Challenge becomes opportunity
Martin Brown has a competitive advantage that none of his rivals can beat: he is paralysed from the neck down.
In Brown’s eyes, he is not disabled; he is ahead of the competition.
“If two people tried to sell you a wheelchair and I was one of them, who would you buy it from?” the Sanlam / Business Partners Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year ®.
This somewhat simple statement is the cornerstone of a business that is quickly blossoming into an international operation.
With partner Pieter Nell by his side, Brown has taken Radical Holdings from a concept created by necessity, to an operation that has seemingly no limits.
Brown became paralysed at age 26 after a freak accident.
“My medical aid quickly ran out and there wasn’t any money for a chair,” he says, adding that his friends clubbed together to buy him a basic wheelchair. For the next three years his mother had to wheel him around the house as he was confined by the manoeuvrability of the chair.
Better chairs were available on the international market but the price tag made it a pipedream.
“When they pushed in that wheelchair, my state of mind would fall lower than my blood pressure; I could simply not see myself in that chair… Most of the people that are hurt are the adventurous type; those with a lust for life.”
Brown set about investigating the possibility of building a more robust and manoeuvrable chair. The idea sprouted into a rather robust business plan spanning 400 pages.
His motivation was rather simple. Firstly, there is a need for a robust but affordable chair. Secondly, people who have been hurt go through a rather prolonged mental process: “Usually, it takes people about six years to come to terms with (their disability). The shorter you can make this period, the better.”
Brown explains that your environment inhibits you. If you were an active person beforehand, you find yourself having to ask everyone for everything.
The moment you become mobile, you regain some independence. The more independence you have, the more you are able to live.
A business is born
Brown and Nell approached all the major banks and about 20 venture capitalists for the R500 000 they needed.
In the end, it was only the private SME investment firm Business Partners that believed in the concept.
“I think they are probably still reading through that business plan,” Brown quips.
Radical Mobility was born and the business now manufacturers a range of chairs. With adjustable seats, a rugged frame and wheels, as well as advanced electronic controls, it gives the user freedom of movement.
While the base models are all customised for the user’s body, the more expensive units are completely personalised and this includes items such as custom paintwork or wheels. Some models have 4×4 or 4×2 capabilities that allow the user to traipse almost any terrain.
The only standard component on the chairs is the basic frame. This means that Radical Mobility cannot set up a bulk manufacturing process. But, Brown does not want a bulk setup, as it is more important to ensure that the user is completely comfortable.
The partners are pedantic about quality control and Brown says that their first unit, made almost six years ago, is still operating and only needs new tyres every now and then. Similarly, some chairs have been passed down to others in their wills.
Brown’s chairs range in price from R55 000 to R100 000. Imported chairs cost anything between R100 000 and R200 000.
So far, the business’ ten employees have made 500 chairs and it takes between six and eight weeks to complete a unit. About 30% of his stock is for the export market.
Because Brown understands the value his chair brings to the user, he also understands that the cost puts it beyond the reach of many.
“This is a business first and foremost. We have 10 employees and I am responsible for them and their families… For those who cannot afford the chairs, there is the Martin Brown Wheelchair Foundation that I started.”
The time and effort spent on the wheelchairs have created yet another unforeseen business opportunity and Brown says that the bases are being used in platinum mines. These units are equipped with vacuum cleaners that suck up dust which contains platinum. This recovering process not only increases productivity, but safety and security as well.
Not content with just making chairs, Brown has set his sights on making disabled people as independent as possible. This lead to the creation of Radical Computing. As a former IT professional, Brown says that standard PCs are not capable of attending to the needs of disabled persons. This business customises solutions for specific users and also automates home environments using infrared, voice-activated remotes.
Plans are afoot to integrate these technologies with the wheelchairs.
“We want to make it easier for people – the less help they need to ask for, the more freedom they have. The grand plan is to make someone as independent as possible because it increases their quality of life and that of those around them.”
In August, a new business also came into being. Radical Motoring installs automated ramps into vehicles for customers who are still able to drive.
Brown explains that the technology is available overseas but that the cost factor is a huge inhibitor. “When I hear of people importing things, I get very angry. Why should you import something when you can figure it out here (in South Africa)…
“My master plan is to go into the hospital when someone has had an accident and to take care of all their (mobility) needs before they even get home.
“I am in a chair and I know what they need and how it can change your life. I understand the frustration and that is our competitive advantage.”