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Alumnus Robert Hillis Helps Innovate Senior Living

September 2, 2013

Hillis Horizontal
Trailblazing Engineer: Robert Hillis, a 1969 mechanical engineering alumnus, has found success in the Innovation Economy as founder of Direct Supply Inc. (Photo provided)

     Robert Hillis became a serial entrepreneur and innovator by accident, not by design. After graduating from Rose-Hulman in 1969 with a degree in mechanical engineering and earning a MBA, he joined the Mainstream Economy in the form of Oscar Mayer. At age 25, Hillis was put in charge of several money-losing subsidiaries of the food conglomerate.

     “I started working from the ground up with these small businesses, and from that day forward I was hooked on building businesses,” Hillis says. “I had to get very innovative and creative to turn them around.”

     In 1985, Hillis shifted to the Innovation Economy. He founded a virtual distributorship called Direct Supply Equipment & Furnishings, which is the largest equipment supplier to senior living facilities in the United States. In 1993, Hillis embraced the Internet and formed Direct Supply, the nation’s first e-commerce network in the healthcare industry. Since then, Hillis has launched five other startups under the Direct Supply brand.

     “I’m an innovation and technology fanatic. I’m always looking for new ways to do things,” the Terre Haute native says. “We were the nation’s first virtual distributorship in 1985, and when we started out everybody thought we were crazy. We developed a cloud-based e-commerce network for our healthcare suppliers over the Internet when nobody knew what the Internet and cloud computing were. These were breakthrough ideas, and we’ve done four more after that. Amazingly, they’ve all worked.”

     Hillis’ ventures were risky and faced many failures along the path to profitability. “Most of our businesses have taken five to seven years to make a penny, but as a private company we’ve been able to take the really long view and invest in big ideas,” he says.

     Rose-Hulman helped developed the work ethic and analytical skills necessary for an entrepreneurial career. “It was an enormously competitive but supportive environment,” Hillis states. “The work was really hard. It gave me the confidence to know that no matter how hard the problem was, I could figure it out if I stuck with it.”

     Hillis says the biggest reward of his entrepreneurial career is helping improve the senior living industry. “When we started, this was a very dismal business. But it’s really changed dramatically, and we’ve played a big part in that,” he adds. “At the end of the day, it’s about changing the status quo.”