Aspen A Medical Sales Marvel

December 20, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The past four years have been very healthy ones for Aspen Surgical Products Inc. Those 48 months have also been very profitable for the little-known leader in its niche medical market.

Aspen’s sales have tripled since President, CEO and founder Dan Bowen started the firm in February 1999. And he fully expects to see that momentum continue, as company sales are projected to double again in just the next three years.

The secrets to his remarkable success? One is being in the right place at the right time with the right eye on the right products. The other, Bowen said, is having a great staff — both here and abroad.

“We have a world-class medical-device team, really, with tremendous experience in all phases of the functional areas of building a medical device company. It has taken four years to get there, but we’ve done that and I think that is really what is going to allow us to continue to grow,” said Bowen.

“We’ve had tremendous amounts of growth in the last four years. Primarily because we focused on products that weren’t getting focused on and we’ve developed, in that time, about 10 new product lines,” he added.

Today, Bowen has 61 employees in the United States and 25 in the United Kingdom, where Aspen makes a few of its products. But just four years ago, he had none — until he bought seven product lines from Imagyn Medical Technologies.

Back then Imagyn was a conglomerate of medical and surgical supply firms. One of those was Richard-Allen, a Kalamazoo company that was noted for its surgical needles, which was one of the product lines that Bowen bought from Imagyn.

“It was a family-owned company for a long, long time. Richard-Allen, at the time, was the No. 3 player in that market, which was dominated by Johnson & Johnson and U.S. Surgical,” he said.

Bowen worked for Imagyn in Dallas when he acquired the products that Imagyn felt weren’t a key to its future. But those goods formed the business backbone for Aspen.

“I had some experience working with these products and knew of these products. So when I went to work for Imagyn, I thought that it would be great to get my hands on them,” he said.

“I kept about 10 of the real key employees associated with these product lines and set up shop here in Grand Rapids.”

About 35 percent of Aspen’s sales revenue comes from its line of Richard-Allen surgical needles. The firm manufactures 270 different types and sizes of needles in the United Kingdom and is the No. 1 seller of these in the United States. Three-quarters of all hospitals nationwide buy needles from Aspen. The needles don’t have a suture attached, making these a specialty product that differs from the kind that clinics and emergency rooms use to close cuts.

“We just sell the specific needle. The majority of the market, about 95 percent, has the suture connected to the needle. But a surgeon who is repairing a rotator cuff might want to use a sharper needle, a sharper point and a thicker suture and we dominate that little niche in the surgical environment,” said Bowen.

Part of the line also consists of some very tiny needles that plastic surgeons use.

Aspen also leads the nation in sales of surgical skin markers. Revenue from that product makes up 10 percent of the company’s total annual take, and Bowen sees it as a growing market. The markers, of course, tell a surgeon where to cut and where not to cut. Aspen uses a special toxic-free purple ink in the markers, making the pens safe for external and internal use.

“We sell these under our own brand and we private label them for probably the three largest medical distributors in the U.S.,” said Bowen, a brother to Grand Rapids City Commissioner Scott Bowen.

Aspen also ranks second nationally in sales of an anti-fog inhibitor used in laparoscopic surgery, a product that accounts for 10 percent of the company’s overall sales.

Laparoscopy involves making a small incision in the abdominal wall into which a scope is inserted to allow surgeons to see structures within the abdomen and the pelvis. But when a camera goes into the abdomen, the lens will fog up unless an inhibitor is used.

“We sell a product line called Dr. Fog, which is No. 2 in the United States in the product category. It comes in two forms. We have a sponge that is already impregnated with the solution, and we sell it in a bottle with a sponge,” said Bowen.

The Dr. Fog line is also used in endoscopic surgery, a procedure that uses a lighted optical instrument that explores such organs as the throat and esophagus.

Aspen is also creating a disposable light handle cover for the lamps that hang in operating rooms. The cover would allow a surgeon to grip a lamp and move it without contaminating the room. Aspen is working on two types. One is plastic and screws into the light handle. The other is made of thermo-film that slips over an adapter. Bowen felt by this time next year Aspen would be the second-largest seller of covers in the nation.

“We have tripled in size and I feel very strongly that in three years we will at least double in size and continue the same type of growth before we even consider making an acquisition, which is something we’ve contemplated, as well,” he said.

Continued growth is almost a certainty for Aspen unless America suddenly stops aging. But the population is getting older by the minute, and that means the need for the firm’s products should rise.

“Right now, the demographics are in our favor,” said Bowen. “Hospitals are continuing to do more procedures, people are getting older and the demand for health care continues to grow.” 

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