Eight years later, dot-com ready for prime time

Thursday, September 30, 2004

The father-son duo behind HMEproviders.com is finally ready to introduce themselves - eight years after they started.

At long last, Mike and Brian Sowards say the timing is right to launch a blitzkrieg campaign promoting their dot-com venture because they have the products, support and programs in place to provide a truly unique marketing option for the HME industry.

“We now have the products that can really help out the independent provider,” said Mike, who serves as president of the Titusville, Fla.-based company. “We didn’t want to announce anything too soon because we didn’t want to expose our business plan.”

An amalgam of e-commerce, cooperative purchasing and logistics, HMEproviders.com has evolved into a “virtual network” since 1996 when it debuted as a custom Web site hosting enterprise at the Alabama Durable Medical Equipment Association annual meeting.

“I was fascinated with the Internet,” Mike said about his inspiration for the project. “I knew it definitely was going to be the trend of the future and wanted to concentrate on making a Web site that any dealer could afford.”

The Sowards’ weathered the dot-com collapse of 2000, retooled the infrastructure and started fresh again in ’01. At that point they started to build interest, said Brian, the chief operating officer.

“After converting into a turnkey operation we gained some traction,” he said. “We got a lot of inquiries at Medtrade 2001. Dealers realized that people were getting products over the Internet and wanted that exposure.”

Even while flying under the radar for several years, HMEproviders.com has managed to build a client roster of 800 providers. For a fee of $99 a month, each company gets a listing on the network system. Because the Sowards have purchased key words with the major search engines Google, Yahoo and MSN, Internet shoppers get directed to the nearest provider member.

Jim Greatorex signed up with the network about six months ago and said the Web site component is handled by professionals.

“We are happy with the quality and people we deal with - they were very efficient in getting our site going and we know how much work goes into it,” said Greatorex, president of Portland, Me.-based Black Bear Medical.

Yet e-commerce isn’t a major sales venue for the company, and Greatorex admits that he had low expectations from the start. Still, it’s a great information tool, he said, a point echoed by Bruce Kutner, president of Bethel, Conn.-based Medical Home Care.

“I’ve only had one direct order so far, but it has impressed a lot of people,” Kutner said. “It’s beneficial in an indirect way.”

Kutner added that he’d like to see more discounted custom products offered through the network and the Sowards’ say they are ready to oblige.

“Our philosophy is that you make more money when you buy than when you sell,” Brian said.

With a background in healthcare, Mike worked in the long-term care and HME industries before he began importing latex gloves from Asia in the early ‘90s. It was through these Pacific Rim channels that he made the connections for other products that HMEproviders.com offers to network members at special pricing.

One example is a Hugo rollator currently being sold to Wal-Mart for $149 with a sticker price of $158, but members can buy it for less than half of the amount the Bentonville, Ark.-based merchandiser can buy it for less than half of the amount the Bentonville, Ark.-based merchandiser pays, the Sowards’ contend. Another is a new glucose meter, set for roll out at Medtrade 2004.

“It is graded by the FDA in the top 20% of meters and strips in the industry and we hit a price point where dealers can afford to carry it without having to purchase a huge volume,” Mike said. “It’s the strongest part of the entire program.”

While providers can facilitate orders however they want, HMEproviders.com has a distribution arrangement with Jackson, Miss.-based First Choice Medical Supply and is at members’ disposal if they need logistics support.

“They have shipping centers in Pennsylvania and Nevada with a couple more scheduled.” Mike said. “With those key centers, they can provide products in a logistically efficient and timely basis.”

To round out the evolution into a full-fledged member service organization, HMEproviders.com has relationships with Trac Medical, DME Train and the Accreditation Commission for Health Care.

“We secured these agreements on our members behalves,” Mike said. “We’re a corporate entity and these are value-added features. We listen to their desires and help them move in the right direction.”