Chapter 4: The World as a Classroom

Rise Above Chapter 4

Getting results through people is a skill that cannot be learned in a classroom. - Jean Paul Getty

One of the things I’m most proud of at Braun is the amount of learning and conversation that takes place with and on behalf of our customers.

I’m sure some of it is similar to behavior you'll find in many companies, such as when we study lean manufacturing principles and discuss how we can apply them to our products and processes. On any given day, a walk through the halls of our company will reveal conference rooms filled with people discussing how they can save steps in the manufacturing process, take the best of one method and apply it to another, and so on. In these rooms, people are writing on whiteboards, asking questions, and arguing for one way over another. It is a beehive of activity with one goal in mind: producing products that will help our customers live their lives.

Another way we learn is through our customer service representatives. These are not people sitting in some country a couple of continents away and reading from scripts as they attempt to answer questions—far from it. Our people, like our manufacturing employees, are sitting in Winamac, a short distance from any engineer or production worker, where they can ask their questions and get answers in real-time. Part of this is because of the special relationship our customers have with our products and people, some of whom are disabled themselves.

For example, Burnie Blackmon, who first came to work for us in 1973, broke his neck in a diving accident when he was a teenager. Burnie bought his first motorized scooter from us, as well as a van with a lift. Just a few months later, he became an employee and set up my first real accounting system. Eventually, he was hired full time and worked with me in sales. He still works for us and deals with customers day to day. People can relate to Bernie, and he can relate to them. Like all of our customer service people, that comes from listening intently, building relationships, and not trying to force-fit solutions. As a result of this approach, our customers make us better, and they make our products better as well. Because they tell us what they’re dealing with and how our products could be modified to meet their needs, they act as cocreators who think along with us instead of waiting for the next product release.

Perhaps the biggest amount of learning takes place in our dealerships, where salespeople and customers interact in an even more personal way. Nothing can replace the feedback we get from salespeople about why some things work or how they could work even better. Moreover, nothing can replace the energy and satisfaction we get when we hear a salesperson relay how we made a difference in someone’s life. There’s a video on the BraunAbility website that powerfully illustrates this concept.

The video begins with Samantha Bartlett laughing and riding in a go-kart with her father. You hear her parents saying how it’s good to see her laugh and smile and have a good time. When you see her in this way, you can tell that she’s just like any other little girl—that is, until you hear her parents start talking about the accident that changed their lives.

In December of 2001, Samantha and her mother were driving across a bridge when another driver lost control of her vehicle and careened toward the Bartletts’ car. With no room to maneuver, the two cars collided, resulting in both being totaled. Samantha was instantly paralyzed from the waist down and taken to the hospital, where she spent the next 48 days.

Over the next few years, Samantha’s parents tried to make a used four-door Buick Regal work as their family’s transportation. However, with Samantha in an upper-body brace and no room for her wheelchair, it was very difficult to get her in and out of the car without making her extremely uncomfortable. The process was tiring and emotionally draining for everyone, but, like my family, the Bartletts were not a family that shrank from challenges either.

For years, as Samantha’s father drove to work, he passed the Superior Van and Mobility dealership in Indianapolis, Indiana, and thought about getting one of our lift- or ramp-enabled vans. He thought about how much easier his family’s life would be if they had a vehicle that could accommodate their needs. He didn’t say it, but I can imagine he wondered whether his daughter felt like she was a burden to the family. He knew she wasn’t, and he would not, under any circumstances, want her ever to feel that way.

As someone who has spent most of his life in a wheelchair, I know what it’s like to feel as if you’re a burden, even if no one else thinks you are. It’s awful.

In any case, Samantha’s father started looking into what it would take to get one of our vehicles. He had his mindset on an Entervan and brought Samantha to the Superior dealership to look at it. That’s when she met Matt Ritter, who was both a superior salesman and a Superior salesman.

Matt was also in a wheelchair as a result of an accident, so right away he and Samantha had something in common. When they began talking, there was an instant connection. Because he was also in a chair, he was able to personally show her how to get in and out of the van and talk with her about how he experienced the van. He talked with her as a peer, because Matt recognized that she truly matters. That’s where the magic happens, between salesperson and customer. Braun may be the instrument that brings people together, but it’s the sharing of life in full bloom, such as the conversation between Matt and Samantha, that makes the world turn.

As Samantha’s father said in the video, life for Samantha and the rest of the family would be considerably different without the van; they’d be lost without it. Her mother even went so far as to call it a godsend because Samantha finally seemed “just as normal as you and me.”

That normalcy, that idea that Samantha could be in the mainstream of society, is exactly what my own dad had expected for me. Like Samantha’s father, he would routinely drive by buildings that were otherwise inaccessible and think of what could be possible if people would open not only the doors but also their minds.

One of those buildings was the public school I was supposed to attend in Winamac. When my father started asking questions about what could be done to help me have the same experience as other students, he was sent to the principal’s office—in more ways than one.

A new school was being built in Winamac. Most people in town were happy to have such a nice new building in which to educate their children, but for our family, there was one big disappointment: the new school would be inaccessible.

