Building the business of lab medicine


Fifty years ago, in March of 1971, Mayo Clinic Laboratories (then known as Mayo Medical Laboratories) was officially launched. Up through the mid-1980s, the lab went without a sales force of any kind. Over this period, it mostly fell on the lab’s then-medical director, Michael O’Sullivan, M.D., and his chief administrator, Jerry Wollner, to meet with outside pathologists and lab supervisors to sell Mayo Clinic Laboratories’ pathology services. But this method of sales was fast becoming outdated as the lab’s clientele and test catalog expanded. So, in 1985, Wollner promoted the idea of a sales force.

But Mayo was cautious about moving forward. To test the waters, a pilot study was implemented in which 12 staff members were chosen to be salespeople.

“They gave us a crash course on Mayo Clinic Laboratories, the logistics, customer service, etcetera,” says Marie Brown, who was one of the 12. “Then they divided the five-state area into regions, and we were each assigned a territory. The purpose was to call on hospitals, clinics, and pathology practices and tell them about Mayo Clinic Laboratories, give them a test catalog, and encourage them to send their tests to us.”

An early view of the Mayo Clinic Laboratories sales force, circa 1989.

Anatomy of a salesman

The pilot sales effort was deemed successful and, over the course of 1987 – 1988, 10 to 15 sales reps were hired. Don Flott came in at the tail end of this hiring campaign. While working as medical courier for a lab in St. Louis, Missouri, he saw the job ad in his local newspaper: a sales rep was needed to cover the Missouri portions of Illinois and the Quad Cities territory. He applied, interviewed in Rochester, and was hired shortly after.

“I had a great time doing it, because a lot of those hospitals I called on had no idea that Mayo Clinic had a reference lab,” Flott says. “So they welcomed the opportunity to hear about Mayo Clinic Laboratories’ services.”

An early Mayo Clinic business discussion.

Although the lab now had an official sales force, it took some time for the sales reps to convince leadership they needed credit cards for expenses, but they eventually got them, along with a company car.

“Mine was a red 1988 Ford Taurus,” recalls Flott. “And the most important things you had to have in your car were a map and a plastic bag full of loose change for making calls from payphones along the way, to set up and confirm your appointments. And the only marketing tools that we had were our business card and the test catalog.”    

Cultivating a familial environment

In 1990, Flott had done so well in the field he was asked to move to Rochester to manage the sales force. He was a mere 28 years old, and the offer meant uprooting his family, but he accepted the position. By now, competition with other reference labs was getting fiercer, yet Mayo sales reps still had limited marketing tools.      

“Our sales teams were telling us, ‘Hey, we can’t keep make making sales calls with just a catalog anymore,’” says Flott. “They needed more sophisticated materials to explain why we were different than the competition. So we introduced some marketing materials, some brochures, leave-behinds, and other materials. That was another real breakthrough moment to help us compete.”

Meanwhile, Curtis Bakken, M.D., had taken over as the lab’s medical director. “He was a breath of fresh air when he came in,” says Dr. O’Sullivan, who became CEO of the Scottsdale campus of Mayo Clinic before retiring in 2002. “He had come from a large practice in Bismarck, North Dakota, so he had a strong business orientation.”  

It was Dr. Bakken who implemented group meetings for sales reps from all the territories. And these weren’t ordinary meetings. “He loved to ski, so we would have our winter meetings in Breckenridge, Colorado,” says Flott. “We would have our meetings in the morning and then we would ski in the afternoons. And you would have people from all different skill levels, so it was pretty hilarious.”   

In the summer, meetings were held in Midge Lake, a bucolic area of Northern Minnesota. In this case, it wasn’t just the sales reps, but also their families who were invited. Flott continues: “Dr. Bakken was very conscientious of people being away from home and, therefore, he strongly encouraged all family members to attend, so we would bring the husbands, wives, and kids.”

Spreading sales effort internationally

In 1995, Mayo grew interested in offering its pathology services throughout the world. A sales group was formed with representatives from the hospital practice, the laboratories within Mayo Clinic Laboratories, and other areas. Flott became a point man for this team effort.

“We travelled to places I would have never imagined visiting,” Flott says. “The Middle East, Asia, South America, and other countries of the world that were beginning to privatize their medicine and health care. So these countries were looking for all kinds of services to grow their activities.”

Over this international sales campaign, which lasted about five years, Flott visited some 25 countries. The campaign was a huge success and helped put Mayo and Mayo Clinic Laboratories on the international stage.     

Helping other hospitals without being invasive

Mayo’s key selling point was the same 50 years ago as it is today: a rarified expertise in the niche of “esoteric testing” for the most unique, complex, and difficult cases.

“These are tests that some clinical labs at a hospital or clinic cannot provide for their patients, often because of the expense or they don’t have the expertise,” says Brown, who became the chief administrator for the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology and Senior Vice President of Mayo Clinic Laboratories before retiring in 2018. “A physician out in regular practice might see five cases of, for example, a rare type of lung tumor in their entire career. But physicians at Mayo — because we have such a huge referral of complex care — they’ll probably see 10 to 20 cases in a single year. Same with our pathologists at Mayo.”     

And since the beginning, Mayo Clinic Laboratories has never tried to absorb all the lab services of outside hospitals and clinics.

“Other large labs competed with the local labs for high-volume routine tests,” says Brown. “Laboratory testing is one of the three major income generators for most small hospitals and clinics, and it’s in their best interest to be able to offer this, and not have large commercial laboratories come in and take over all those routine tests from them. So, through Mayo outreach, we actually helped local labs set up their own outreach testing so they could provide whatever testing they were doing to smaller clinics and smaller hospitals in their respective areas.”  

Customer service supervisor Jennifer Crawford (left) and customer service representative Pamela Speltz, supporting laboratory operations.

Susan Towers has been with Mayo Clinic Laboratories since 1973. She was the lab’s eleventh hire, starting as a clerk typist back when operations were run in a small back room in the Plumber Building. “Our mission has always been to do esoteric testing for people,” says Towers, who now works in customer service. “We were never out to take business away from medical facilities. We’ve always wanted to enhance what they can’t do for themselves, so they can make their own services better.”

Towers believes that customer service is also an integral part of sales and client satisfaction. For her, it’s an altruistic calling. "People who work here have a strong willingness to help our clients. We have all sorts of customer service areas here, and you can call us 24 hours a day. And we truly do, I believe, go out of our way to provide everything that we can to meet people’s needs. Personally, I’ve always felt that Mayo Clinic Laboratories is more about helping people than making money.”     

This article is part of our 50th anniversary series. Learn more about Mayo Clinic Laboratories’ history.

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Chris Bahnsen

Chris J. Bahnsen covers emerging research and discovery for Mayo Clinic Laboratories. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Smithsonian Air & Space. He divides his time between Southern California and Northwest Ohio.