Chapter 18: It's a Small World

Rise Above Chapter 18

A good product knows no national boundaries. - Hideo Sugiura, Former Honda Chairman

Early in the life of our business, when the first lift customers were coming to Indiana from Texas, Massachusetts, and other areas of the country, I knew our products would have wide appeal everywhere we offered them—and not just in the United States. After all, disability doesn’t care where you live, and neither should mobility.

As a smaller, more nimble entrepreneurial company, extending our reach across international borders made sense. By going into other geographies, we could tap into local markets that otherwise would not have been available to us. I’d read that 75 percent of U.S. exports came from small businesses; if that were true, why couldn’t ours be one of them?

I asked myself, Where should we go, how would we get there, and when?

While we didn’t begin our overseas expansion until the 1980s and our products are now available most everywhere in the world, the seeds were planted a full 10 years earlier when I got a call from a paraplegic former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot living in Canada. He had seen my ad in Accent on Living and thought I might be able to convert his new Dodge van on his drive south from Canada to Costa Rica to spend the winter.

Like the story of Don Collins, this one is a cautionary tale that took many years and numerous twists and was a contributing factor behind our move to open a facility in Florida, after which California, New Jersey, and overseas countries quickly followed.

The disabled veteran pilot had a camper conversion in his Dodge van and planned to sleep in it on his way south to Costa Rica. He wanted to sleep in it in my parents’ garage while we installed a lift for him. When I asked him how he was going to pay for it, he said the VA would send me a check for the full amount. This was the first-ever sale to the VA on behalf of a Vietnam veteran, so I did not know what to make of it in the beginning.

While he slept in his van in the garage for the two weeks I worked, I talked to the VA and exchanged a lot of paperwork. Finally, I was convinced there was a good possibility I would get paid for it. I reasoned that if the VA funded the conversion, with the amount of veterans who were returning home disabled, this would set a precedent and open the door to even more of these deals as time went on.

I finished the job and sent the pilot on his way to Costa Rica. Before he left, he gave me a personal check and told me not to cash it unless the money did not come in from the VA. He said he knew a lot of people in Washington, and I knew he had a tremendous gift of manipulation, so I thought if anybody could get the funding, it would be him.

Two months later, I got the check from the VA and a call from the pilot. He had been thinking the same way I had; if the VA had paid for his van conversion, with the amount of disabled veterans out there, a lot more funding would be available. He had an idea: he would buy a bunch of vans and ship them to me in Winamac for conversion, and then he would sell them under the name Speedy Wagon. It sounded like a viable plan to me and another route to market for my lifts, albeit under a private label, so I agreed to it.

Within two months, he started running advertisements in Accent on Living—to compete against me. They ran on facing pages, and both ads featured the same product, with one difference: he doubled his photograph so it looked like he had twice as many vans as me. Our customers were, understandably, very confused.

This odd competition went on for a year or so, but I kept converting his vans because it was also helping me grow my business. Then the relationship started to get a little squishy. His customers started calling me directly because he had promised them earlier delivery, custom work, and other things that we hadn’t agreed upon. He also started stringing me along on his payments; he was floating my money.

I started to back away from the relationship. When I did, the pilot started buying electric lifts from a man in Canada by smuggling them across the border late at night, driving them to a plant in St. Louis, and installing them. Before long, he had really cut into my business from the VA.

Not long after, the pilot started to string along the Canadian lift manufacturer, and their relationship turned sour. When the Canadian man ended that relationship, the pilot took the electric lift to a machine shop and had it reverse-engineered; in other words, he copied it. But when he copied it, he cut corners and used cheaper materials, and as a result, it got butchered.

As if that weren’t enough, the pilot stuck it to the people in St. Louis, left them in the middle of the night, and set up shop near Tampa, Florida. There, he again had some knockoff lifts made. This resulted in yet another drop in quality, untold amounts of dissatisfied customers, and a very unhappy VA, which had funded all of those van conversions and was constantly getting calls from veterans stranded by malfunctioning lifts. It was a disaster, and the VA asked for our help.

We set up shop in the Tampa area and went to work. Immediately upon our arrival, there was a parade of Speedy Wagons coming to us. All day, for weeks on end, we cut out their lifts and replaced them with ours. Within a very short period of time, we took all of the pilot’s customers and put him out of business. He still was not done causing damage, because before he went out of business, he stopped honoring the warranties on his vehicles. This was fraud, and when the VA sent out a warrant for his arrest, he fled again under cover of night to Canada, where he stayed. He had left a nine-year path of destruction in his wake, but at least he was gone.

