It’s no secret that finding a niche in the market is a sure-fire way of achieving success. And there are few firms as specialised as Cyclone Mobility, which gears itself exclusively towards disabled people living active lifestyles. Managing director Stuart Dunne, who is a wheelchair user himself, has spent nearly 30 years honing and sharpening his company’s proposition. Here, we catch up with Cyclone’s boss to hear just how it is taken one corner of the market by storm.
After your injury you noticed a lack of products in the UK which allowed disabled people to live active lifestyles…
Yes, essentially it was just American and Scandinavian equipment available in the beginning. We looked at products from abroad and people like Jeff Minnebraker. Nobody in the industry will know Jeff, but he made one of the world’s first lightweight wheelchairs in America. And then a lady called Marilyn Hamilton started something called Motion Designs and launched a mobility brand called Quickie, which we all know as a Sunrise product now.
When I was injured I wanted a very active career — I’d always wanted to join the RAF as a Tornado pilot. The first thing I did was buy a Quickie from America via Gerald Simonds and I bought it in dollars. I could see immediately how good it was and thought somebody in the UK should be doing this. We began to manufacture wheelchairs in 1989 and I also started to look at fitness equipment that I needed for my athletic career.
The whole philosophy became, if I need it, then there must be other people in the UK that need it, so we started to source. The rule was, if I liked it and I would buy it, then we would sell it. But it has to be the best in its class because I would only buy the best product. I was absolutely adamant about that.
Most of your customers are younger, more active users. Does that put yourself in a unique position in the retail market?
Yes. If we look at some of the other businesses, their average customer age is 73 while ours is around 28. We go from three-year-olds through to 60 and 70. But the core is between 20 and 40. Most of our customers have been made disabled through an incident that has suddenly changed their lives — these are very active people. What we want to do is say, ‘you can get as close as you possibly can to where you were before if you have the right mobility equipment’.
How important is social media for connecting with them?
It’s a platform that lots of people are using, particularly the younger population. We feel that there’s a massive interest from the active disabled population, particularly spinal cord injury population, who like to see things on social media. On social media we’re not passive, saying ‘here’s another product’, what we’re trying to do is share stories with people. Our tagline is inspire, empower, achieve, and that’s essentially where we take our social media strategy from.
You occupy a niche part of the market. For example, very few mobility distributors offer things like gym equipment…
There’s virtually nobody selling things like that. We import gym equipment from San Diego and Canada and we’ve just got the contract for a new piece of gym equipment called VitaGlide, which we’re hoping to launch at Naidex. VitaGlide has been manufactured in Michigan.
What’s the sports equipment market like?
We anticipate that it’s going to grow. The biggest side for us is the functional electrical stimulation (FES). At the moment we’re very much B2C with that. 80% of our market is direct to the customer but we can see now that that’s going to start expanding into the clinical world.
It sounds as though you import a lot of your equipment. Is that because of a lack of appropriate suppliers in the UK?
Yes, absolutely. If we take the FES equipment that we sell, for example, our supplier is based in Baltimore. America has a much bigger market than any other country in the world and that gives them the ability to innovate, much more so than the UK.
Is it challenging bringing in most of your equipment from abroad?
There’s no challenge to it apart from Brexit causing us hell last year. The Brexit scenario, which caused foreign exchange fluctuations, meant that our prices, like most businesses, suddenly just skyrocketed by 15% to 20%. We did our best to offset the exchange fluctuation for a long time and for nine months we cushioned the exchange change. But at the back end of November we said we have to do something. There came a point where we thought we can’t do this any longer, so we increased our products’ price by between 7% and 12%. We didn’t pass on all the margin to the customer but we had to pass some of it on.
You developed your own wheelchair in 1989. Is manufacturing still something you’re interested in doing?
No. We’re purely an importer and distributor. We ceased manufacturing in 2013 and we did that because the cost of manufacturing specialist products was just way too high in terms of the allocation of engineers. We had a large base cost that we had to cover. We’ve considered on a number of occasions to start manufacturing again. We sell really high-end equipment and it requires very specialist welding fabrication skills. A good fabrication engineer is £50,000 and if you think of that and the fact that disabled people already say their equipment’s too expensive, it’s a very difficult overhead to spread. We import some excellent products from Poland, where the cost of manufacturing is dramatically less than in the UK, and the quality is phenomenal.
How do you find your suppliers?
Partly it’s through the grapevine and partly it’s consistently searching the different markets and countries. We have a product now which does not fall exactly in line with our customer. It’s a feeding robot I came across at an exhibition in the US and it’s a beautifully, cosmetically designed product for someone that has no function of their arms. They can use two simple switches to feed themselves. That’s an amazing bit of kit. We’re always looking for new things. My job is product sourcing and 365 days a year I’m keeping my eye out on what might suit our client base. It’s not about ‘we need another product’, it’s ‘does this product fit with the client base we’re serving?’
You’re obviously very specialised and have a unique client base. Are you ever tempted to move into other, more general areas?
No, because we are innovative. One of the key things for us is that more than 50% of our employees are wheelchair users so we’re not just selling any products. Alongside those products we’re mentoring people about the different charities, holidays and products. We’re offering first-hand advice on all these different things.
Having wheelchair users in your team must be a significant advantage…
Yes, it’s huge. Because not only are our advisors trusted, but the staff can relate exactly to the situation that the client is in. It’s a very honest and ethical approach. If we think the product we’ve got is not right for the person, we’ll tell them and we won’t sell it to them.
You mention on your website that you only sell equipment that your team uses…
Yes. And that’s an absolute.