Chapter 10: Sparks Fly

Rise Above Chapter 10

My formula for success is to rise early, work hard, and strike oil. - J. Paul Getty

In April of 1970, as my Jeep was headed to the big junkyard in the sky, I moved on without a trace of sentiment. Quickly, I turned my attention to a vehicle I’d seen at the local Dodge dealer. It was called a B-van, fresh off the assembly line, and when the salesman opened the side doors and I looked inside, my eyes just about fell out of my head.

Put another way, I knew that one day sparks would be flying between us.

This new van was a big deal for two reasons. First, I had never bought a new vehicle before, so the purchase would represent a sizeable portion of my income. Second, unlike any other model on the market at that time, the van’s engine was pushed forward. Because the floor was also relatively flat, once I took out the driver’s seat, I’d have a clear path all the way up to the steering wheel.

To make it even more attractive, the B-van was greatly improved over its predecessor. In addition to features that increased its performance, the van was stylish, with a dashboard, trim, and comfortable seats that were as good as, if not better than, those in passenger cars. Finally, it came with power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, and a fresh-air heater and defroster.

Compared with my post office Jeep, this was like a living room. The possibilities were endless. I could take my family to church. I could go anywhere.

Even though I knew I had to have it, I was determined to play it cool in the negotiation, just like my father taught me. If I gave away too much information too early, I’d be showing my hand, like a poker player, and the salesman would have the advantage.

Slyly, I lobbed my question, “How much are you asking for this thing?” I figured “this thing” would make it seem less important to me.

The salesman smiled. “$3,200.”

“I’ll take it,” I blurted out. The salesman kept smiling. It was only $100 less than the price of my trailer home.

As I left the dealership, my mind was wired. I could not wait for delivery. I started calling on a daily basis to ask when it would arrive. The van was made in Windsor, Ontario, and because it was a brand-new vehicle, they said I would have to wait for delivery from Canada.

That was not the answer I was looking for.

I pressed further, really becoming a pain in the neck. Finally, in August, they did something unprecedented in those days: they loaded my van on a truck by itself and drove it straight to my parents’ garage from Canada.

I rubbed my hands in anticipation. It was time to start cutting steel.

The van had side doors and rear doors, and both opened on hinges, like a barn door would. I didn’t take long to figure out where I’d install my lift. The rear entry was out of the question because I wanted to have seats back there so my family could ride with me—a family that now included my son, Brent, who had been born two years earlier, and my son, Drew, who was due in April of the following year.

Because I wanted the van to look good and not just take me back and forth to work, this was a much harder conversion than the Jeep. My trusty saw would have to wait until I made some drawings and figured out what to do.

One day at the factory, where I still worked full time, I was looking at the way a fork truck used hydraulics and chains to raise and lower what it was carrying. I reasoned that if I got some pieces of tubing that could slide inside each other telescopically, as well as some cylinders and a pump, I could build myself a lift that would be durable and reliable.

Back at the garage, I looked at the name on the pump from the old Jeep. It was Monarch Road Equipment, out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. After I spoke with the company on the phone, a salesman came to see me the next day. His name was John Mahan, and he would become a very important person in my life.

John was already at my parents’ house when I got there after work. With no pretense of cool, I said, “I want to buy one of these pumps.” We went in the garage, where he saw his company’s familiar pump on the Jeep.

I told him what I had done with the Tri-Wheelers and how I started out making one for myself and then made a successful business by making them for others. I said it wasn’t out of the question that the same thing could happen with lifts. I said, “If things go well, I’ll probably be buying a lot more from you.”

“Well, how many do you think you’re going to buy?” John asked. “I need to know what kind of quantity pricing I should put you in because I need to answer to my boss as to what I sell you the first pump for.”

“If you price them right, I’m guessing that I’ll be able to make a bunch of these and sell them,” I replied. “If you charge me too much, I won’t be able to sell as many, and then I won’t be able to buy as many.”

He rubbed his chin and studied me. “That’s an interesting approach,” he said. “I’ve never had anybody say that to me before.”

I said, “Well, that’s the way I see it. If you give me the right price, every pump I buy will be from you.”

After calling his boss, John gave me the same high-quantity, rock-bottom price that he gave people who built hundreds or thousands of snowplows or forklifts a year. This kind of thing didn’t happen very often, if at all—especially with a big company like Monarch and a little outfit like mine, based in a garage.

We made the deal, and we both kept our word. To this day, Monarch Road Equipment has been my one and only pump supplier, and we’re one of its top customers.

John became a very close mentor and friend to me and my family. My kids loved him so much they called him “Uncle John.” Years later, when his wife got sick, she had one of our wheelchair vans. When John died, my youngest child, Melissa, who was born in 1975, actually wrote his obituary for the newspaper she was publishing, The Pulaski County Journal.

Eleven years older than me, John gave me priceless business training. He told me how tough it was going to be with me starting the business from the ground up. He said until I got some white in my hair, nobody was going to believe a word I said. Like it or not, he said, that was how it was going to be. He was right.

John’s advice taught me I needed to be much more attentive, and that much more believable, with a full head of dark hair. I knew I needed to go that extra step. Of course, the fact I was in a wheelchair meant I had to overachieve to an even greater degree.

I learned from John during the rest of his life and even did more business with him after he retired from Monarch. He had moved to Ohio and started a couple of businesses of his own, one selling garbage truck parts and the other sewer cleaners. John combined them into one mail-order company and was successful with it for a few years. In 1994, when he became ill and could no longer work, I bought the business from him and moved it to Winamac. I put one of my best people in charge, Tom Bonnell, and merged it with Mobility Products and Design, another company I’d purchased that made hand controls for accelerators and brakes. Later, because it didn’t fit with my company’s focus, we sold the garbage truck and sewer business. Today, I still own Mobility Products and Design, and it is still run by Tom.