Although the old school was three stories, I’d arranged my class schedule to include only courses offered on the ground floor. I still had several classes to complete; I just couldn’t get to them because they weren’t on the first floor.

I’d need an elevator to get to my classes, so my father went to the administration and made a sensible case that one should be installed in the new school. He reasoned that I—and any other student with a disability—deserved access to both levels of the school like everyone else.

They said no, a response they’d regret 20 years later when they finally did install an elevator, probably at 10 times, the expense they would have incurred if they’d listened to my dad.

Why would they make such a shortsighted decision? In those days, most of society believed that educating a disabled person had no real benefit. I wasn’t going to amount to anything anyway, so why bother?

Of course, that only spurred my father on. The more he talked, the less they listened. Finally, they came up with a compromise: they would install a phone in the second-floor classrooms so I could listen in on what was happening.

I’ve heard of “distance learning,” but that’s quite a stretch.

My father thought it was a ridiculous idea and once more said he would do everything in his power to help me be as normal as everyone else. We refused the telephone option.

In response, the school administration said, “Well, he can’t get to any of his classes, and if you’re not going to accept our telephone solution, sorry, but that’s too bad.”

So for two years, during what would have been my junior and senior years of high school, I stayed home. I couldn’t reach my classes at the old school, and the best I could do was wait for the new school to be built. At least then I’d have just one flight of stairs to deal with—somehow.

Once the new school was built, my parents offered to carry me up to the second floor when needed, but I told them no; I had friends who could carry me and my wheelchair up and down the stairs.

So that’s what we did, for two years, and it was not without incident, I might add.

One day, two friends were with me, Bill Malchow in front and Gerald Kersey behind, and they were pulling and pushing me up the stairs in my wheelchair, one step at a time. Suddenly, someone lost his footing and let go of the chair. The chair, Gerald, and I all fell down the stairs and ran over Bill, who had been in front of me. It’s a wonder it didn’t kill me or my friends or at least completely destroy the chair, but it didn’t. We picked ourselves up, took the chair to a bicycle shop, and asked them whether the bent frame, broken spokes, and flat tires could be repaired. It took a couple of days, but my chair was resurrected, I went back to school, and I went back up those steps.

By the time I graduated, I was 21 years old. Because I’d missed two years, I had to cram four years of English and literature into my final two years. To make up for lost time, I went to summer school, sometimes going to other districts because my own school didn't offer a particular course.

All because the school wouldn’t put in a simple elevator.

That’s not to say I had no education during the two years off. I learned a great deal, albeit not in the traditional way. For one thing, I devoured all kinds of magazines, particularly PopularScience and Popular Mechanics. I was fascinated by how people could turn ideas into real mechanical things, how things fit together, and how things worked. These magazines were my textbooks, and I kept every single issue, even memorized them—so much so that years later, I could recall what was on a single page from a single issue.

I was also spending quite a bit of time with my mother’s seven brothers, who were all mechanical gurus and gearheads. They were truck drivers and car mechanics, mostly. Everywhere you looked, they had cars, trucks, stock cars, motorcycles, and all manner of automotive parts. Most people would look at the combination of things they had accumulated and say it was junk, but that's not how my uncles saw it. To them, those parts were pieces of a puzzle that hadn’t been put together yet. To me, it was a playground, a Disney World of motors and metal.

My uncles also used to do a lot of work out at the house of their parents, my Grandma and Grandpa Freeman. A common sight under a shade tree was them pulling the motor out of a pickup truck and sticking something else back in to take its place. Maybe they would be working on a stock car and tuning it up so they could drive it in a race on an old dirt track. They created incredible things. Today, their inventions would be made into patents and sold, but back then, they did it for fun and because it interested them.

I would say I got most of my mechanical aptitude from my mother's side of the family. In fact, if something was broken at our house or if the refrigerator needed leveling, my mom did it, not my dad. He didn’t really have the patience to take the time to figure it out and would defer to my mom. My father’s side of the family had horses, pigs, cows, dirt, corn, and beans. That’s what they knew. So back on the farm, my mother and her brothers would be the ones who fixed things.

A Harvard professor, Howard Gardner, has developed the theory of multiple intelligences, which states that human intelligence should not be measured in just one way (for example, you have an IQ number, and that’s it). Rather, there are at least seven categories of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. According to Gardner, the seven intelligences operate at the same time and not independently, complementing each other in a unique blend that helps individuals develop skills, solve problems, and play their roles in life. While all people possess each of these intelligences in some amount, they are usually stronger in some areas than others. For instance, whereas my uncles and mother might have been strong in logical-mathematical, bodily kinesthetic, and spatial intelligences, my father excelled in linguistic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences. Hopefully, I have equal parts of both of them inside me.

Another way to illustrate the differences between my mom and dad involves one story about a motorized wagon and another about a horse.

In the first story, my uncles had taken an old one-cylinder, gasoline-powered washing machine motor and attached it to a wood wagon with the idea that we could all ride it around the yard and have some fun. They mostly did it for my benefit, and let me tell you, it was a big deal to me. You had to kick-start it, like a motorcycle, and then someone would give it a good push to get it going. You sat inside it, like a Radio Flyer wagon, and steered as it took off. Because it didn’t have a brake, the only way to stop was for someone to run alongside the wagon and grab you so you could slow down.

