Organic growth key to competing against national chains, says DSL Mobility

Russell Allmand, MD, DSL Mobility

DSL Mobility has revealed to AMP the importance of organic growth and the secrets behind achieving success in the local area against big name retailers. With a focus on sustainable expansion and impeccable service on a regional level, MD Russell Allmand explained how the Wrexham-based dealership has gone from strength to strength. 

Allmand, an electrician by trade, founded his own mobility company from scratch 25 years ago. His original firm, Denbighshire Stairlifts, specialised in stairlifts and was soon turning over £1m a year. Such was his initial success that Allmand was approached by Mike Williams, founder of mobility retail giant Ableworld, who Allmand says wanted him to provide stairlifts for £500 per lead. The two could not agree on a deal however and so Ableworld instead turned to Acorn and the dealers went their separate ways.

Does Allmand regret not signing up to a fledgling Ableworld? It appears not. The Wrexham man was determined to do everything Ableworld offered, “but on a bigger scale”, and is glad he entered the mainstream mobility market. Instead of backing out of the sector then, Allmand pushed ahead with his own business, diversifying and branching out into daily living aids and other mobility products.

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MD Russell Allmand is a specialist in seating solutions and is able to stock a vast range of chair products.

Denbighshire Stairlifts soon evolved into DSL Mobility and 10 years ago moved to its current home — a 6,000 square foot superstore in Wrexham. The business now has a 2,500 square foot sister site in Bangor and has since doubled its turnover to more than £2m.

It is achieving sure and steady growth and has taken on one employee for every year of trading, bringing its total to around 24. Thanks largely to its size, product offering and service capabilities, DSL Mobility is in the fortunate position of commanding much of the local mobility business. With a fleet of nine vans which only need to cover North Wales and a select few areas across the English border, the dealership has a strong grasp on the locality. This said, Ableworld operates a site less than a mile away from DSL and The Unlimited Company has a shop close to Wrexham.

DSL believes British-made chairs offer the best quality.

With major players so close to the dealer, how does competition play out? “It’s not an issue,” insists Allmand. “Ableworld has taken a little bit of our stairlift business but then I’ve taken on lots of other things I wouldn’t have otherwise. The honest answer is that I probably would have retired by now if I hadn’t have gotten into chairs because you can get tired of being in the same business for so long. But chairs are so challenging and interesting — dealing with the various people we deal with — it’s massive really. In terms of competition I feel we’re far more service-orientated — if someone buys a product they want it fixing quickly, it doesn’t get sent away it gets fixed here.”

“There have been instances of people who have come into the industry who thought they could make a fast buck and then disappeared — I’ve seen them pretty much all come and go. It’s all about a local service”

DSL Mobility aims to be far more focused on the end-user in terms of being able to source and fix products quickly and has also found a niche in reconditioned products, which can be offered at a more affordable price. Aside from this, OTs will often refer patients to DSL thanks to the rental service it offers. Not only does DSL provide replacement products while a client’s own is being mended but it allows a rental try-before-you-buy scheme.

Allmand explains: “A lot of dealers will just want to sell something quickly and get it through the door and if it’s wrong, which it quite often is, they won’t take it back. Our beauty of rent is that customers can try before they buy. We can rent a product to them for a week and then if they decide they want to purchase it we knock the rental cost off so the rental costs nothing. I’d say it’s very much more customer service-based than anybody else.”

The value of staff
With such a large number of customers dotted around rural North Wales, DSL has an enormous amount of physical ground to cover and so has to ensure it maximises the productivity of its vans every day. It looks to cover as many calls as it can, which requires its fleet to be stocked with an array of products and servicing equipment so each van is ready for any conceivable situation. This means though that staff members on the road have to be multi-skilled in everything from stairlift engineering to wheelchairs and anything in between.

“It’s about constantly educating all the engineers on all of the products so they can all multitask to a degree,” says Allmand, adding: “If they need someone exceedingly specialist, for example on specialist seating solutions, then it will be me who goes out. But they’re all pretty clued up and have all been with me a long time — I took most of them on from school and I trained them.”

DSL trains its own staff in-house and strives to keep them.

Allmand echoes the thoughts of dealerships around the country by saying good staff are very hard to come by. The value of trained and skilled staff is immeasurable to mobility retailers and DSL is determined to keep them.

