Chapter 11: Crazy Good Times

Rise Above Chapter 11

I will prepare and someday my chance will come. - Abraham Lincoln

“Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” I said to the voice on the phone.

“I catch you at a bad time?” he asked.

“No, everything’s fine,” I said. “Where are you calling from again?”

“Ohio,” he replied. “I saw you in Accent on Living and thought I’d come on over, tomorrow if possible.”

I explained to him that it was Monday, I still had my full-time job to do all week, and I hadn’t even had a chance to order the parts I needed to complete the new lift I was working on. He was insistent.

“How about if I come over on Friday night?” he asked.

“That’s better,” I responded. “But why do you want to come over? And why do you need to come so fast?”

“Well, I’m retired,” he began. “I don’t have much to do these days except look after my son. You see, my son, he … he just got back from Vietnam, and he was hurt pretty bad over there. So, you know, he’s paralyzed and can’t move his arms and legs. He’s …he’s pretty much stuck in the house, and I want to help him.”

His story was heartbreaking, and I really felt for the man. Just as I had learned by making Tri-Wheelers, I was once again reminded the need for mobility does not discriminate. It doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, young or old. It doesn't care whether you’re male or female, educated or uneducated, or whether you were born with a disability or acquired it by some sort of accident.

“I have a bit of a problem,” I said. “I’ve only converted one van so far, and that’s my own Dodge, the one you saw in the article. And, now, a few minutes ago, I took an order to make a lift for a family who just drove through from Texas on their way to Canada for vacation. They’ve got a Chevy van, so I’m going to have to go down to the Chevy dealer so I can figure out how to fit a lift for one of those vehicles. Then, when they come back through in two weeks, I have to have it ready for them.”

“How about this?” he offered. “I’ll come over Friday night and help you build it. Not just mine but the one for the family from Texas, too. Instead of you having to go to the Chevy dealer, you can use my Chevy van to fit it.”

“Wow, that’s awfully generous of you,” I said.

“It’s no problem for me,” he said. “My son needs this real bad, and I think having this van fixed up might change his whole outlook on things.”

“I imagine it might,” I replied.

Then, he added, “Oh, and if you’re wondering what kind of help I might be able to give you on these lifts, well, I am a retired Navy mechanic, so that ought to be of some use.”

As if I needed any more convincing, that sealed the deal. He would arrive on Friday, and we’d begin work immediately. As soon as I hung up, I started calling suppliers and placing orders for double parts, enough for two Chevy vans. I also needed people to help. I couldn’t simultaneously build two lifts with just this man from Ohio and my brother-in-law, and that wasn’t even counting all of the Tri-Wheelers I was still making.

When I went back to work at my quality control job that day, I told my boss, Charles Stapp, what had happened and what I was going to do. I explained to him how I’d already ordered all the parts I was going to use but I also needed to hire some people on a temporary basis to help me out.

So, I hired him—my boss, that is. Not only that but also I hired two of my other coworkers.

If I had stopped to really think about what was happening, I might have become too overwhelmed to go through with it. But I didn't stop; I plowed forward. When I did, my boss and the other two guys said, “You tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.”

Why did they agree to help me so quickly? First, these men were my friends. Second, they were all mechanically inclined, so they knew how to do the work. Third, they had families, and they wouldn’t mind making a few extra bucks. But more than anything, they wanted to see just how much I could accomplish with a little help.

People sometimes ask me how I can have a global company based in an Indiana cornfield. They ask me how I can attract and retain talent out in “the middle of nowhere.” I believe it has something to do with the example of building these first lifts. To me, having values matters. Having a good work ethic matters. Caring for your fellow man matters. These guys had all of that, and the people who work for me today do, too. What’s more, I think all of that matters to our customers as well. Whether they are even consciously aware of the values, work ethic, and care that go into every single product we make, they experience those things through our quality and reliability, and through the lives our mobility products help them live.

However, it’s a long way from those first two lifts to today.

On the day I took those first two lift orders, I had hired my boss and two coworkers, agreed to have the customer from Ohio work with me, gotten my brother-in-law to also work on the lifts, and ordered all the parts and supplies I’d need. Then, every day after work, I drove to see Ralph Rocky, John Mahan, and all of the other suppliers so I could pick up my orders. Because these trips were so far away, each one of the suppliers had to stay open later, or even come back after their families had gone to bed, so they could get me what I needed. After I’d gotten my supplies, I’d drive back to Winamac, get some sleep, and go back to my full-time job.

Finally, at 3:30 on Friday, we started building the lifts. My hired help and I all converged on my parents’ garage. When we arrived, the man from Ohio was already there, sitting in the yard beside his brand-new Chevy van. We got to work immediately, measuring the differences in dimensions between my Dodge and the Chevy and trying to figure out what it would take to make it work. Once we had the measurements in place, I told people where to make cuts, drill holes, weld things together, and so on. It was a whirlwind of activity. During that wild and crazy weekend, my entourage of worker bees was fed by my mother, who proudly welcomed them into her kitchen.

We worked as long as we could that Friday evening. At the break of dawn, we started again and worked late into the night.

During the day, we bought some fast-drying paint in cans. At the end of Saturday night, we painted the lift for the man from Ohio. I don’t know how many cans we used, but it was a lot, and it was gun-metal gray. We didn’t paint the other lift because that family wasn’t due back from Canada for another week.

