Joni Walton

The Power of Heartfelt Confidence 

By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Steven J. Pallone

Joni Walton’s medical supply company, Danlee Medical Products, started in an unorthodox manner, on a whim to save the supply division she’d founded at Diagnostic Medical Instruments. Joni started working in customer service at DMI in her early 20s. Having tried a few different jobs after moving from Gouverneur to Syracuse, Joni found DMI to be a good fit. She quickly proved to be an asset to the company.

“I’m never satisfied just doing a task,” Joni explained. “I have to know why I’m doing it, and what’s affected by doing it.”

Diagnostic Medical Instruments manufactured a small selection of holter-monitoring equipment — used to track heart activity — along with paper and a kit to accompany its machines. After diving into the job, Joni realized customers wanted more on the supply side. Joni would receive calls from clients: “We don’t want to buy the whole kit. We just want the electrodes,” they’d say.

She’d have to reply: “We don’t do that.”

During a performance review, she suggested the company offer more on the supply level, including items to fit competitors’ machines. He answered that DMI wanted to focus on equipment, but he didn’t have a problem with Joni exploring other options.

So she returned to her desk, and began calling vendors.

“Long story short,” Joni reminisced, “within a year, DMI had its own supply division, and there were four people in that division.”

Then in 1993, a larger company, Burdick, bought DMI. When Joni turned down a job offer with the new company in Chicago — she’d already started a family here — they asked if she’d stay on for a year to help with the transition. During the interview, they also mentioned closing the division she’d spearheaded.

“I took it personally, because I felt like I’d started it, and I’d grown it to this certain point,” Joni said. “I felt that it was looked upon as if it wasn’t important. Probably in their grand scheme of things, it wasn’t. But to me, it was very important.”

She was on the verge of quitting. They asked Joni what would convince her to stay on for the transition. Not skipping a beat, she said: “Allow me to buy the supply division.”

“Are you serious?” they asked.

“Yeah,” Joni answered. Thinking back, she admits her words were probably guided by pride. She couldn’t say, “No, I was just kidding.”

“OK. If that’s what you want, let’s work it out,” they said.

Joni walked around the building, putting Post-It Notes on items she wanted — although she was most interested in the company’s 800 number and customer list. Burdick made an offer, and with a meager $500 in her bank account, Joni accepted.

She spent the next year doing two jobs simultaneously: holding up her end of the bargain with Burdick in facilitating with the transition to Chicago, and developing her new company, Danlee Medical Products.

“That year was hardest year of my life,” Joni said. “I had to do everything they expected me to do. I had to set my company up. I was married. I had a 3-year-old son.”

Among those few coworkers left at DMI, she faced many naysayers. Older male engineers would offer unsolicited advice and warnings to Joni, telling her she didn’t know what she was doing. One man even suggested she take him on as a business partner. The remarks drove her ambition.

“It actually motivated me to think, ‘I can do this, and I’m going to show you I can do this,’” she said.

Joni opened the doors at Danlee Medical Products at East Molloy Road in Syracuse in 1993, on her 30th birthday. The company originally offered mostly cardiology-related items, but has since expanded to include most medical equipment, with the exception of drugs. Still in the same building, Danlee has expanded four times since opening, grown its employee count from four to 17, and serves more than 4,000 health-related professionals and patients globally.

When Joni founded the company, she didn’t really know what to expect, she remembers. But with every obstacle she faced, from dealing with the FDA to audits, she learned something.

“You’re either going to pack it in, or you’re going to keep moving forward,” she said.

When she hastily bought the supplies division years ago, Joni didn’t anticipate that learning how to hire would be one of the most important skills she’d develop.

It was a lesson a mentor taught her. Joni was having difficulty finding people who were the right fit for the company.

“Well, what kind of people do you try to hire?” Joni’s mentor asked her.

When Joni answered, “Somebody just like me,” her mentor pointed out the key to a good staff is diversity. Joni needed people with abilities different from hers.

Until that point, she’d imposed pressure on herself to be the best at everything and know everything. A lightbulb went on when her mentor gave her that advice, Joni said; it put everything in perspective, and she started thinking differently.

Everyone has different strengths, and not always comparing your abilities to others’ is a key to success in business, Joni said.

“I had to find that confidence in myself,” Joni said, “to let myself know, ‘You are smart. You do know what you’re doing. Be confident in yourself and don’t let people make you feel like you’re less than who you are.’” SWM

To learn more about Danlee Medical Products, visit danleemedical.com.

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