Gone, that is, until I saw him again at a campground in Florida in 2003. We had a cordial conversation, and in an odd twist of fate, he told me we’d actually been servicing his Braun lift for many years, often on his way to and from Costa Rica. Because I had no reason to open up old wounds and talk about all he had done—and, obviously, neither did he—we parted ways amicably. We weren’t friends, but we weren’t enemies, either. As I left the campground that day, I was struck by the thought that even one of my most energetic former competitors could become a customer, proving once again that disability and mobility know no boundaries, geographic or otherwise.

Of course, the pilot was not the only reason we went to Florida. The state has always been a popular destination for retirees in general. Since the end of World War II, veterans have been drawn to Florida because of its warm weather, relatively low taxes, extensive services, and large military community. Twenty years from now, due to a huge influx of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, experts predict that Florida will overtake California as the state with the largest population of military veterans. In the 1980s, because our competitors were beginning to cut into our business in California, that state became the next stop on our expansion agenda.

As is often the case, our expansion plans coincided with someone on the outside who wanted to get involved with our business. In this case, a man with polio was eking out a living by installing hand controls in cars out of a small garage in California, and he approached us about installing our lifts. After we struck a deal, he came to Indiana to learn how to put them into vans.

We began shipping him lifts he could install in California, and before long, his business started to take off. However, there was one very big problem: he was a wild hare, and he had no interest in running a business. Instead, he wanted to party. I found this out the hard way, when I made a trip to California to see him and his operation. He would come in to work late in the morning, have a two-martini lunch at noon, and then adjourn to his house at 3:00 for some serious drinking. At 7:00, he would have dinner and two more martinis. After dinner, it kept going. Then the next day, he would get up and do the same thing all over again. I was never much of a drinker, but I could tell right away this was going to be a problem.

My instincts were right. When he started building a big, new home, the money stopped flowing back to Indiana. When I found out the money was going into his house instead, I sent our sales manager to Los Alamos, California, where the business was, to fire the man and take over the operation. He did just that and moved the business to Huntington Beach. We kept it there until 2003, when our dealer network became so strong in California that we no longer needed to have a physical presence there.

Our expansion into New Jersey was about going to where the population was. By having a presence there, we could easily access New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and the Mid-Atlantic states. There’s not much of a story to be told with that location, because once our dealer network was able to be self-sufficient, we shut down New Jersey, too.

Going international was a completely different process. We now sell our products in every corner of the world, but I’ll briefly talk about just one: Australia.

Our activities in Australia started when a couple, Roger and Judith Sack, who operated a Brisbane-based family-owned company named Tramanco, came to see me in Winamac. Started by Roger as a one-man operation in 1975, Tramanco supplies and installs leading-edge Australian-designed and Australian-manufactured onboard weighing systems to the transport industry. Tramanco also covers a range of vehicle-mounted wheelchair loaders, wheelchair occupant restraint systems, access seating, and vehicle modifications to allow for wheelchair access. Today, Tramanco is the exclusive distributor of our products in Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia.1

Although neither Roger nor Judith was in a wheelchair when they came to see me, they were the first people in Australia to realize the importance of providing wheelchair-seated passengers with safe and secure mobility. After several years of marketing a modified commercial tailgate loader as a wheelchair loader, Roger had gone on an extended search for such purpose-built equipment and had ended up at my door.

In the ensuing years, Roger has worked hard to understand our business and has traveled to Winamac each year to supplement his knowledge and learn how to build his own network of dealers.

Along with his wife, Judith, who is also a director of Tramanco, he has become very successful in distributing our products to the Australian marketplace. In keeping with our focus on providing the highest-quality products, Roger is a member of various Standards Australia committees, which are producing standards for the safety of disabled passengers, and is the representative of the Commercial Vehicle Industry Association of Australia on Standards Australia.

Roger has been a big contributor to our success, and his dedication to learning and growth is exactly what we looked for as we grew our dealer network. We needed that dealer network as advances in medicine, returning veterans, and an aging population created more and more people who needed the products we had to offer. We needed people like Roger who were willing to put in the time and effort to understand our business and get close to their customers; I believe much of my success has been in finding those people.

As I’ve said before, our customers place a certain amount of trust in us and our products. They’ve suffered serious injuries as the result of accidents, gotten terrible wounds in defense of our country or been born with disabling diseases. As a person who has spent most of his life in a chair, I know what people like me go through. I know the physical and emotional pain they have to deal with as they live their daily lives. Life for them is hard enough as it is. The last thing they need is a product that leaves them stranded when all they want is something they can rely on to be there when they need it.

Although it may sound corny, our customers cannot be let down; they must be lifted up. I’ve dedicated my life to fulfilling that very proposition.

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