Celebration Corner: Collins Medical Equipment's 85th anniversary

By Tina Vasquez

The Fairfield, Conn., company hosted a grand reopening and party to mark the occasion.

The Business: In 1931, Thomas P. Collins Sr. opened Collins Pharmacy in the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport, Conn. What began as a corner drugstore with a soda fountain has undergone many changes and is now known as Collins Medical Equipment.

Over its 85-year history, the business diversified its offerings, sold off some departments and made several moves. Today the company, located in Fairfield, Conn., focuses on home medical equipment and supplies.

Tom Collins Jr. took over the pharmacy from his father after World War II. In 1963, he moved the business to a larger building next door. Tom's son Jack took the reins in the mid-1970s, and the company added a durable medical equipment department and computerized the prescription department. The business moved again, to the site of a former gas station down the street, in the early 1980s. That facility was expanded and remodeled in 1991 to meet the demands of the rapidly growing business. In 1989, Collins Pharmacy stopped selling tobacco products.

Under the leadership of Jack Collins, the company launched Collins I.V. Care, which offered home infusion therapy services, in 1992. The home infusion business, which started in a small, walled-off section of the pharmacy, grew throughout the state. Collins I.V. Care, which had opened a headquarters in Stratford, Conn., was eventually sold and is now part of the Walgreens healthcare system.

Collins Pharmacy, meanwhile, expanded into the space vacated by Collins I.V. Care. The store eliminated sales of lottery tickets, candy, seasonal merchandise, toys, gifts, stationery and cosmetics to concentrate on its core pharmacy and home healthcare businesses. In 2002 the company sold its prescription department to CVS. The family company, renamed Collins Medical Equipment, moved to its current Fairfield, Conn., facility in 2005.

"I don't think my great-grandfather could have imagined the company coming this far or that we'd still be entirely family-owned and -operated," says fourth-generation member Bryan Collins. "My grandfather is 92, and he loves seeing what we're doing. We're growing year-over-year, which is so hard to do."

The Family: Jack Collins still owns 100% of the company but has mostly taken a backseat in the day-to-day operations. Jack's wife, Kay, handles accounts payable and receivable. Jack's brother Chris is the general manager.

Chris's son, Tom Collins IV, is director of financial operations. Bryan Collins, Jack's son, is a certified "aging in place" specialist and head of Collins Accessibility Solutions, a division launched in 2010 that focuses on handicap accessibility remodeling. Bryan also serves as the company's director of marketing. Tom and Bryan started as children, stocking shelves and sweeping floors at the store.

"We've always been local—a local family supporting the local community," Bryan says.

Jack says that when he graduated from high school in 1969, he wanted nothing to do with the family business. "I went to Boston College and enrolled in their school of business," Jack says. "After two years, I literally woke up one morning and decided to leave and go to the University of Connecticut's School of Pharmacy." He graduated from the pharmacy program in 1975.

Founder Thomas Collins Sr. was known for acts such as opening the store on a Sunday night to provide medicine for a sick child and making a 9 p.m. delivery in a snowstorm, according to Chris. "My grandfather went above and beyond the normal course of business," Chris says. "Those are the kinds of things that built not just our business's foundation, but our name as a family. We are a business, and a community hub. That's what I'm most proud of, and we want to continue that legacy."

"We were taught to work hard and appreciate what we have. I know that sounds cliché, but it's true," Bryan says.

Bryan recently launched a new division of the company, Collins Insulin Pump Supplies. In addition, this year Collins Medical Equipment expects to receive a license to install stair lifts. Connecticut is among the states with stringent regulations governing stair lift installations, Bryan explains.

The Celebration: Collins Medical Equipment formally marked its 85th anniversary on Sept. 23, 2016. The celebration started with a "grand reopening" ribbon cutting at the company's Fairfield headquarters, followed by a party in the parking lot that featured food and wine from local businesses.

Nearly 100 people attended the gathering, including community members, current and former employees, friends, family members and city officials.

Bryan, Jack and Chris agree that the most memorable part of the night was when nonogenarian Tom Collins Jr. addressed the crowd and received a standing ovation. Another highlight occurred when Bryan's 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Mae Louise, wandered on stage while speeches were being given.

"It felt really special to have my daughter there," Bryan says. "She was walking around for the entire event and at one point, I saw her look at the huge crowd of people who were there, and she waved at everybody. It made me proud thinking that if she wanted to join us, she would be the fifth generation to run our family business."

The Planning: The Collins family spent about a year considering how to celebrate the milestone anniversary. They decided to dub the event a "grand reopening" to allow for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Bryan Collins, the marketing director, handled the planning details. Bryan says the plans for the party and ribbon cutting came together in about a month.

Bryan, a board member of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, says his chamber connections helped him reach out to the local politicians who attended. The family wanted to honor—and celebrate—the community that had long supported their business. Bryan invited customers in person, sent out mailers and advertised the celebration on the radio.

"I knew we really pulled off something special when the president of the chamber of commerce pulled me aside and said, 'I can't believe this; it's the most well-attended ribbon cutting I've ever seen,' " Bryan says. "It was a truly great event."

The Response: Chris says he was most concerned about what his father, Tom Jr., would think of the celebration.

"To see my parents at the event, whose hard work made all of this possible, and to see generations of former employees talk to them and my brother Jack and thank them, it was incredible," Chris says. "It meant so much to all of us."

Tom Jr. loved the party, and Bryan describes the response from the company's former employees as "overwhelming."

"I truly believe everyone loved it," Bryan says. "Our family's name has become a community staple [and] we have brand recognition, so everyone around here knows who we are, and we know who they are, too."

The Future: Bryan plans to spend 2017 expanding Collins Accessibility Solutions and, in particular, the stair lift installation portion of the business, which he says is a service that is needed in the area.

"A lot of business is about reading cues and paying attention to what is going on," Bryan says. "There was a huge need for accessibility solutions in the world, but especially in our community, with Baby Boomers wanting to remain safely in their homes. They need someone to come in and retrofit their homes and make them safer."

The Advice: The Collins family says that in planning the anniversary celebration, they considered an event that would make the community feel appreciated and honored.

"For us, it wasn't about driving business or making sales," Bryan says. "We wanted to make it a community celebration. The best piece of advice I could give is to celebrate your customers and friends and thank everyone for their ongoing support throughout the years. Have fun with it."

Tina Vasquez is a writer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Copyright 2017 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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March/April 2017


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