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Medical-device pioneer nears end of a happy 43-year trail
Dale Ballard is selling his firm to Kimberly-Clark

The proposed merger between Draper-based Ballard Medical Products and tissue giant Kimberly-Clark also means the end of an era for a pioneer of Utah's thriving medical device industry.

Some 43 years ago a young pharmaceutical salesman, Dale Ballard, joined with two partners -- Jim Sorenson and Victor Cartwright -- to begin Deseret Pharmaceutical. Taking the company public, they banked their future on the first sterile method of placing a disposable plastic catheter in a vein without an incision.Within three years, Sorenson left the partnership, eventually forming his own successful medical device business.

In the ensuing decade, Ballard and his company developed 10 specialized disposable medical products.

"It was a different day. Plastic was new. We have built every catheter that can possibly be used in the body. Being the first one to have it, you expand rapidly," Ballard said.

Other innovations included the first disposable masks and surgical brushes.

"We were the first in the state with a medical device business. I think more than half the companies in the state, in one way or another, have been associated with Deseret Pharmaceutical or Ballard Medical," said Ballard, now 76.

Calling it Utah's "home-grown" industry, a recent Utah Life Sciences Association report showed that most of the the more than 70 medical device businesses now in Utah trace their roots to Ballard's businesses.

In December 1976, Ballard sold Deseret for $138 million to Warner Lambert, and Cartwright retired.

"I did research and development for them for three years and decided this is not exciting and thought, 'Well, I'll build another company' " Ballard said.

The result was Ballard Medical Products. Today, the company sells more than 80 percent of all closed suction catheters used in U.S. hospitals and has more than 5,000 lines of products.

"When you go to work every morning at 5:30 and get home every night at 5, that is all you know. It is your life. It has been very exciting and very enjoyable," Ballard said of his time building the firm. "I think this is my swan song."

The firm went public in 1983, experiencing consistent bottom- and top-line growth around 20 percent over the years. Ballard now has 1,450 employees spread between the Draper plant and another in Pocatello. The company sells products in 32 countries around the world.

Last December, Ballard announced that Kimberly-Clark would buy the firm with a stock swap valued at $764 million. The merger has been delayed as the Securities and Exchange Commission reviews Kimberly-Clark's past financial deals.

"I am not selling because I have been in it so many years. I am selling it because it is survival. Now everything is consolidation and size. Size means everything now. It is a shame," Ballard said.

Despite his position as company founder, Ballard doesn't hold a single patent.

"I always let one of the men have it in their name. I have got men that have 10 patents and 15 patents. I don't need credit, all we need is the product."

Such an approach to his business and life is typical of Ballard, who often harks back to his roots as a son of a Draper "dirt farmer."

In today's environment of mergers and acquisitions, Ballard said it would be difficult for someone to duplicate his story of success in the medical device business. Today, the highly competitive business requires companies to make bids with a variety and large quantities of products. An entrepreneur with one invention isn't likely to compete.

"It would be tough for the little guy now," Ballard said. "The little guy can't take out one product and build a company. It's too expen- sive. You just can't do it. You have to be a billion dollar company to go there and bid your products with the industry. I couldn't grow that fast."

Ballard predicts slowing for Utah's medical device industry.

"It might be a healthy industry, but one that is not going to be a growth industry. . . . Those days are over," Ballard said.

He also says venture capital is more difficult to obtain now, and an atmosphere of mergers will continue to overshadow the medical device industry.

"There will be many mergers. You've just seen the beginning of them. If you can't grow faster than we have, and nobody has, you are not growing fast enough unless something crazy happens to the crazy health industry," he said.

His formula for success is "40 percent luck, 40 percent work, 10 percent intelligence and throw the rest where you want."

He also counsels up-and-coming business people to value their employees. Along with giving employees patents, he has awarded them stock options and vacations at the company's expense.

"My philosophy has always been the most important thing you have is people," he said. "If you treat your people right, you cannot fail. I have given options now for 40 years. It pays itself back a dozen times."