knew I was
joining a great team with a proven game plan but I didn’t know I was going
to the Super Bowl. These guys play for keeps and are always raising the bar.
This company is like the ‘Little Engine that Could,’ which may sound corny
but is true. Everyone at Suture Express believes we should have all of the
suture and endo product distribution business, and Suture Express won’t slow
down until we do.
I’m not sure there was a honeymoon period. The presses
didn’t stop or slow down when I arrived. We have to perform at an
exceptionally high level everyday if we’re to stay in business. There is
really nothing fancy about what we do. We put stuff in a box and deliver it
tomorrow. From day one it has been about execution and attention to detail.
The key is to keep it simple and stay focused on eliminating the hassles.
Service, service and more service!
What are some of your first-year goals and how are you
progressing to accomplish them?
As the recruiter said, ‘Ed, your first goal is to not screw
this up.’ Since there wasn’t anything broken at Suture Express I’m trying
hard to stay out of the way of the folks who really know what they’re doing.
I’ve been focused on ensuring that they have the tools and resources they
need to support our growth. My first year goals center on learning as much
as possible about the nuances of this business and continuing to recruit
high quality players to the team.
How did your experience in group purchasing prepare you to
run Suture Express?
During my career with CHCA, I was responsible for a number
of different activities, including: Accountability for the ‘P&L’ of CHCA’s
GPO business unit, recruiting new members, co-managing an investment
portfolio, negotiating purchasing agreements, managing CHCA’s insurance
company, recruiting/hiring/training staff, developing new business
opportunities and representing CHCA on various industry boards. All of these
activities have prepared me to lead Suture Express.
What did you bring to Suture Express from the group
I brought a very good understanding of how GPOs operate and
access to a number of contacts within the GPO industry. Suture Express
currently has three national GPO contracts and will entertain additional
contracts as opportunities arise. We recognize the important role that GPOs
play in the industry. We’re proud that the largest IDN members of all of the
major GPOs in the country are current customers, including: Ascension
Healthcare, Providence Healthcare, Peace Health, St. Joseph’s – Orange,
Banner Health, Yankee Alliance and HealthSouth. These existing customers are
a real testament to our value proposition.
What are some of the key goals you’d like to achieve at
Suture Express within the next three years and why?
I want Suture Express to be the most admired company in the
industry. I want to further distance Suture Express from our competition by
incrementally improving on our 100 percent customer satisfaction guarantee.
I also want to ensure that our employees continue to grow and assume
additional responsibilities as opportunities present themselves.
Suture Express portrays itself as a down-to-earth, simple,
no-frills, customer-centric specialty distributor of a select group of wound
closure products. How does a company like Suture Express succeed in a
distribution world dominated by the glitz and sizzle of the big box
corporations with the flashy Web sites and phalanx of sales and marketing
Suture Express is everything you just described with one
exception; we don’t just have a select group of wound closure products but
rather the largest assortment and variety of suture, endo, mesh, drains,
bone wax and surgical adhesives in the country. If it’s a wound closure
product and a customer needs it, we’ve got it and can deliver it tomorrow at
the lowest prices in the industry.
We feel very fortunate to have grown as much as we have over
the past eight years. I believe this growth validates the need for a
distributor focused on wound closure products. For us, it’s all about focus.
We believe a handful of zealots can defeat an army of thousands. Don’t get
me wrong, I think the big box movers serve a vital role in the supply chain
but we are the best option for the wound closure market segment. Let me ask
your readers a question. Where do you rent your videos? Your grocery store –
Safeway, Kroger, Albertson’s – or Blockbuster? Most folks would say
Blockbuster based on selection, convenience and price. My point is we are
Blockbuster and our competition is the grocery store. Both serve a need.
Where does Suture Express go from
here, in terms of expanding service options, product diversity, etc.?
Suture Express will remain focused on being the best at
servicing the wound closure product market. In order to deliver on our
promise of ‘Complete, Fast and Cheap,’ we have been selective in our product
offering and manufacturers. Currently, Ethicon, Ethicon Endo-surgery and
U.S. Surgical represent the majority of the products we sell. They are
outstanding business partners and work closely with us to identify and
implement solutions for improving the supply chain. Based on requests from
our customers we are currently reviewing several other national brand
manufacturers with complementary products to add to our offering.
Until recently, we have been primarily focused on the acute
care hospital and surgery center market. We plan to aggressively pursue the
alternate site market in the coming months and will be launching a new
e-commerce site to assist in this effort. We have also positioned Suture
Express as a re-distributor to the smaller regional and local medical
What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing in your new role
and how are you dealing with it?
The biggest challenge is the temptation to jump right in and
change something before I fully understand the landscape or consequences.
Like every successful organization, Suture Express has a ‘special chemistry’
and ‘magic’ that can easily be lost if I lose sight of how we got here. I
need to be respectful of what has enabled Suture Express to be so successful
while being mindful of the need to do some things differently to remain the
best. A good analogy would be Tiger Woods recognizing that he needed to
revamp his golf swing even though he was the No. 1-ranked player in the
world. I also need to challenge the team and myself to ask what it will take
to be the leader tomorrow. It’s easy to become complacent when you have
grown as quickly and as much as Suture Express in such a short period of
As someone who spent a large part of his career in
healthcare group purchasing, what will you miss the most and the least about
I miss the people the most. I developed a number of
friendships at CHCA and throughout the GPO industry. I have found it
difficult to stay in touch as often as I would like due to the focus on
Suture Express. Some of my friends and colleagues won’t even talk to me now
that I’m a vendor – just kidding.
I don’t miss the ongoing dialogue regarding the value of
GPOs or the countless meetings focused on justifying the business practices
of GPOs. In many ways it is time for all of us to move on to more productive
activities. I’m thankful for where I am.