Small Suppliers Seek Big Business

Jan 28, 2011

“Buy local” has become a rallying cry for small businesses attempting to revive the high street. But it’s also a good message for those small businesses whose customers are big business. Plenty of small suppliers in Connecticut would like to see big corporations and state government look first in their own backyard when they spend money.

For the latest of WNPR’s small business profiles, business reporter Harriet Jones met with one such small supplier. 

It’s 11:00 am at a coffee shop in Rocky Hill, and serial entrepreneur Larry Berk is talking me through yet another business idea.

"I’m Larry Berk and I am president of VidaCura. We’re a health care products company that’s based in Connecticut."

VidaCura sells everything from wheelchairs and crutches to compression stockings and oxygen masks. 

"We supply the products that you might need if you were injured on the job, so we serve the worker’s comp marketplace nationwide, with a focus on Connecticut because that’s where we’re based, but we also have concentrations of business in Texas, Florida and California."

Usually when I profile a small business, I go to visit their premises, take a look at the shop floor in action, and meet the people working there.. so why are we in a Starbucks?

"We’re largely virtual. We have a very small warehouse where we stock goods. But I’m a big fan of technology and we’re really fortunate that the technology today allows us to be very decentralized. We can have people that work in their jammies all hours of the day and they’re just as effective as someone who comes to an office."

Berk started VidaCura three years ago, and the company now employs six people.

"I had done the dot-com thing in the late nineties, and I was a management consultant with no health care or health care products experience and I was actually recruited to—I don’t know if I can say this—I was recruited to AIG of all companies, because they had a health care medical products company that they were attempting to put together, and they were looking for someone with my particular background to help them." 

After eight years there he was ready to take what he’d learned and strike out on his own. The marketplace for medical devices and home health care products is ever-growing, but the actual transaction itself can be very complicated, because the ultimate customer, the injured worker is several steps away, behind the employer and an insurance company. Often, the businesses and municipalities that Berk is pitching to have their own insurers who’ve always used an out-of-state supplier say in Iowa or Florida.

"The challenge for us is in reaching the person that’s actually paying the bills, and convincing them that it’s worth it for them to take a close look at all of their costs." 

He says sometimes even when he can prove to an employer that he can save them money the culture of big corporations can work against the grain of a small local company.

 "  We're not interested in buying steak dinners, we're not interested in buying costly lunches, we're not interested in buying trips--those are the entrenched attitudes that you find in big companies." 

VidaCura has the state of Connecticut as a customer and also several towns within the state. In fact the state has an explicit set-aside policy favoring Connecticut based contractors whose revenues are less than 15 million dollars a year.

"The bureaucracy runs wide and deep there, and I really believe that they’re interested in doing a good job and I believe they’re looking to save taxpayers money, but on a daily basis it’s often just hard for them to get out of their own way in order to be able to do that." 

Berk says that 2010 was a good year for VidaCura and he’s bullish about 2011. He believes the ultimate weapon of a small business like his is its ability to be nimble. 

"If you tell us that in order to earn your business, we have to do it this way instead of that way, we’re the ones who are going to be able to do that, as opposed to those that have the heavily entrenched cultures."