John taught me there are all kinds of ways to make money in this life and that while sometimes you do what you love and other times you do things purely for the financial benefit, you’d better know the difference between the two. That was the case with the sewer and garbage truck parts businesses. We built them up and then sold them off so we could get back to providing mobility solutions. I’ve done the same with many other successful businesses I’ve owned and run, including several restaurants, a trucking company, and even Braun Fiberglass, where we made portable toilets—but I always returned to the business I loved and was born to run.

However, back in 1970, acquiring other businesses was the furthest thing from my mind. In my parents’ garage, I was looking into my new Dodge van with my drawings in my hand, and the thought running through my head was “Now let’s build this baby.”

The details of how all the pieces fit together, how all the trial and error and effort came to fruition in that first lift, are rather overwhelming to comprehend. To make a long story short, working nights and weekends, we built and installed the first lift in three weeks. As soon as I took a ride up and down on that lift, I saw that revisions needed to be made. That took another three weeks. Finally, one more revision later, we nailed it, but not without one last piece of hammering.

When I took out the driver’s seat and went up under the steering wheel in my chair, I could almost reach it but not quite. I was six inches short because part of the wheel well was sticking out. I told my brother-in-law to get a sledgehammer, pull back the floor mat on my brand-spanking-new vehicle, and beat the metal down so I could get up in there. He did, and I fit right in. After we installed some tie-downs to keep my chair in place—we used something similar to gate latches—we were done.

Did I pop the champagne cork then? Did confetti fall from the sky? No. As before, I drove the new Dodge home, got some sleep, and went to work the next morning. I was excited, but I was exhausted. Working a full-time job, running my Tri-Wheeler business on the side, traveling all over the place to get parts, and being a father to a growing family had made me bone tired.

I did do one thing. A few days later, I had some pictures taken of me with my van, just as I had when I converted the Jeep, and I sent them to Ray Cheever for Accent on Living. He wrote up another little story about how I’d converted the new van and was driving it back and forth, and he also included the picture I’d sent him. I had no expectations of a response because the article he had done on me before hadn’t generated any interest.

As soon as the article hit, my phone started ringing. People were calling from all over the place to ask how they could get a van like mine and how much it would cost them. I felt like I was answering questions on the phone all night. I couldn’t take any action that night because I had to get up and go to work in the morning, but I knew I was on to something. I thought of John Mahan and said to myself, “He’s going to love this.”

A few days later, while I was at my quality control job, the company's personnel director came to where I was working. He told me somebody was out in the parking lot and wanted to talk to me. I thanked him and said I’d go out on my break. When I got there, sitting beside my Dodge was a brand-new Chevy van with a sliding door and Texas license plates. A kid in a wheelchair was inside the Chevy van with his mother and father. His name was Guy Buddy Davis, and when his parents saw the article in Accent on Living, they didn’t call; they just got in their new van and drove, 19 hours straight through from Lubbock, Texas, to Winamac, Indiana.

Buddy had polio, and his parents were getting him in and out of their van by pushing him up and down 2 × 6s they were using as a makeshift ramp. They wanted to check out my van to see how it worked, so I opened it up and demonstrated it for them, letting Buddy go in and out a few times. They were amazed and wanted to learn more, so I took them over to my parents’ garage and showed them around. Right away, they asked how much it was going to cost them. I told them my van was a Dodge, and it was the only one I’d converted other than my old Jeep. They had a Chevy with a sliding door and dimensions that were completely different from the Dodge’s. I explained to them how the ceiling was higher, which meant the lift would need higher stanchions, and the stepwell was wider, which meant the striker plate needed to be wider. Also, the sliding door was going to be a big challenge because my van had doors that swung open.

They were rather desperate and kept asking how much it would cost. I thought about it, and after a quick calculation, I said I could do it for $795, plus $150 to install it—$945. They didn't bat an eye and asked when they could have it.

“When do you want it?” I asked.

“We want it now,” said the father. “We’re up here from Texas, and we want to go back with it in our van.”

I said, “It’s going to take me some time to put this thing together. I’m going to have to …”

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, interrupting me. “We’ve always wanted to take a vacation in Canada. How about if we keep driving up to Canada, you tell us when we need to be back, and we’ll stop back here so you can install it on our way home?”

“Wow,” I said. “It could take me two weeks to get this done, maybe more.”

Buddy’s father said, “That’s fine. We always wanted to see Canada, and we really want this for our son.”

I saw how much they cared for their son and sensed how much my lift would mean to their lives. If I agreed, I’d have two weeks of long, hard nights and weekends ahead of me—but $945 would take months for me to make at my quality control job.

“You got a deal,” I said.

They were elated and said they would be back in two weeks. As they backed out of the driveway and waved, I sat in my wheelchair and started mentally running through a list of parts and materials I’d need to acquire so I could do the job. I needed a pump, cylinders, some chain, and sprockets—and some people to help me. It was pretty overwhelming.

I drove home and went in the house to begin ordering parts. I had barely said hello to my wife and kids and was about to pick up the phone to make my call when the phone rang instead. Startled, I answered, “Hello? This is Ralph Braun.”

A man was on the other end of the line, and he was calling from Ohio. “Hello, Ralph,” he said, his words tumbling out. “I just read an article about you in Accent on Living. I have a Chevy van, and I want you to put one of your lifts in it. Would it be all right with you if I come over tomorrow?”

I held the phone away from my ear and looked at it, my jaw hanging open.

I could hear “Ralph? Hello, Ralph?” coming from the receiver.

The future had arrived, unannounced, with the family from Texas. Now, with this man on the phone from Ohio, the future not only had brought a friend but also was moving in—for good.

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