By Véronique Loewen
The year 2020 started out with a sense of renewal at Schaan Healthcare Products. In November 2019, Collin Schaan, president and CEO, moved the 40-year-old company’s head office and main warehouse from its long-time home near the Saskatoon airport to a new and much larger building on Millar Avenue.
In late January 2020, when rumblings started spreading in the healthcare supply world that a novel coronavirus was spreading fast in China and other Asian countries, Collin was ready to tackle whatever came his way. He knew Schaan Healthcare was in a good position to deliver its well-known customer service and to help the people of Saskatchewan when covid-19 made its way to the province.
“Service is what really sets us apart from our competition,” says Collin. “Establishing long-lasting relationships with our customers is the most important driving factor of our success. We understand our customers’ needs, and provide them with consistent and personalized service, delivered by our knowledgeable and dedicated staff. It’s thanks to our responsiveness, the timely logistical support and tailored assistance we offer to our clients that today we are the main distributor of medical and surgical products in Saskatchewan. For my dad, Gerald Schaan, customer service was everything.”
It’s all about customer service
Gerald Schaan and his wife, Mary Lou, both originally from small towns in southern Saskatchewan, took over the company that used to be a division of Hartz Healthcare in 1980, after Gerald had worked for the firm for 14 years. Gerald, who grew up behind his parents’ Schaan General Store in MacNutt, was both CEO and travelling salesman in the early days of the business – he was constantly on the road meeting customers and building relationships. He considered hard work and excellent customer service to be the best way to succeed. He carried this belief with him until his passing in 2013.
Mary Lou, who looked after accounts receivable at Schaan Healthcare until the late 1980s, and the couple’s four children played a part in delivering that ingrained customer service. “At five years old I was already sweeping floors. I remember having to go to the store to clean and unload pallets of merchandise right after school, instead of going to play football with my friends,” says Collin, the family’s youngest. “Everything had to be clean and ready to serve the customer the next day.”
Customer service is a lot more than just taking their order; you find out a lot about the people on the other end of the phone that you’ve actually never met face to face. You get to know about their life, their families, their kids. And next time they call, you can ask about the people and the things that are important to them.
Shelly Schaan echoes Collin’s recollection. The second daughter of the family, Shelly joined Schaan Healthcare in 1984, working in the warehouse; she returned as a customer service assistant in 1988 after a couple of years learning medical terminology in business college. Shelly says, “We were all expected to work at the business. Our brother, Kevin Schaan, managed the warehouse for 32 years before he retired. He could fix anything; he was the hands-on technical guy.”
Shelly’s days were filled developing client relationships. “Customer service is a lot more than just taking their order; you find out a lot about the people on the other end of the phone that you’ve actually never met face to face. You get to know about their life, their families, their kids. And next time they call, you can ask about the people and the things that are important to them. The relationships are what keep me active in the business even though I officially retired five years ago.”
Collin sits quietly as Shelly reminisces. As the family’s strategist and visionary, Collin is at the helm of the company, yet it is clear that all of the siblings share the same values and bring their own touch to the meaning of customer service. Rosann Holmes, the eldest daughter and longest-serving employee, with 38 years’ service, has held many roles and is now a customer service representative. Shelly says that Rosie, as everyone calls her, is truly the one who acts the most like their dad. “She knows everyone because she’s been here the longest but, like dad did, she considers the clients her friends, even if she doesn’t meet them in person.”
“I love our customers; I develop friendships with them,” says Holmes. “Some of them I’ve known for many years, even decades. I like taking care of our customers and our staff. Here I’m the “entertainment chair.” During the covid-19 lockdown days, having “hillbilly day” or “sports team jersey day” was important as it kept our morale up to continue to deliver great service. It was an ‘essential service’ in our shop,” she says with a laugh.
Rising to the covid-19 challenge
And just like that, the conversation moves back to the pandemic. Collin explains that as part of their business growth plan, they needed to expand their 15,000 square foot office and warehouse. In 2018, they had opened a satellite store on Saskatoon’s Central Avenue specifically to cater to one of the fastest growing segments of the industry, the home healthcare retail market. In the fall of 2019, the company moved into its new 33,000 square foot facility, which has office space and a warehouse with 32-foot ceilings. Little did Collin know that he would need all that space immediately and still be making use of the old warehouse today.
We knew we could help source and warehouse enough critical PPE supplies to respond to the immediate needs and to be ready for future emergencies.”
“As a distributor, we source and deliver surgical and medical supplies to hospitals, nursing homes, doctors’ offices – all types of healthcare facilities – and others in diverse markets like tattoo parlors and esthetic salons. They all need gloves, masks, gowns, etc. With the new warehouse space, we thought we had room to breathe and planned to grow into it slowly. But, with covid-19, it just took a few months to fill,” explains Collin.
