As the leader of a 33-year-old family business which now stakes a claim as one of the top mobility providers in the country, Alastair Gibbs, chief of TPG DisableAids, knows all about managing and growing a successful dealership. AMP speaks with the BHTA’s Retailer of the Year 2017 to hear about what it is suppliers really value in mobility retailers and what it takes to grow a successful firm in a relatively rural area.
When TPG DisableAids entered the marketplace in 1985, whether or not its founders Tim and Pam Gibbs knew, it was stepping onto a platform for growth which would ultimately propel it to the spot it occupies today as a dominant force in the mobility retail space. The market at that time, explains managing director Alastair Gibbs, was in its formative years and began to expand substantially when people started to realise they did not have to be stuck at home just because they were elderly or disabled.
Since the mid-80s the Gibbs family has nurtured its business and capitalised on the opportunities presented to it by an ageing and increasing population. Having achieved sustained growth for 33 years the dealership now spreads itself across a large space in Hereford where it commands a fleet of 26 vans and an expanding team of employees. What’s more, it has just been crowned the BHTA’s Retailer of the Year, which was nominated for by industry suppliers, showing the high regard its trade partners hold it in.
So what’s behind its long term success in the industry? In a nutshell, it seems TPG’s success is down to being small enough to care on an intimate level while being large enough to provide a comprehensive solution. Key to TPG’s strategy is building its business around a core set of values which ensure the company avoids being what Gibbs describes as a “big corporate machine”, and can provide a personal touch.
“I’m never pushing for extra discount, I’m never trying to get the cheapest possible price and I don’t want to be the cheapest in the marketplace. There are plenty out there who will go on that rapidly downward spiral to be the cheapest and the first one to go bust”
“By holding those values solidly then the business continues to grow. We have a significant number of employees that all feel, work and display the same characteristics as the founding family and I think that’s been one of the most difficult things to manage. As you grow and employ additional staff it’s important to employ not necessarily the knowledge and the skills of this industry but to employ the character and standards that you see in a person, because you can teach them and train them on the knowledge and mechanics.”
The sustained growth of TPG has brought it the kinds of benefits multisite operators enjoy such as negotiating better buying prices, which in turn has allowed it to pass savings on and offer better value for money. Such is TPG’s scope now that it claims to be among the top three largest sellers of Stannah stairlifts in the UK, beaten only by companies based in urban conurbations.
To Gibbs, that signals the distributor is doing something right. And given the feedback from suppliers in the nomination process for TPG’s recent BHTA accolade, it’s evident that manufacturers and partners feel the same way.
“They clearly feel that we’re doing the right thing by them and representing them in the way they want to be,” explains Gibbs. “If you asked our suppliers I’m sure they’d tell you I’m never pushing for extra discount, I’m never trying to get the cheapest possible price and in reality I don’t want to be the cheapest in the marketplace. There are plenty out there who will go on that rapidly downward spiral to be the cheapest and the first one to go bust. What we’re looking to do is to enhance the product and the value and try and find ways we can make the product stand out.”
And for Gibbs, choosing a better product has been an important move to capitalise on the evolving market. The customer base is very much shifting away from social services, local authorities and the NHS towards the private sector, Gibbs feels. To him, the discerning private customer needs and demands the most reliable service and product available.
The changing customer is vital to TPG and as such its marketing and growth plans take into account the evolving demands and expectations of clients. Today, the market is just starting to take on people from the baby boomer generation and although that means retailers are having to adjust and align themselves, it is for Gibbs an exciting opportunity. He believes the new crop of customers, who will need products and have also made financial provisions for their mature years, mean that the sector is looking down the barrel of at least 10 to 15 years of sustained growth.
Gibbs reiterates: “Those that are retiring now, the majority have made private provision over and above their state pension. That doesn’t necessarily affect the disabled market but we know the geriatric marketplace is growing exponentially, it’s growing well beyond most other markets and most other forms of business.”
What suppliers value in dealers
Everyone in the industry knows the pressure manufacturers and suppliers are under to support their retail customers. But Gibbs insists the best relationships work both ways, with dealers playing their role too and feeding back to suppliers. “One of the things I’m very keen on is working with suppliers and looking at ways we can improve not only how the product is brought to market but improve the product too. We will work together on marketing strategies and opportunities to feed back what our customers are saying to us and feed that back to the manufacturers in a very open and direct format.
