So what prompted you to leave farming and go into a retail business?
It was just time for something else. I’d done farming, basically, from right when I came out of school. I farmed in Holland and then I farmed here for 24 years. And none of the kids were interested in taking over. So I decided it was time for a change. And when I sold the farm, I didn’t have any plans to do that at that time — it just happened that somebody walked into the yard and made me an offer. So I sold the farm, was retired for six months, and decided that was not for me. And then I found out that MediChair Brandon was for sale, and here we are.
Did you have any personal connection to — I’m not sure what the correct term might be — appliances for the disabled, or assistance devices?
No, I didn’t have any experience with that. My oldest son, Bas, actually, is in the business — he’s the COO of MediChair Ltd. in Calgary.
So his connection, obviously, was a connection for you to get into the business. But what was it that drew you to it? I would think it would be gratifying to help people, but I also wonder if it might be a little sad on a daily basis, too, because so many people need so much help.
Right. And I guess you learn to look through that. And yes, it’s very gratifying to help, especially pediatrics. When you make the life of a little kid who is handicapped a little easier, that is very gratifying. And we do that on a daily basis — with the elderly and with any age group, really — as far as handicapped people are concerned.
With the elderly, it’s more of people losing certain abilities to get out of a chair or walk without assistance, so there’s walkers for that, of course, and the lift-chairs to get somebody up and out of a chair. And then there’s all kinds of fall-preventions — grab bars, etc., in the bathrooms, and in the bedrooms, especially, too — floor-to-ceiling pulls to help people get in and out of bed. So there’s quite a number of assistive devices for the elderly who are losing one or two capabilities of getting up or walking or whatever it is.
But I have to say that in dealing with the pediatric population, some of our customers, we have been dealing with them from when they’re a little kid and now they’ve grown up and they’re in their 20s and we’re still dealing with them. And you get to know those people very well, and at some point, I guess, you look through the sadness and you just see them as a normal person who needs help with certain things. Most of them are in a wheelchair and they need to be seated. So seating for a person with, whether it’s cerebral palsy or anything like that, can be very challenging.
Do you do bath-lifts or anything like that as well?
Oh yes. We basically are a one-stop shop for any kind of mobility. In the last two years we started selling accessible vehicles, which originally was not part of our repertoire. We have one sitting up front, actually, which is an MV-1. It’s a totally new concept — it’s a vehicle that’s built from the ground up to be wheelchair accessible. And at this point we’re the exclusive dealer in Manitoba for that.
And it’s a vehicle-vehicle, as in a van or a car or something?
Right. I guess you could call it a van. It almost looks like a big SUV, but it’s got a built-in ramp and it’s built for wheelchair access.
And then you have everything else — scooters, walkers, canes?
Anything you can name, really — accessible bathtubs, wheelchair-accessible shower stalls, elevators — we do that. We do porch lifts and ramping — anything to make a home, or a vehicle, or even a certain area in a home, accessible.
A lot of elderly people, for instance, start having a hard time walking up and down stairs. So we do stair-lifts for them, whether it’s to go down to the basement or to go up to the second floor — whatever it is. Now people can enjoy their whole home again, whereas sometimes they’re not able to do that — they can’t go to the basement because they’re not able to climb stairs. Or they can’t access the second level in their homes.
So those things are all available. And a lot of people, I guess, are not aware as to how much is available. Because if there’s a problem — a mobility problem, accessibility problem — there’s always a solution for that one way or another. And we pride ourselves on finding those solutions. We make it a point to go to training courses, to trade shows, to stay abreast of what all the developments are in our business. And to make sure that we can offer all the new products that are coming out to our customers.
From the look of that big service bay in the back, it appears you service all the equipment, too.
Right. To begin with, any wheelchair, for instance, that goes out, has to be set up specifically for that customer. Like seat-to-floor, height, width, depth — whatever. Wheel size. So yes — we build wheelchairs and adapt them to specific customers. And anything we sell, we’ll service. So it goes out — if there’s any problem with it, people know they can come back here and they will be looked after.
We have two full-time people in the back, and myself — I still jump in the back and do a lot of work there, too. And I go with the installations — like right now, we’ve got quite a full slate of installations coming up.
And for things that are permanently installed in the home, we would do service calls to the home, too.
This might seem like an odd question, but is there one dominant area in your business?
Well, rehab would be the dominant part of our business. So looking after the needs of handicapped people. So wheelchairs — basically anything to do with rehab. That could be a standing piece of equipment that helps a person who doesn’t have the ability to stand, to stand up. It could be geriatric equipment for older people. But definitely the rehab business is the biggest business.
Accessibility would be a close second to that — porch-lifts and ramps and any lifting piece of equipment. Automotive accessibility — like we do a lot of turn-out seats — seats that actually swivel, come out of the vehicle, and lift you back into the vehicle. So anything to make any mobility device accessible, whether that’s a vehicle or whatever. So scooters and power wheelchairs and all that. It all kind of flows together.
I suppose it depends on the person and the circumstances, but I don’t imagine this stuff comes cheap. Are there government subsidies for a lot of this equipment, or do a lot of people have to make it on their own?
Most of the stuff that goes out is funded by people themselves. There’s really not that much subsidy in Manitoba — the Manitoba situation is definitely different than most other provinces.
Of course there is the department of Veterans Affairs that looks after veterans and we deal quite a bit with them. There is Non-Insured Health Benefits which looks after the First Nations. And then for pediatrics, there is special Children’s Services. For adults, Employment and Income comes into play quite a bit — if people don’t have the money themselves, they will jump in and pay for certain pieces of equipment.
So there are different organizations available, but in general, like if a person — for instance, an elderly parent — has to go to a personal care home and needs a wheelchair, they have to pay for that themselves.
Is there a favourite part of the job for you? Is there something that speaks to you, moves you, about this? What keeps you going in and embracing this day after day?
It’s everything. Dealing with people — dealing with our customer base. I have a great staff here who are very pleasant to work with. And they’re quite capable of looking after themselves. So if I want to go for a holiday, which I have to do once in a while because my kids are spread out basically across the globe, I never have any doubt that they can keep it running.
But for me, my favourite part would be dealing with pediatric clientele.
And that’s because you feel like you’re making such a big difference?
Yes. They are so happy and so thankful for what we can do for them. And so are the parents. They’re a very great bunch of people to work with. And I really appreciate that. And I’m just as happy as they are when we can actually help them out.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 30, 2012