Finding a niche in the ultrasound market

Ultrasound is good for far more than just early baby pictures – just ask Ryan Dienst, managing partner of Global Medical Imaging, or GMI.

The Charlotte company has carved a niche in a market dominated by three major manufacturers by selling, servicing and supporting new and used ultrasound equipment to doctors' offices nationwide. Since Dienst and brother-in-law Scott Ray founded the business six years ago, it's grown plenty. In its first year, it brought in $1.5 million in revenue; this year, it's on track for $20 million, and it now has 57 employees.

Dienst, who worked for a family homebuilding company and earned an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill, brought business expertise; Ray, who's worked in ultrasound sales, came with technical acumen and industry contacts. Now, their company sells to a range of doctor's offices – including cardiology, ob/gyn, internal medicine and radiology practices.

Dienst spoke about that history and potential recently at GMI's offices in South End.

Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. Once you started your business, how did you figure out where to go?

The vision was to sell to private practice offices. And then …(customers) call in needing service help. So quickly you figure out how to manage service tickets and build a service department.

You very quickly get into the parts business. It's almost like we're growing a tree, but we're just digging down to the roots right now. We're putting in all these different levels of technical expertise to support the customers that we have. Now we're really turning around the other way and saying, “How do we grow this business and reach more customers?”

Q. Did the lessons you learned in homebuilding and in your MBA program also prove true with this business?

There's no question that those things provided a great foundation. But every situation you're in … it's a learning process. You start on a plan, and six months later you look at it and say, are we on course? When we were growing really fast in the early days … every 90 days we were a different company.

There was no plan you could put in place that was incredibly brilliant for what we were going to look like seven years out. You could go as far as the headlights could shine outside of the car, and you just kept driving and adjusting the plan as you go along moving through the darkness. We had always envisioned being a very focused niche player in the world of ultrasound, but we didn't know how we were going to get there. We figured that out on the fly.

Q. What would you say you've learned along the way?

It truly is all about the people. You could have a completely wrong business model with great people and they're going to figure out how to make it work.

It's probably the most important thing and something I didn't necessarily understand the importance of coming out of my first business. I'd always heard it, but within the last four or five years of this business, getting the right people in the right seats (has been) really a critical driver of success and something that doesn't just happen. It's something you have to work on in terms of evaluating your team and talent.

Q. As a startup, how did you woo customers in the first place and then retain them?

You've got to have some good salespeople initially to get the customers to take that leap of faith. Then, you have to continue to perform and support those customers.

GE, Philips and Siemens have 90 percent of the market share in ultrasound. The good news for us is, they care an awful lot about the big facilities and the big checks. They don't do as good a job selling to and supporting the OB/GYN in Lancaster, S.C.

We provide really high levels of service. That's a big customer for us. We're able to focus on things that they can't focus on, and hopefully outperform them.

Q. Are there things you feel you could have done differently?

We've been down a few side roads that obviously, looking back, we would have rather not spent the money on to go develop. None of them were colossal mistakes, but they were things where we spent time and resources on something that ultimately wasn't successful, and we redirected.

Q. Do you feel that has improved your filter of what's good and not good to do?

I think it certainly has. We're more strategic in the way that we go out and start new initiatives and go into new markets. We're not a big ship, but we're a bigger ship, and it's a little hard to jump around quite as much as we used to.

Q. At this point, do you feel vindicated in your desire to be an entrepreneur?

Absolutely. Entrepreneurism is certainly not for everybody, but it's my passion, it's my partner's passion, and there's nothing we'd rather be doing than working on and growing and creating the value in this business and in Charlotte for everybody else.