On Sunday after church, we began to install the first lift in the Chevy van. By late afternoon, we were done. I thanked the man from Ohio for his help, he paid me, and off he went, excited as any one person could be. My little gang and I nearly collapsed from exhaustion, but we were happy. I was glad to hear from the same man a few years later. He told me how the lift had indeed changed his son’s outlook on life. If today I heard his son was still one of our customers, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

The following Friday night, the Texas family came back from Canada. I drove them to the Indian Head Hotel in town, where they spent the night while we started to install their lift. The next morning, we finished installing it and brought them back from the hotel to see it. They were ecstatic. Tears were flowing everywhere, and there were hugs all around. They thanked us, paid me, and drove off to Texas with Buddy, never to use 2 X 6s again.

We then began cleaning up my parents’ garage. It looked like a hurricane had blown through, with paint cans, discarded scraps of metal, and other debris covering the place. We had just made and installed two lifts in two weeks. As I looked at the scene in wonder, it was almost unbelievable.

Before I could exhale, my mother stuck her head out of the door to tell me I had a phone call. Apparently, a man had tracked me down at my parents’ house, from Boston this time, to place an order for a conversion on his van. I went in the house and spoke with him on the phone. He was calling on behalf of a very wealthy lawyer, a real old-money Boston Brahmin, and he wanted me to convert his Dodge van right away. As with the other two orders, I listened as the man described how the lawyer had seen the article about me and wanted the exact same thing as I had, only with an automatic power lift and doors. He wasn’t going to drive it like I did, but he just wanted to be able to press a button and have it work. The vans I had just finished converting and that we were still cleaning up from were only semiautomatic because the lift powered up and down but unfolded manually. This man from Boston wanted the whole thing.

Because I would mostly be able to copy what I’d done with my own Dodge for this Boston customer, I knew exactly what to do. However, with each lift I made a lot of improvements, and consequently, I wasn’t able to save much time. Every lift was a work in progress; it was like I had a research process and a manufacturing process going all at once. As a result, the lifts were getting better each time.

With all of those variables in place, I was able to build and install the lift for the lawyer from Boston in three weeks. I never saw him because the other man drove the van out and back on his behalf, so I can only imagine what impact his new van had on him.

Like clockwork, I received another such call shortly thereafter. It was from a man in Kokomo, Indiana, who worked for a subsidiary of General Motors called AC Delco. GM had given him a new Chevy van, and he wanted to know whether I could convert it like I’d done with my Dodge. He wanted to be able to drive it and also have everything work automatically, including the sliding door. When I told him I didn’t know how to make a Chevy van’s door slide open and closed automatically, but I did know how to do a Dodge, I got a lesson in brand and company loyalty.

“Listen,” he said. “I work for General Motors. Unless I want my head handed to me, which I don’t, there is no way on God’s green earth that I am going to drive a Chrysler product into a GM parking lot, get out of it, and go inside to work.”

“Right, yeah,” I muttered. “I see your point.”

“Whatever it takes to make this van workable, do it,” he said.“I don’t care what it takes, and I don’t care what it costs—just do it.”

After six weeks of hard work and headaches, I finally converted his Chevy van. It was very expensive, but we did it, and I learned a lot in the process.

We’d converted four vans, not including my own, in about two months. I did this while working at my quality control job all day, taking calls from customers and driving to get parts and supplies all night, and building lifts and Tri-Wheelers all weekend. I was both exhausted and exhilarated, but at no time did I even entertain the thought of slowing down. In fact, I started to think about hiring a couple of full-time employees to help with the workload. Moreover, because the article about me in Accent on Living had generated such demand, I ran an ad in the magazine, too. I also ran an ad in Paraplegic News, a magazine run by an organization called Paralyzed Veterans of America.

We were riding a hurricane, and I did not want to let go.

One day, a Friday, I returned home from work and looked at the list of people who had called me that day. It was two pages long. Both of the advertisements had included my phone number, and the phone was ringing off the hook. I thought I must be some kind of master marketer. Encouraged, I would work my way down the list that night and over the next week, calling and setting up appointments, answering questions, and taking orders. Exactly one week later, on Friday, I’d come home from work to find the list had jumped back up to two pages. This was following a pattern, and I didn’t understand it.

Finally, a lightbulb flipped on in my head. On Thursday evenings, NBC was running a hit crime drama TV series called Ironside, starring Raymond Burr. In the series, Burr played the role of Robert Ironside, a former chief of detectives for the San Francisco Police Department who had been paralyzed by a would-be assassin's bullet and, as a result, had to use a wheelchair to chase bad guys. Unwilling to give up his personal war on crime, Ironside continued his work for the police department as a “special consultant.” He lived and worked in the attic of the police department headquarters. More important, in each episode, Ironside cracked his case by traveling from crime scene to crime scene in a van specially outfitted to help him get in and out in his wheelchair. Of course, Raymond Burr was not paralyzed and did not need a wheelchair except to play his role, and the van itself was merely a prop, but the point was driven home each Thursday night every time Ironside went in and out of the van. Clearly, the lengthy call list I got each Friday afternoon was the result of two things: my ads gave people the phone number, and Ironside gave them the motivation.

Who would have ever thought a famous Hollywood actor like Raymond Burr would drive sales for me, a guy in an Indiana garage? While some of it had to do with what I was offering, I also knew a lot of it had to do with timing and with being in the right place at the right time—which would play an even bigger role in the days ahead.

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