Early in the year, it became clear that the supply of healthcare PPE coming out of factories in China was about to be compromised by the pandemic and that the entire supply chain was at risk of shortages. Collin’s competitive nature kicked in and he promptly got to work to diversify the business’ supply sources and to secure as much product as they could. Schaan Healthcare, the only large-scale medical supplier with inventory in Saskatchewan, set out to assist its largest customer the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).
“The other Canadian large-scale suppliers stay in the bigger, more profitable centres, like Toronto, as Saskatchewan represents a much smaller market. We’re happy to focus on and serve our province. We have a long-standing relationship with the SHA as a “prime vendor”. We knew we could help source and warehouse enough critical personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies to respond to the immediate needs and to be ready for future emergencies,” says Collin.
Flexibility in the face of a pandemic
Inside Schaan’s warehouse is a state-of-the-art automated inventory system, which allows stock control, easy order sorting, packaging and distribution, and facilitates e-commerce. “With our existing systems and infrastructure as well as our long-standing relationship with the SHA, we were able to quickly develop a centralized distribution process for all critical PPE products during the pandemic,” states Collin. “This process has allowed us to be responsive to demand and ensure every hospital in Saskatchewan is stocked with critical supplies. We are in contact with the SHA on an almost hourly basis to make sure their needs are met. We can rotate the inventory through the hospitals’ regular operations and have fresh inventory on hand if there is a sudden surge in demand. We have now become an essential service for healthcare in Saskatchewan.”
Collin studied economics at the University of Saskatchewan for a year before obtaining a Business Administration Diploma from SIAST (now Saskatchewan Polytechnic) in Moose Jaw. Collin has never worked anywhere else. He started with the company right after school in the warehouse and the purchasing department and learned every part of the business to become responsible for sales and marketing before taking over from his father as president and CEO in 2010. Collin had been groomed to step up over a 15-year succession planning process.
For Collin, whether it is the SHA or any one of the many new customers that have emerged through the need for PPE in response to covid-19, every client requires time and attention. Although many of the orders now come through various online platforms, orders still require follow-up phone calls or emails on occasion. That’s the tailored personal touch for which Schaan Healthcare is known.
“Making individual calls was particularly important in the early days of covid-19 because, unfortunately, when demand exceeded supply, we just couldn’t deliver to everyone. We had to prioritize. Having those established relationships helped us do that – people understood. Now, the supply has caught up to the demand for most products and our warehouses are full and ready to deliver,” states Collin.
Caring for Saskatchewan in many ways
Collin’s commitment to the Province of Saskatchewan doesn’t stop at providing quality healthcare products. It is also reflected in his philanthropic activities, which he also learned from Gerald Schaan, who volunteered with the Sherbrooke Community Centre Board of Directors for several years. The Centre honoured Gerald by naming one of its facilities the Schaan Family House. Collin served six years on the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation board. He rallied his siblings so the family could donate $250,000 to the organization in memory of their dad. “Aside from the business, coaching fastball, and assisting non-profits’ boards, I like to spend time at the lake in northern Saskatchewan. Our province is beautiful; it is just so peaceful up there, away from our busy warehouse and the city,” states Collin.
I love our customers; I develop friendships with them. Some of them I’ve known for many years, even decades. I like taking care of our customers and our staff. Here I’m the ‘entertainment chair.’ During the covid-19 lockdown days, having ‘hillbilly day’ or ‘sports team jersey day’ was important as it kept our morale up to continue to deliver great service. It was an ‘essential service’ in our shop.
A multi-generation family business
Although too humble to say it, Collin is also mentoring the third generation of Schaan children. His nephews – Rosie’s and Shelly’s children – have all worked in the business while going to school and finding their path in life. And his own son, Spencer, joined the company three years ago as marketing coordinator after obtaining his Bachelor of Commerce degree in marketing from Queen’s University. “Spencer is the first Schaan to work in the family business after obtaining a university degree. We’re happy that he decided to put his education to good use right here,” says Collin with pride.
At Schaan Healthcare, it is apparent that you don’t have to be a Schaan to be part of the family and share their customer-oriented values. Starting with six employees in 1980, today over one-third of the 32 employees have more than 10 years of service. Half of those have over 20 years and three have been with the business for over 30 years.
This year marked Schaan Healthcare’s 40th anniversary, but because of the covid-19 pandemic, the celebration was small. Nonetheless, under Collin’s dedicated leadership the sense of pride in 40 years of delivering great customer service is clear. As you leave Schaan Healthcare’s office, you can’t help but notice Gerald Schaan’s photo sitting prominently on the coffee table. He would be proud of the work Collin and his siblings are doing today.
First published in the December 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.