Richard Holland-Oakes has spent a lifetime working in the mobility and access market. His first job, straight out of school in 1980, was as an apprentice learning about prosthetics, for J E Hanger before moving into sales with Ottobock where he spent 12 years, three years with Lomax before it was sold to Sunrise Medical, another four years with C F Hewerdine and, finally, a year as commercial director with Permobil in Scotland.
This is a man with mobility in his bones. But in 2008 something snapped; or rather something clicked. On a long road trip with his wife Tina (naturally, they met while both working in the same industry) Mr Holland-Oakes declared he was going to start his own business. By the time they had reached their home in Oxfordshire, the name of Recare had been agreed, and they set to work sketching out the business at their kitchen table.
After decades building up technical and commercial experience, a peerless black book of contacts, and a gilt-edged CV, he was chucking it all in to go it alone. With an initial investment of £8,000, barely enough to bring in a few demo models, Recare was launched in August 2008. A month later, Lehman Brothers went bust and the financial world caved in.
“All I did was invest £8,000, and everything I did at the beginning was on proforma. It was September 2008, and the start of the financial crisis and recession. I’d walked out of a job and two weeks later the recession started, so I wasn’t going to get any overdraft. We had to get through as best we could,” Mr Holland-Oakes recalls. “Amazingly, it worked. It might not have been the right way of working, but it worked. Needs must,” he smiles.
A lack of cash was one problem, the second was getting equipment manufacturers to agree Recare could sell their products. In the early days the barriers were enormous.
“Some of the manufacturers told me that, unless we had premises, they would not give us an account. So, in May 2009, we found some premises. Some said we couldn’t start with them until we had been on training courses. There was always some issue. Even the companies I’d worked with before said no because they said it would interfere with their existing business,” Mr Holland-Oakes describes.
Nine years on from those nail-biting early months and years, Recare employs nine people, and last year moved into a large premises housing his clinic, workshop and showroom in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. His local MP, David Cameron, also known as the prime minister at the time, cut the ribbon on the new facility. Anybody who thinks that MPs get nothing done should speak to Mr Holland-Oakes.
“We have just managed to get onto the Motability scheme, and that was thanks to David Cameron. He has opened so many doors for us,” he says.
Mr Cameron might have helped Recare open doors, but an hour in the company of Mr Holland-Oakes is enough to know that he is a man well capable of knocking down doors on his own. From the early years when manufacturers refused to deal with the company, Recare is now master of its own portfolio of suppliers.
“We are at the other end of the scale and everybody wants to come and see Recare. Some of them admit that they made a mistake at the beginning.”
Asked whether he is carrying any grudges and settling any scores with companies that failed to help him in the early days, he shrugs. “No, at the end of the day, business is business,” he replies.
Recare is not one of the biggest access and mobility businesses in the UK, but it is one of the most specialised when it comes to high-end solutions. The company prides itself on offering bespoke products to disabled customers that can afford the best solution for their individual needs.
A typical customer will be somebody that has endured equipment paid for by the NHS and social services but knows that there are much better products available.
A number of factors are feeding into a rapidly growing private market for top-end products tailored to individual needs. Rapid advances in technology mean disabled people have so many more options to improve the quality of their lives. Unfortunately social care budgets and the NHS are being squeezed so the best equipment will not necessarily be provided.
Where the public sector fails to deliver, companies like Recare step in, often saving tax payers money because individuals or their families will pay for life-improving solutions and Mr Holland-Oakes will provide them at lower cost than the public sector because his operation is lean and efficient.
“We have moved a long way in delivering value for money. People’s expectations have changed massively because of what they can see on the internet. The demands on the NHS are incredible because people believe that what they are able to get privately, they should be able to get on the NHS. It is a growing market in terms of the number of customers, and people’s expectations are growing. They always want the most complicated, the best parts,” he says.
Demand is always rising and the public sector is always forced to ration options for disabled people, despite their best intentions. “Look at the prosthetics side. There has been so much advancement, and the NHS is now finding the money to pay for an expensive, computer-controlled prosthesis. I think eventually this is going to happen in terms of people’s expectations for power chairs. It is just a matter of time. People will want to have all the environmental controls on their power chairs, being able to communicate with the outside world,” Mr Holland-Oakes predicts.
“There are about 1,600 mobility dealers around the country, of which about 160 belong to BHTA. Of these, there are about 10 dealers around the country that do specialist mobility like we do”
Power chairs are big business for the private sector, driven by the ageing population who refuse to have their mobility curtailed as their physical strength fails. They also have the money to invest, particularly in Oxfordshire and a 150-mile radius in which Recare operates. “You are dealing with a market now where, if you look at 80-year-olds, they were born just after the war and are the first families that bought their own property, so they are asset rich. Down here in the South, there is no reason why you won’t be sitting on a house that is worth upwards of £450,000. They might move to smaller place and take out £200,000. You are seeing a totally different clientele prepared to buy things to improve their quality of life,” Mr Holland-Oakes says.
Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) are going to give people a degree of control over the care and disability services they use, and some of the money is likely to be used for the best equipment. When people start searching online for what’s available, they find an Aladdin’s Cave of options and opportunities to stay active and mobile. This is where Recare steps in, offering advice on products that can dramatically improve lives. “If an individual can’t afford it, the family often find the money somehow. Even if it is a £2,000 scooter, if those costs are shared by four or five people, it is possible,” Mr Holland-Oakes suggests.
Recare is not alone in offering these solutions, and is not one of the biggest. For Mr Holland-Oakes, this is an advantage, he describes: “There are about 1,600 mobility dealers around the country, of which about 160 belong to BHTA, which is the British Healthcare Trades Association. Of these, there are about 10 dealers around the country that do specialist mobility like we do. That includes high-end active chairs, specialist power chairs, specialist seating systems. We are one of those. When I started this business, I felt that I was a Sunday morning kickabout football team. Then we moved up to a non-league club and onwards and upwards. I think now we are a decent Championship side. I don’t know if I ever want to be in the Premiership. That type of company has to employ a lot of people, and you lose control of it. The next step is to have four or five outlets, and I don’t really want that. I just want to have one very good place where people come, where I can provide the right service that people respect you for.”
His son James might disagree. He joined the business several years ago and is bringing new ideas to Recare including improvements to the website, improved stock management systems and a new customer relationship management solution.
These are essential infrastructure improvements for a company that grew 42% last year and is trading up 40% in the first few months of 2017. The success will be on show at this month’s Naidex exhibition, where Recare will be one of the biggest exhibitors.
“We are doing Naidex this year and we have 80 square metres, we are going to be huge. We are going to be the biggest dealer there doing the specialist stuff. That to me is a sign that I have made it. In the past, we have always done exhibitions on a shoestring. Now we are going with a wow factor, we are at that level,” Mr Holland-Oakes describes with obvious pride.
For Recare, and its suppliers, the future looks very bright.