Chapter 7: Changing Times

Rise Above Chapter 7

The thing that lies at the foundation of positive change, the way I see it, is service to a fellow human being. - Lee Iacocca

By the year 1964, change was everywhere.

In business, IBM introduced its S/360 mainframe computer, a technological marvel that would enable the company to dominate the business world for decades. That same year, the first Ford Mustang rolled off a Dearborn, Michigan, assembly line, and within two years, Ford would sell more than 1 million units, thus making it one of the most successful product launches in automotive history.

Social upheaval was also in the air. President Kennedy had been assassinated in November of 1963. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and the stage was set for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the following year. In another harbinger of change, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized him, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, to use military force in Southeast Asia.

The change for me was much more prosaic, but it was there. I was a newlywed, in my first home, with a mortgage and my first real job. My wife also had a job working as a long-distance operator for the phone company, and having two incomes was nice.

However, because our trailer was in Logansport, which was a 30-minute car ride to my job in Winamac, getting to and from work was going to be a real problem. Bundling up to drive through the sleet and snow for six or eight blocks on my scooter was manageable, but it was not practical or safe to do it from Logansport, even in perfect weather. I had to come up with a workable solution.

First, I worked out a deal with a man named George Moise, the owner of a filling station in Winamac that was right across the street from my job as a quality control inspector. Each day after work, I would drive my scooter across the street to George’s station and leave it there overnight so he could charge the battery. Then I’d fill up the old gas-guzzling Chevy Impala that I’d bought and drive home to Logansport. Once there, I used my manual wheelchair in the house. The next day, I’d drive the Impala back to George’s station in Winamac, pick up my freshly charged scooter, and ride it across the street to work.

Still, I needed to be more mobile at home and on weekends, and without access to my motorized scooter, it was very hard. My solution? I invented a rack—kind of like the bicycle racks you see today, but in those days they had not been invented yet—that attached to the back of the Impala and held my motorized chair. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job. However, I still felt like I could come up with a better solution.

At this point, I started working on the next version of my scooter. For the first time, instead of holding the design in my head, I began making detailed drawings. I had taken drafting in school, I had the necessary blueprints and other materials, and because I had a full-time job, I had time on the weekends to devote to the project. I also began to get the idea that I’d be making more than one, and because of that, a blueprint seemed like a good thing to have. In fact, I knew I’d make at least one more because I wanted to have one at home, as well as one at work. The idea just might work because enough people were talking to me about my scooter that I thought I might have an opportunity to make more.

Needing materials to make this third version of my scooter, I went back to Paul Gillette and Ralph Rocky, my two main parts suppliers. They sold me the same parts at the same price, and it was easy—I had one scooter at home and one at work. This increased mobility also had some side benefits: not only was having two scooters more convenient but also more people saw me on my scooter because I rode it around on weekends and evenings. Each time I showed up riding my scooter, people would come over and start asking questions. This was particularly true the day I went to a social function at a church near Logansport, where I got my very first customer.

A boy at this church had the Duchenne form of muscular dystrophy, and he and his family were really struggling to help him have a normal life. After seeing me on my scooter, the family began talking among themselves about how nice it would be to have one for their son. A woman elder at the church overheard their conversation and privately asked me how much it would cost for them to buy one from me. Remembering how much the one I was riding on at that time cost me to build, I told her I could do it for $300: $150 for parts and $150 for labor. That’s when we made the deal. She said the church would take up a collection and pay me on delivery.

This is when I learned one very big lesson about business: if you don’t price your product or service right, you won’t be in business for very long. It’s not greed or the desire to take advantage of people; it’s strictly a fact of business. I learned this rather obvious piece of knowledge from my usual “business school” teachers, Ralph and Paul. When I went back to them to purchase the parts to make this first customer’s chair, they told me the actual price was going to be higher than what they’d charged me the previous times. They explained that they’d sold the parts tome at a reduced price because they wanted to do me a favor, but if I was going to start turning around and using those parts to make a business, well, that was a different story. As a result, this first customer’s scooter took me two weeks to build, and I didn’t make a penny.

In the end, what I did have was a product—I called it the “Tri-Wheeler”—experience, and the satisfaction of helping someone.

