Story By Sean P. Johnson
Bob Zuleger spent the final few days on the job at NOVO Health as he spent much of his career — helping others succeed.
During that final week on the job, he conducted dozens of sessions with human resource staff and employees teaching them how to access and benefit from NOVO Health’s Direct Medical Marketplace. In between those sessions, he compiled a “NOVO Bible” to onboard new employees and continued to share contacts, data and insights with fellow employees.
He also took part in completing a symbolic circle, as one of the first companies he visited during NOVO’s founding days signed a contract joining the NOVO Health platform.
The events created a fitting capstone for NOVO Health’s first-ever employee as he closed out a lengthy career in health care sales and marketing, a career guided by a simple principle.
“My whole life in health care sales has been driven by helping other people be successful,” Zuleger said. “Do that, and everything else works out.”
Simple? Perhaps. But those who worked with him daily said that is the essence of Bob Zuleger.
“Bob is incredibly genuine, whether it was helping me or working with the client,” Paul Johnson, director of strategic accounts for NOVO Health, said. “He was also a great teacher, especially when it came to helping figure out this new world of health care and how we are making a difference.
“He never made the client feel like he was selling them something, but that they were actually doing something that was changing the market and making a difference how they received health care,” Johnson said.
NOVO Health may have been just a few days old when Zuleger signed on as the vice president of business development in late August of 2015, but he was certainly no novice when it came to working in health care sales and marketing.
After graduating from St. Norbert College with a degree in medical technology in 1975, Zuleger moved into health care-related sales in 1981, racking up more than 30-plus years of experience with major industry players such as Walgreens Health Initiatives, Heartland Home Health Care, Accurate Imaging and Vitek Systems.
While he built a successful career within many large and established companies, Zuleger remained open to new and innovative ideas that could help him do his job better and his company succeed. Interestingly enough, it was his pursuit of one of those new tools that would lead him to NOVO Health.
As the business social networking site LinkedIn broke out of obscurity and began its rapid growth, Zuleger recognized it as a tool he could use to extend his network of business contacts. As he created his first profile, he also made his first connection — Curt Kubiak, CEO of Orthopedic & Sports Institute.
“Curt was my first LinkedIn connection” Zuleger said. “I was just trying to figure it out and was wondering who is this guy who wants to connect with me.”
They did more than just connect online, though.
The pair began meeting somewhat regularly for lunch to talk about ideas for improving health care delivery. Zuleger would often find himself buying and reading books Kubiak mentioned in those conversations. He sensed the ideas for what would become NOVO Health were crystallizing.
“When you meet with Curt, you always come away having learned something. I could tell he was an innovator, and it would turn out he was a disruptive innovator,” Zuleger said. “I finally told him when you are ready, I am ready.”
In August 2015, they were ready, and Zuleger signed onto NOVO Health as the vice president of business development.
“Bob was a critical first piece in making NOVO Health happen,” Kubiak, who is also the CEO of NOVO Health, said. “He not only had great knowledge of, and contacts in, the industry, he quickly understood the idea behind NOVO and was able to translate its value to prospective employers.”
Zuleger certainly didn’t come in empty-handed. His many years in health care sales resulted in a massive database of contacts within the industry—contacts who knew and trusted him. Zuleger also admits he was an early version of a data wonk, identifying, collecting and analyzing vast collections of health care-related information for future use.
Both would come in handy as he went to work for NOVO Health. While being the first employee certainly provided a blank slate for building a new and innovative approach to health care, it also meant there was no infrastructure, no sales materials and no clients generating revenue to build the company.
Armed with nothing more than a flyer announcing NOVO and a target list, Zuleger and Kubiak set out to convert any company that would listen to the new health care platform.
“In those early days, it was just me and Bob going up and down Interstate 41 with our flyer, knocking on doors,” Kubiak says. “There was a lot of windshield time.”
Along the way, the pair would benefit from another aspect of Zuleger’s encyclopedic knowledge.
“Bob knows the best place to eat in every single town and city in Wisconsin,” Kubiak said.
Zuleger compares those early sales efforts to being an evangelist — it took a lot of coaxing, cajoling and patience to convince those first companies to sign on with an upstart. But Zuleger — and the rest of the sales team that would eventually join him — was patient, as he likes to point out with the story of convincing Walker Forge to utilize the NOVO Health model.
Zuleger labelled the company’s first sales approach as Guerrilla Marketing.
“Who does that these days?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, we did.”
In one episode, Zuleger learned that Waupaca Foundry was holding an open house which he figured would be a strategic event to attend. But he and Kubiak also put together a list of other potential companies in the Waupaca County area they would like to target and jumped in the car.
One of the stops they would make was Walker Forge. With no appointment, and nothing but their trusty flyer, he and Kubiak made a cold-call stop at the company in 2015 and asked to see the HR director.
“Of course, they said no, but they did at least take the flyer,” Zuleger said, recalling the event during an investors meeting his last official week on the job. “Today, they are an employer partner of NOVO Health.”
The Clintonville manufacturer joined with NOVO in 2018.
Eventually, Zuleger would be joined on the sales team by Tony Engedal, Johnson and Randy Zahn. By the end of 2018, the quartet had grown the number of employers utilizing NOVO Health to 350-plus companies representing more than 300,000 covered lives.
“I always think of Bob as a safe place to be, in that he has a big heart and is always looking to help — a true servant leader,” says Engedal. “That allowed him to connect with people and build trusting relationships. That allowed us as an organization to build up more quickly. He is the model for everyone we have brought onboard.”
That growth meant Zuleger spent the last few weeks of his tenure at NOVO attending dozens of employer meetings to educate employees on the benefits of NOVO Health. In retirement, he does not expect his calendar to be just as full, though the focus will be different.
“I’ve already been informed I’m on Grandpa Patrol,” Zuleger said, explaining a program at Holy Spirit School where a group of grandfathers help the school with various volunteer needs. It seems a fitting start, since his son is the principal at the school and by the next school year, 10 of his 12 grandchildren will be attending.
Indeed, his ties to the Darboy community where he lives and the school is located run deep. Zuleger grew up on an 80-acre dairy farm in Darboy, and he and his wife Mary returned to the community in the early 1990s after living in the Appleton area.
The first few weeks of his retirement were slowed by a medical procedure and recovery — “I’m required to take naps” — but the calendar of to do items is rapidly filling.
In addition to his work on the Grandpa Patrol, Zuleger plans to ramp up his involvement with the Knights of Columbus. He’s been a member of the Catholic Charitable organization for many years, but now looks forward to having more time for its various projects.
His list of travel plans is also extensive, starting with a winter trip to Arizona.
“I really want to take some time for myself and my wife,” he said.
An Amtrak trip on the Empire Builder to the Pacific Northwest and capped by an Alaska Cruise, as well as a trip to Washington to see the cherry blossoms, are also on the immediate horizon.
Yet, some habits are never set aside. Zuleger said he still plans to keep up his data review and analysis, and NOVO will never be far from his thoughts.
“I’ll always be keeping an eye out,” Zuleger said. “If I see something interesting, I’ll let you know.”