“You can’t stand back on the sidelines and buy something else from somewhere else if you don’t think very much of the product. It’s only fair and responsible to go back and say why there has been a shortcoming”
“We’ve never been shy in going back and saying if we feel there’s been a shortcoming because I think that’s only fair. You can’t stand back on the sidelines and buy something else from somewhere else if you don’t think very much of the product. It’s only fair and responsible to go back and say why there has been a shortcoming. And certainly over 30 years in the industry I’ve built up personal relationships with a lot of manufacturers and they recognise that directness and that honesty. Rather than just accept some nice glossy leaflets or posters I want to work with them to identify how we can bring customers to our showroom door or encourage them to pick up the phone and make that inquiry. It shouldn’t be left to chance, it should be a proactive and responsible partnership between retailers and manufacturers or importers.”
Perhaps not surprisingly some manufacturers do not take kindly to having shortcomings pointed out but Gibbs maintains that many do take the feedback on board and are prepared to work with dealers and look at constructive solutions that enable both parties to win and grow.
Operating in an evolving market
Gibbs is under no illusions that the marketplace is fast changing and in spite of his seemingly winning formula understands the business needs to keep on its toes to stay ahead of the curve. Drawing on the retail exit of a major healthcare group last year, Gibbs says that some companies in the industry do not have the depth of knowledge and expertise needed to be sustainable in an evolving market.
“Often people can get involved for short periods of time and can get away with selling certain products, but often if it’s not correct then that can give you a poor reputation and therefore it’s not sustainable. And I think with some of the internet sellers, people will realise they can’t buy just on price and people value that skill and expertise you get from a specialist who can offer back-up, knowledge and advice. There are some that want to be all things to all people but I think that they will struggle.”
Gibbs also believes another change in the market is a rationalisation of prices. He comments: “I think some things are currently too cheap and they’re only too cheap because people are not getting the full package. Things have a natural worth and if you dip down below that then things either become unreliable or there’s not sufficient margin to be able to maintain them properly.
“I think it applies to products across the board. Things as basic as a raised toilet seat — there is a point you can’t go below because you then get cheap, unreliable, brittle, uncomfortable products. We’ve probably all experienced that buying off places like Amazon and eBay where we’ve bought on price. It’s an evolvement we learn. It’s no good paying too much for something but there’s a point where value is at an optimum. We need to define where that’s going to be.”
A single outlet ‘with six stores’
TPG has fully established itself on the mobility scene and although it has just one base, looking at its website you can be forgiven for assuming it has six branches. But Gibbs reveals the listings which appear to show the numbers for shops in different areas are actually a marketing ploy.
“We realised early on that people want to buy locally. We realised that with modern technology you can take out local numbers in Cheltenham, Gloucester, Cardiff, Newport or wherever, and use local area codes on the website but actually the numbers route straight back to the main office here in Hereford.”
The business has four buildings on its site and features complementary tenants close by, for example a hearing aid company and a plumbing specialist, which it works alongside to form a central hub.
But is there any scope for expanding beyond the Hereford site? “Quite possibly,” replies Gibbs. “I think maybe the next route might be through acquisition and becoming part of a larger group, who knows? One of the things that we always have to be accepting of is flexibility and moving with market forces and seeing where that goes. I must confess I’m not a big fan of small high street-type outlets as I don’t believe they have the facilities or capabilities, generally, to give customers what they need, especially in this industry. And then you have the decline of the high street and the difficulties of accessibility and parking that go with city centre locations. To that end I’ve just got another plot where
I’m about to put a 6,000 square foot unit on in the next few months. There’s certainly more room for growth.”
Aside from growing physically, Gibbs spies other opportunities for the year ahead, for example working with CCGs (clinical commissioning groups). He sees an opportunity for responsible providers to take on service and equipment provision roles.
“There’s very much a partnership opportunity looming and I would encourage anybody that is thinking of growing along those lines to uphold standards. Don’t simply drop prices to what you think people want to hear, the standards are the most important thing, absolutely through and through. It’s no good in a few years’ time handing back the contract because you can’t afford to sustain it, it needs to be thought through properly.”
It’s clear that Gibbs and his team of managers take their roles and responsibility seriously. In upholding standards and flying the retail flag for the industry’s foremost trade body, TPG plays an important part in the mobility sector. The business acts as a good example of how dealers can still be highly successful even when they cannot compete with the prices of online resellers or large chains.
TPG’s three decades of growth show that competition from rivals conducting predatory pricing can be trumped by key factors such as maintaining strong relationships with suppliers and feeding back to them, never compromising on core values and investing money, time and effort into staff. While challenges and pressures are never far from the door the Gibbs family recipe for mobility retail continues to guide them through the sector. Other distributors may have their own formulas for success but all can take comfort in the TPG model, where a commitment to standards, values and staff form the foundation of the company.