This article previously appeared on News@Northeastern. It was written by Ian Thomsen.

Gordon Thompson was leading Westnet, a business consulting startup, when he made the career-altering decision to bid on a piece of surgical equipment in 1994.

“The wheels started spinning,” says Thompson, a double-Husky who had earned a Northeastern undergraduate degree in accounting in 1980 and an MBA four years later. “I started bidding on medical supplies. I had this vision, and one thing led to another.”

Thompson transformed his company into a distributor of medical and surgical supplies, life science products, and industrial paper. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Westnet has become a leading provider of personal protective equipment (PPE) to numerous universities and colleges, including his alma mater. Thompson's company has sold more than $2.5 million of PPE to Northeastern since March.

Westnet, a distributor of medical, surgical and laboratory supplies, based in Canton, Massachusetts. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University.

Thompson says Westnet has been providing Northeastern with culture tubes, which are used for its COVID-19 testing program, as well as all kinds of protective outerwear—masks, gloves, isolation gowns.

“We offer all of the peripheral and direct consumables that are needed to combat and test for COVID-19,” Thompson says. “Northeastern has taken the lead as a source for keeping the community safe, as well as doing research and innovating ways to resolve the crisis.” 

Thompson created those relationships with universities 15 years ago when he further diversified into research supplies.

Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University.

“Many of the products that are used in hospital emergency rooms are also found in research laboratories,” says Thompson, whose company is based in Canton, Massachusetts.

“This region is a world mecca for higher education,” adds Thompson. “If I was a farmer, I'd go to Iowa or Idaho, where the soil was rich. It's the same here—I'm operating in a fertile environment for what we do.”

Thompson had been running Westnet for less than a year when he read a Massachusetts government report listing the goods and services that were needed by the state. One of the items in demand was electrosurgical pencils, which are used to stem bleeding in patients during surgeries. Thompson won that bid with the state—and went on to earn many more.

“I knew what specific product the Commonwealth was using, and so I would then look at an equivalent or better brand,” Thompson recalls. “Because I know what the state has paid for that equivalent product, I now have a profit objective. I know what my cost has to be.”

For the next two years, Thompson applied that formula while driving all of Westnet's business through the Massachusetts state government.

“That was risky,” he says. “But it was the platform that allowed us to develop the learning and experience curve. From there, we were able to go out and solicit private business, hospitals, universities, research institutions.”

As Westnet shifted more of its business to PPE and the pressing needs of a pandemic, it helped to have relationships with institutions like Northeastern already in place. It is particularly important, he says, that many of the Westnet employees who deliver PPE and other supplies to customers have been with the company for an extended span of time.

“Westnet has been extremely fortunate to have long-tenured employees in those areas,” Thompson says. “And when you have that, it provides long-term intimacy with your customers. You know your customers, but more importantly, your customers know you.”

Thompson credits his Northeastern education for helping him develop Westnet. He and his wife, Christina, have established the Mabelle Thompson and Millie R. Clements Scholarship at Northeastern in honor of their mothers. 

“The business wasn't started with a wheelbarrow of money or any inheritance,” Thompson says. “It was started through going out and generating revenue, and then putting the right pieces together to support the delivery of the goods and services.”

All from that single idea.

Read more at News@Northeastern.