“They’ve all been trained in-house but they also go to different companies for specialist training. The training in-house is done mostly between me and the manager, John, who’s been here 23 years. Between us all we’ve got about 150 years of knowledge and, luckily for us, not many people leave. Get good people, train them, pay them well because it’s worth it. If you spend the money on training them they’ll do the job twice as quick and it’ll pay you back. Whereby another engineer might go to a stairlift fault scratching their head, these lads, they know everything across the board, they’ll get the job fixed quickly and get through a lot more jobs,” comments Allmand.

Such is the MD’s emphasis on highly skilled staff that he sees it as a factor in the pace of the business’s growth: “You can’t pick decent stairlift engineers off trees, you need to train them and I think slow growth is the best way because you can train people the way you want to and instil my ethos of care. I hammer home to all my staff that we’re in the care industry and that if you don’t care then you shouldn’t be here.”

Recipe for success
DSL has evidently achieved a solid customer base and does very well trading from both its Wrexham and Bangor sites. What then is it that is drawing in customers from as far as Tewkesbury and Barry? For Allmand, the sheer size of the place and the stock capacity and choice is a major pull for customers.

He says clients are often struck by the level of stock held at the Wrexham site and the size of the interior, which includes a large showroom, stairlift demo rooms, service area and offices. A large chunk of DSL’s customers — the majority in fact — are directed to the dealer by their OTs, many of whom have formed a relationship with the retailer.

Allmand comments: “They know the way that I deal — if I’m going out to somewhere as far as Aberystwyth, the price of the product doesn’t change. They know that there’s no hard sell, I do not employ sales people. They’re engineers, they’ll demonstrate the products. And if we get it wrong, we have questionnaires and we’ll go through what’s needed and it may be that it’s not right first time. But we’ll go again and improve and there’s still no extra cost for that second visit. It’s in our interests to be as good as we possibly can be and to get it right first time.”

DSL has a fleet of nine vans and its Wrexham site is 6,000 sq ft.

DSL stresses the importance of OT referrals. When OTs get to know about the disabled parking and toilet facilities the dealer has on-site, combined with the level of stock, staff expertise and customer service, they will often point patients in its direction. Equally though, one poor experience and an OT or health professional could refer another business or, worse, pass on negative comments.

The company therefore regards it essential that each customer experience is flawless in order to encourage repeat business and satisfy clients.

Slow and steady wins the race
DSL Mobility is now at a comfortable stage where it is well-established within the sector and its size means it is effectively self-perpetuating, bringing in new customers via OTs. It has built itself a solid foundation but the mobility sector is unlikely to see it venturing too far beyond its patch any time soon.

“I’ve got no interest in going national,” Allmand declares. “To provide a local service is everything because if you get a call-out in places far afield, what are you going to charge them and how long are they going to wait? I just believe in fast and effective service. I have no interest in trying to go any bigger. There’ve been instances of people who have come into the industry who thought they could make a fast buck and then disappeared — I’ve seen them pretty much all come and go. It’s all about a local service.”

The site boasts a full service area so products do not have to be sent away for maintenance.

Looking ahead though, Allmand admits that the company could do with somewhere bigger to accommodate its stock. It has containers outside its Wrexham site and more at its Bangor store. He explains: “We’re managing and that’s what we need to do. Take on another building? Possibly. We did think about going further down the Motability route and doing hoists and things like that but we haven’t got the space here and I don’t really want to set up another base in Wrexham. Never say never. I could create the demand. I could go out for more contracts but we pretty much let the work come to us these days. We don’t actively go out and look for contracts. We’ll try to manage here and keep our overheads sensible, which, for what we’ve got here and for what we pay, is pretty reasonable.”

DSL has the luxury of space for stocking a large choice of mobility scooters.

It seems then that for the foreseeable future DSL Mobility will limit itself to a select number of sites in North Wales. Although it has the capacity to expand given its stock levels and client base, it is able to shift enough products and manage its current showrooms well enough to justify staying put. But Allmand is more than happy to concentrate resources in the locality rather than spreading himself too thinly. Mobility dealerships across the country are presented with a number of options when they reach a certain stage in their growth, including whether to try and develop regionally or nationally.

For DSL Mobility, at least, there is little point expanding quickly if you do not have the neccessary staff and appropriate training to back it up. As Allmand warns, those seeking purely to “make a fast buck” risk seeing their business fail. For him, care and slow growth is the priority. It is a strategy that has served him well.

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