In the second story, when we were still living at the nursery and farm, my dad rented a pony for me to ride one summer. Every so often, my dad would take me down to the barn we kept the pony in, saddle up the pony, and put me on it. I’d ride around the little barnyard. Then, on the first day of school, my mom gave me a bath and a haircut and dressed me in nice, new clothes so I would look presentable. By that point, I’d been riding the pony all summer and wanted one more ride before my father returned it. I begged my dad, as kids do, for one last ride, and he gave in. He put me on the pony, like he always did, and then all of a sudden, it took off running. Something must have spooked it, or maybe it knew its days on the farm were numbered, because it ran full speed through the cornfield. It was the beginning of the school year, so the corn was almost fully grown. I held on for dear life and had absolutely no control over the pony. Finally, it dumped me off, except my leg got caught in the stirrup. Instead of the pony just running away, it dragged me for about 50 feet through the wet corn and dirt. When my dad finally caught up, the pony had stopped, and I was a mess. Back in the house, my mother had to go through the whole bath and clothes routine all over again. I missed the bus, and they had to drive me to school. In 1947, this was not easy because the roads were bad, school was five miles away, and we had a 10-year-old jalopy.

In those two stories lay the seeds of my future. One side of the family gave me a motor and the other, a pony; when you put them together, you get horsepower. Though I never rode a pony again, I’ve got one heck of a story, thanks to my dad.

During the two years I spent out of school, my mind raced with possibilities. I spent a lot of time in the garage while I played with motors that were similar to the ones my uncles had used. I hooked belts up to them, studied how they worked, and noted the effect they had on other things.

I also spent a lot of time using a little buzz box welder that my dad had bought at an auction sale. I plugged it into an outlet in the garage, and with some scrap metal, my uncles had given me, I taught myself how to weld.

I was amazed that I could take two pieces of metal and, using welding rods and electricity, stick them together to make anything I wanted. I liked seeing the sparks flying and feeling the heat radiating. I also made things out of wood, but I found out early on that I was a metal guy; for me, there was no fun in sawdust.

The garage was my laboratory. While my classmates studied theoretical physics in school, I applied those theories in our garage.

Proving that the apple did not fall far from the entrepreneurial tree, just as my mom and dad had gone into business for themselves as Marathon distributors, I started making things at home and then selling them. I made cake pans, small lamps, rabbits, and yard decorations that had a little guy standing and watering a plant with a can. I made nativity scenes out of plywood and painted all of these things in the house. As I said, I wasn’t a wood guy, but I used wood when it made sense; somehow it seemed logical to make nativity scenes out of wood.

Attached to the house was an unheated room I would use for my workshop, but in the winter, I worked in my mother’s kitchen, with the paint and sawdust flying everywhere. My mother helped me by bringing me saber saws, jigsaws, paint, and brushes. When the smell, noise, and sawdust got too bad, I had to go out into the back room, heat or no heat. I could no longer walk at that point, so I pushed myself around the house in an office chair.

In those days, decorating a home at Christmas was a big matter of pride. Because my items were all made out of nice wood with my own craftsmanship, instead of plastic, like things made in China that you might see today, I knew people would like them. To sell them, I created a display in our yard. I shone a spotlight on it so passersby could envision how the items might look outside their own homes. At first, people would stop and ask where we got the items so they could go buy them themselves. After I told them I made them, they started buying from me, even placing orders for the following year.

The nativity scenes were popular, but when I started making yard rabbits, business really multiplied—pardon the pun. I’d make families of them, with a mom and pop rabbit and their little bunnies. I must have made at least 25 families of them, and I easily sold them all. Getting money for this was nice, but it was not my goal.

The truth is I got great pleasure out of seeing somebody else enjoying something I’d crafted with my own two hands. I had heard the comments from ignorant people long enough: “Well, you’re going to live on government money the rest of your life” and “You’re going to be a burden on your parents.” More than anything, I wanted to prove that I could be a contributing member of society, not just in terms of the money I could make but in terms of the satisfaction I could provide through my handiwork. The money was a by-product and perhaps evidence that if I gave to society, society would give back to me.

Finally, like any good education, life during this time was not all work. One thing comes to mind in this regard.

No matter what my prognosis was, I always felt like I could beat it. To prove it to myself, I had my dad hang a bag full of sand in the garage so I could use it as a punching bag. I thought that if I beat the bag up, I could keep my arms and muscles strong, and as long as I did that, I’d be OK. Sitting on my stool and wailing away at that bag, I was certainly no Rocky Marciano, but I gave it everything I had. Maybe it was my form of physical education. In the long run, I’m not sure whether it did me any good. Some doctors say it could have used up whatever finite amount of energy my muscles had stored inside of them and hastened their deterioration. Other doctors say the activity could have strengthened them and helped to prevent a more rapid loss. Who’s to say? I will say this: that bag took an awful lot of abuse from me, and it gave out long before I did.

Continue Reading Rise Above: