LEXINGTON, Ky. (March. 24, 2022) — As a kinesiology-exercise science student at the University of Kentucky, Mike Purcell, ’99, dreamed of a career as an athletic trainer (ATC) in Division I athletics. His career goal was fulfilled soon after graduation, and it opened doors to a whole new set of opportunities.
Purcell is currently a director of sales within the foot and ankle division at Stryker, a leading medical technology company. He recently returned to campus to talk with students in the UK College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion about his career, providing advice on how to break into medical sales and similar industries.
It was the fall of 1999 when Purcell, a native of Paris, Kentucky, moved to Minnesota. He had just graduated from UK, passed his certified athletic trainer examination (ATC) and landed an athletic trainer role with the University of Minnesota football team. It was during his time with the Golden Gophers he first got a glimpse into the world of medical sales.
“As one of the football team’s athletic trainers, part of my job was buying equipment, so I was interacting with sales representatives regularly. I knew athletic training, but I was still learning the business side of things. The braces and tape you see athletes wearing on the sidelines are from various companies that try to earn your business by selling their products versus their competition. As I grew into this role, I did not know it right away, but I was beginning to build a network in the sales field that would impact my future career path.”
People in Purcell’s network started asking him to consider medical sales, but he was torn. He loved his job in athletic training and was fulfilled through making a difference in athletes’ lives. Plus, he lacked experience in a major aspect of the job — sales.
“I knew I could speak the terminology. I knew I could talk to surgeons because I did that with various team physicians on a regular basis. I understood anatomy and physiology because of my exercise science background and training. But I didn’t know if could sell,” he said.
Two decades later, Purcell is garnering accolades for his achievements in sales for Stryker and has moved into increasing levels of leadership within the company. One of the most fulfilling aspects of his career is that he still has the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of athletes, as well as patients from all walks of life experiencing medical trauma or chronic pain.
“There will be a time in the operating room when a surgeon turns to you. When you don’t have the answer, you still have to know how to convey confidence and competence. You have to build a network of people and resources you can turn to for the answer when you don’t have it. But if you have put in the work, time and effort to learn your stuff and be clinically relevant, you will be able to bring something to that OR that impacts the outcome of the patient,” Purcell said.
His background in athletic training has been an integral part of Purcell’s career in medical sales. Knowledge conveys trust in the sales process. His advice to students interested in a similar career trajectory focuses on building those skills, but also work ethic and network building.
“It has stuck with me my whole life that there are two things you have 100% control of, always — your attitude and your effort. It’s always under your control every minute of every day,” Purcell said.
While speaking on campus to students in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, Purcell encouraged them to not just study for tests, but to really get to know the material.
“Be a sponge, go learn. There is only one way to get experience and you have to put yourself in those situations,” he said.
One of the situations Purcell was able to place himself in while studying for his bachelor’s degree at UK was through volunteering to work with researchers like Jody Clasey, an exercise physiology professor.
“I learned how studies are put together. In this industry, you need to know how to differentiate between a promotional marketing piece versus a peer-reviewed study. Being able to speak to those things is a critical skill I learned by helping with research in college,” he said.
In all his roles with Stryker, working as a trauma representative was one of Purcell’s favorites. He enjoyed the unpredictability. Coming in could be cases of falls among the elderly, car accidents, and everything in between.
“There was so much of a range of patients you touched in that role. You may have sales calls planned and be ready to talk to a surgeon about a product. But then you get up that morning and have four new patient cases to facilitate. You’re making sure the right sets of equipment are there and sterilized. It is a real juggling act but that is how I’m wired,” Purcell said.
Purcell fell in love with trauma surgery because it was always different.
“You may be a part of 10 different fractured distal radius surgeries and never see the same thing. I liked being able to put the puzzle together with the team. When a surgeon can call and say they are at hospital a, and can you go over to hospital b and make sure they have what we need, that’s extreme trust. There is real joy in knowing you are part of impacting a patient’s outcome,” he said.
Purcell has seen two paths for individuals to break into his field. Like him, one has an anatomy and sports medicine background, but no sales experience. The other has tremendous sales experience and a degree in business, but no experience in biomechanics, anatomy, physiology or similar fields. He says there are examples throughout his organization that prove either pathway can be successful.
“Medical device sales is a commitment and career path. It is a great opportunity in terms of income. If you are committed to staying current, continuously learning and you’re good at selling and connecting with people, you will have an opportunity to make a great impact. The individuals who differentiate themselves keep the most important person in the process at the front of mind — the patient, the outcome of that patient. It is unbelievable how impactful you can be,” he said.
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