I can recall delivering the Tri-Wheeler to the boy and his family like it was yesterday. The woman elder at the church had arranged a Saturday carry-in dinner so the whole congregation could come and present the Tri-Wheeler as a surprise. It was very emotional because neither the boy nor his family had any idea that this was going to happen.

I brought the Tri-Wheeler to the church on the back of my Impala, using the rack. When we presented the Tri-Wheeler to the boy and his family, they gasped and stared, slack-jawed. Then we put the boy on the Tri-Wheeler and watched as he began to drive it, tentatively at first but then with increasing confidence. For the first time in his life, he could move around without somebody pushing him. The whole experience was incredibly liberating for him—but not so much for his parents, who said, “My God, we're going to lose our son. We’re not sure this is such a good thing.”

This dichotomy between independence and loss is a common occurrence with our customers and their families. It was certainly the case with this first family. The boy was 10 years old, and his parents had spent every waking moment pushing him around so he could get from one place to the next. All of a sudden, as if with a snap of the fingers, he was mobile. He was free to explore the world. The feeling is somewhat akin to when parents give up their car keys to their teenagers for the first time. However, in the case of this boy and millions of others like him, this gift of mobility is much more poignant.

Though I didn’t make any money on the first Tri-Wheeler sale, it was very satisfying. For years afterward, every time I heard a story about how the boy used the scooter at school and at home and what freedom it gave him, I said a quiet thanks and felt my heart fill with blessings.

However, no matter how spiritually satisfying my first sale was, I remembered the lesson I’d learned about pricing accurately. Accordingly, I priced the next scooter at $595. I didn’t get rich off of it, but I did gain a small profit and, just as important, the confidence and ability to find more customers.

That next Tri-Wheeler customer was an Indianapolis man by the name of Jim Pauley, who was a hemophiliac and was so obese he couldn’t walk. I had met Jim and his wife, who had polio and was also in a wheelchair, at a conference in Indianapolis run by the National Paraplegic Foundation (NPF). The NPF was an organization of wheelchair-bound people who were trying to band together so they could lobby for societal changes such as curb cuts, ramps, and other types of access. Though Jim had the use of his legs and was not technically a paraplegic, he was still confined to a wheelchair and sought the same reforms as his wife and the other lobbyists.

Jim was a good-hearted man with a fighting spirit and was very active in advocating for change in Indianapolis’s disabled community. I loved his can-do attitude and determination and heard many stories about how he would wheel himself straight into the mayor of Indianapolis’s office without stopping at the receptionist's desk. He acted like he owned the place. If you think about it, he did own the place—as a taxpaying citizen—which meant the mayor, as an elected representative, worked for him.

At the NPF event, Jim asked me whether he could have a Tri-Wheeler like the one I was riding. I said sure, knowing I would have to make some pretty drastic modifications to my own design so the machine could accommodate his weight. I also knew how badly Jim needed the Tri-Wheeler and how much it would impact his life. As a hemophiliac, he had to be very careful not to bump up against things, and especially not to fall, because he would bleed uncontrollably. With the Tri-Wheeler, he would not only be more mobile but also have a lot better chance of controlling his surroundings and protecting himself from dangerous mishaps.

In 1972, Jim became a Tri-Wheeler owner, and he and his wife also purchased one of my wheelchair vans. It was a sky-blue van with a raised roof, raised doors, and a power seat that made it much easier for Jim and his wife to transfer in and out.

The van gave Jim that much more ability to do the things he wanted to do as an advocate for disabled people. He felt the power of mobility in a big way and took it upon himself to be a de facto spokesperson for my company. He promoted our products heavily in the Indianapolis area and with the NPF by driving my vans to their conventions so people could see them, touch them, and go inside of them. He and his wife passed away some years later but not before telling as many people as they could that Braun was a good, solid company to do business with and that we’d helped them immeasurably.

I owe a lot to Jim Pauley, who passed away in 1985. I miss him to this day.

Back in the mid-’60s, other changes were afoot. After a couple of years working as a quality control inspector during the day, making Tri-Wheelers at night and on weekends, and driving to and from our trailer home in Logansport, I had my first child, my daughter, Cherie.

