Chapter 20: Inventing the Future

Rise Above Chapter 20

I just invent then wait until man comes around to needing what I’ve invented. - R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor and architect

The necessity of finding reliable mobility led me to create an invention and a company that changed my life and the lives of thousands of individuals worldwide. In many ways, my “disability” led to one valuable “ability,” knowing firsthand the frustration of having your independence held back because society doesn’t think you deserve an invitation to the party.

Today, most of society sees the ability in each individual, disabled or not, and that shift in attitude has been a blessing to our company and the disabled community. I’d like to think our products played a small role in this shift, simply because they allowed people with disabilities to get out in society and start demanding their rights. Today’s world is different from the one I faced when I started Save-a-Step Manufacturing as a part-time business in my parents’ garage. Since that time, walls have been torn down, ramps have been built in their place, and The Braun Corporation has become a multifaceted company providing mobility to every corner of the globe.

As society began to change, we decided the time had come for a change of our own. In 2007, we started to market our consumer products under the name BraunAbility. The name is an appropriate merging of our solid history of quality products with our focus toward the future and the ability within each of our customers. Our goal is no less than to redefine the ability industry in the years to come, one customer at a time. Our new tagline says it all: “Because life is a moving experience.”

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Several pieces had to fall into place before we became BraunAbility. I look back on the 1990s and early 2000s as a period of tremendous growth, both for our company and in society’s attitude toward individuals with disabilities.

With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the disabled community was awarded unprecedented access to public places. In the same time frame, we introduced a revolutionary new product called the Entervan. This lowered-floor minivan offered unparalleled ease of access for wheelchair users, and it quickly became the flagship of our product line as thousands of consumers all over the world discovered a newfound independence. Together, these two events caused our company’s growth to skyrocket.

Let me start with the Entervan, a lowered-floor minivan conversion based on the ever popular “soccer mom” vehicles launched in the 1980s. Today, these vans continue to be our most popular products.

Consumers flocked to the Entervan because of its quality, easy-to-use design, and, maybe most important, the fact that it looked just like the vehicles parked in the neighbors’ driveway. It blended in with the rest of the vehicles on the road, something a full-sized van with a raised top never did.

To most people, a full-sized van was a truck. It was something small businesses, trade workers, and delivery people used. A minivan was more mainstream and fit in comfortably with the flow of society because it had the characteristics of a passenger car, which people were already driving and were used to; it could fit in a parking garage or parking space with no trouble; and it didn’t require people to lift themselves up into the much larger and more inaccessible interior. In addition, with our Entervan, people didn’t have to enter via a lift but instead could roll their chairs right up the ramp. In full-sized vans, passengers in wheelchairs had to ride in the midsection or the rear of the van; in a minivan, because the front seats were easily removable, they could go right up front and sit where they wanted to, whether they were a passenger or the driver. The Entervan’s dropped floor also enabled a person in a wheelchair to sit at the same level as other passengers and see the same things everyone else was seeing. Most people took this for granted but not wheelchair users. To them, this was revolutionary.

In the early days of using converted full-sized vans, consumers were just happy to be mobile. They were happy they could get in a vehicle and go do whatever they felt like doing. Just leaving their house without having to organize logistics a week in advance gave them newfound liberty, freedom, and independence.

Pardon the pun, but in those days, comfort and style took a backseat to pure access. It didn’t matter so much that a person in a wheelchair sat in the back, away from the conversation that was taking place in the front of the vehicle; it didn’t matter that they were raised up so high they couldn’t see outside; it only mattered that they could get somewhere.

With the Entervan, not only could they get somewhere, but they could get there in comfort and style. While the full-sized van still plays an important part in the transportation of wheelchair users, the minivan has become the number one choice.

In order to keep up with the success of the Entervan and the revolution that the ADA presented, we made a significant investment in our facilities in Winamac. We’d already added a 100,000-square-foot plant in the late ’80s that focused on wheelchair lift production as well as parts fabrication. It soon became obvious we'd need even more manufacturing space to accommodate minivan production. There was just one problem: we’d run out of real estate.

I tried to negotiate for a property just west of Winamac that was recently vacated by Winamac Steel, a division of Detroit Steel, but I didn’t care for the price they gave me. Eventually, I did acquire the property—and at quite a deal, I might add. Once again, I found myself in the right place at the right time.

As I mentioned before, I’ve never been able to take up typical hobbies like golf or skiing; instead, I took on less conventional pastimes. When my family vacationed in Clearwater, Florida, I started buying and selling real estate as a hobby for about 10 or 15 years. At one point, my real estate broker came up with a building that was vacated when the savings and loan banks went under in the late ’80s. The empty facility was big—more than 80,000 square feet—and was on a major thoroughfare in Clearwater with over 75,000 vehicles passing by each day.

I didn’t know what I’d do with the building, but the price was right for a facility on such a highly traveled roadway. I went ahead with the deal and immediately found a tenant, a company who manufactured ADA-compatible signs that businesses would need in order to comply with the new legislation. We signed a three-year lease agreement with them. Not long after, I had an idea: what if I traded this Clearwater facility for the building I wanted back home? I called Detroit Steel’s broker, and he agreed to come with me down to Florida to check out the property. We took him up on the building’s roof and stood there watching the cars stream by on the highway below. After a few minutes, I said, “There are more than 75,000 cars driving by here every day. Which would you rather have: this location or an abandoned building on Highway 14 in Winamac, Indiana?”

He took the Florida building, and I wound up with a new international headquarters for The Braun Corporation.

We didn’t buy it or build it; we made an open trade for it, at quite a cost advantage for us. What would have cost $30 a square foot to build we bought for only $3 a square foot—just 10% of what we would have spent on a brand-new facility. We now had an additional 150,000 square feet of manufacturing space to fill up. When we first started to move our equipment and offices into the new space, I know a lot of us had the same thought: “Man, we’ll never fill all of this!”

Actually, we wasted no time filling it. We needed space to accommodate sales, engineering, and product support departments, which were all expanding to keep up with the rapid pace. Headquarters wasn’t the only thing expanding; our dealer network was also growing by leaps and bounds. To keep our dealers up to speed on the latest product developments, we added classroom and meeting space for hands-on product workshops and service schools held throughout the year. Years later, we added another plant where we manufactured commercial paratransit units. After decades of steady growth, we are now bursting at the seams again today.

Although the Entervan has accounted for a substantial percentage of our growth, it’s not the only innovation we introduced in those years. A couple of key acquisitions gave us a diverse product line that truly set us apart as the mobility industry leader. First came the 1996 Mobile Tech acquisition that gave us the under-vehicle lift (UVL). A few years later, we made another important acquisition, this one of Crow River, a lift manufacturer based in Brooten, Minnesota. Crow River offered the Vangater, an electric lift with a unique folding platform that allowed ambulatory access to the side door of full-sized vans. Personal mobility isn't one-size-fits-all, and these two products helped diversify our line of commercial and consumer lifts.

We’ve made a commitment to customer satisfaction, and whether it’s through a survey from our product support department or a conversation I have with a fellow wheelchair user at a Colts game, we take all of our customers’ suggestions seriously.

This commitment to customer satisfaction led to a very important decision in 2004. We acquired a company by the name of Independent Mobility Systems (IMS), a competitor headquartered in Farmington, New Mexico, that manufactured its own lowered-floor conversion called the Rampvan. We had heard many, many customers expressing interest in a conversion based on an “import” minivan. By adding the popular Toyota Sienna to our fleet of conversions, we were even better positioned to satisfy the varied tastes of our customers. By doing so, we also became the exclusive mobility converter of Toyota vans. This was an important strategic relationship for us that remains in place to this day.

As I said at the beginning of this chapter, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2010—had an enormous impact on our company. Because of the unprecedented access the law provided for people with disabilities, more people than ever before sought solutions to their mobility needs. They got it through our paratransit vehicles and full-sized vans, but by far the biggest demand was for our Entervan, which came along at just the right time. As a result, newly empowered consumers asking for our Entervan flocked by the thousands to our dealers, who were more than happy to meet their needs.

Those who were unaware of the history of disability rights or the history of our company may have gotten the mistaken impression that the ADA was responsible for our success. In other words, they thought that because the ADA was passed, we formed a company and took advantage of the legislation to become a global sensation. As readers of my story have hopefully learned by now, the opposite is true: it was the decades-long effort of our company and the effort of more than a hundred groups dedicated to disability rights, civil rights, and social justice that joined forces to ensure its passage. It was a great day for everyone, including yours truly.

On the morning of July 26, 1990, with approximately 3,000 disability rights advocates, members of Congress, and President George H. W. Bush’s administration looking on, the president signed the ADA into law. It was the largest presidential signing ceremony in history, and my very good friend Beverly Chapman, who since passed away in 1993, was on hand to witness it.

In his remarks on the south lawn of the White House that day, President Bush described the ADA as “the world’s first comprehensive declaration of the equality of people with disabilities and evidence of America’s leadership internationally in the cause of human rights. With today’s signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors, into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom … Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

The president traced the ADA’s roots in American history back through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Declaration of Independence, saying: “We are keeping faith with the spirit of our... forefathers who wrote ... ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.’ This act is powerful in its simplicity. It will ensure that people with disabilities are given the basic guarantees for which they have worked so long and so hard—independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives, the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.”

That special word, “mainstream,” brings us full circle. It’s what my mother and father demanded for me on that hot summer day in 1946 when I was given my death sentence. It’s what I demanded for myself as I strove to find my way in the world and follow their bright, shining example. It’s what I demanded for others who faced the same challenges I had and who desired more than anything in life to rise above those challenges.

In closing, let me say this: as I continue to climb the ladder of life, I hope with all my heart that I never have to have you or your loved ones as customers. But if you should need us, we will be here, ready and willing to extend a helping hand.

Rise above, my friends, and reach back to help others climb the ladder of life.

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