Talk about a blessing. I’d been told I would not live to be a teenager, and not only had I outlived that prediction but also I was a father. I had brought a life into the world, and I was responsible for that life. Moreover, I was as mainstream as a man could get, with a job, a home, and a family. When I held Cherie in my arms and looked into her eyes, what I got back was complete love and acceptance. I was not a person in a wheelchair; I was “Daddy,” plain and simple. For all of these things, I felt proud that I was achieving the best that my parents had hoped for me, and above all else, I was grateful to God for giving me such a rich life. I was determined to make the most of what I’d been given.

When Cherie was born and Linda left her job at the phone company, driving back and forth to Logansport became more impractical, so we moved our trailer house back to Winamac and settled in. Once again, I was back on my scooter and riding the eight blocks to work, with my red light flashing, siren sounding, and face and body freezing as I rode through wind, rain, sleet, and snow. I was like the postman, except the only thing I was delivering was myself.

Recently, a visit from one of my old friends, Dave Storey, who I worked with for 10 years at Controls Company, refreshed my memory about a hair-raising experience I had on my scooter while going to work on a cold, blustery winter day. I was asked to work overtime on Saturday but was not told what time to arrive. The factory had installed a very large door to the rear of the plant, to allow fork trucks to enter and exit via a steep ramp. Riding up the ramp, I grabbed the handle of the door and pulled as if it were unlocked, only to discover it was still locked and no one was there yet. I toppled off the edge of the ramp and went sprawling on the cold, dirty ground in the alley. Laying there, freezing, I knew I was in trouble. I started watching out of the corner of my eye to see whether anyone was coming down the sidewalk. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a vision appeared before my blood-soaked eyelids, and I screamed out, “Help! Help! Help!” A kind gentleman came running to my assistance, righted my scooter, and found someone else to help get me back on the Tri-Wheeler. The factory was still locked, so I went across the street to the filling station. They let me get in the car wash rack, and we took the hose that was used for washing cars and proceeded to try and clean up my bloodied face and hands. After the cleanup, I sat and waited until I saw others coming to work who could unlock the door, and then I finished my day at work before going home to a very concerned wife. From that time on, when I arrived at work, I immediately made a phone call home to say all was well.

As a family man, I did what family men do: I bought a Bel-Air station wagon. I traded in the old Impala, or, more accurately, put it out of its misery. For one thing, I needed more room for my family and the increasing amount of child-related things that needed to be carted around. For another thing, I wanted to more actively show my Tri-Wheeler to people, and I needed a vehicle with space for my chair.

Another opportunity for change involved my good friend Ralph. By that point, I was making frequent trips to Galveston to buy parts from him because I was making and selling what was then a lot of Tri-Wheelers, at least two or three per month. At this time, my brother-in-law, Ed Heath, was working part time for me building scooters. I would make sales, design the Tri-Wheelers, order parts, go to Galveston to get them, and then bring them back to Winamac. Then Ed would take the parts and build what he could on weeknights. On weekends, we assembled what he’d built. Then I’d deliver them to the customers.

Ralph saw what I was doing and was impressed by my drive and ingenuity; however, he also saw the toll that my schedule was taking on me. One day, he approached me with an interesting proposition: he suggested I move my family to Galveston and help him in his mail-order business while we built Tri-Wheelers in his shop. Because his business was becoming overwhelming to him, he thought he could use my help. He said with the way my mind worked, we could be a great team.

My wife liked this idea and thought it would give us an opportunity to have a house instead of a trailer, but I had problems with it. I already had a full-time job and didn’t see the value in exchanging one job for another. Also, as much as I liked Ralph, I felt like I would be giving my business away by building the Tri-Wheelers and selling them through his business.

In spite of my misgivings, my wife and I went to Galveston and began looking at homes, just to see what life might be like down there. In the end, I declined Ralph’s offer and decided to stay put. We remained the best of friends, although we lost touch for a couple of years.

The twists and turns of life are amazing—a seemingly small decision can have a major impact. That’s one reason why I believe everything has its time and place. While some people may accuse me of going too slowly every now and then, I know I am merely waiting for the right time.

I could have moved to Galveston and worked with Ralph, but who knows what would have happened to my business? Ralph continued to have a deep impact on my life. Exactly how is in itself another story.

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