Established in 2007, Van Os Medical has only ever known times of recession. But the North Yorkshire mobility supplier has continually strengthened in that time; achieving continuous year-on-year growth in what could have otherwise been a rough upbringing. And now, 10 years on, the firm has just launched a £1.1m facility so that it can cope with demand and cater for expansion.
The high demand for Van Os’s mobility products is largely what has helped the business to defy the odds of the larger economic forces at play. But simply supplying products is not enough to guarantee success in the mobility sector. Even the best equipment can break and when it does, the companies that are there to get users up and moving again are the ones which tend to achieve longevity.
This notion has been fundamental to Van Os’ model, which prioritises quality and quick service for its dealer network and ultimately the end-user over anything else. In fact, so much is its commitment to impeccable service that its new facility just outside Sherburn has been launched with a mind to restructure and further improve its spare parts distribution service.
“The whole infrastructure of our company is built around aftersales. It’s expensive but the proof is in the pudding — we’re 10 years old in January, that’s 10 years of growth”
The level of investment Van Os is pumping into this area is a clear indication that it is serious about helping its dealers to assist their customers as effectively as possible.
Outlining the new distribution structure, managing director Scott Crabtree explains that the new site will act as a logistics centre to complement its current office and warehouse close by in Sherburn and warehouse in York. Currently, the building in York holds all the company’s heavy and powered equipment and the new facility is geared towards Van Os’ just-in-time operation. Meanwhile, aftersales and spare parts continue to operate from the distribution offices at Sherburn.
“We put a lot of emphasis on our Motability and it’s one of our largest channels. We’re one of only two companies in the industry that adhere to their 24-hour spare parts delivery,” Crabtree claims.
To ensure the company can deliver on its 24-hour parts service, that side of the operation is transferring to Sherburn. This will mean that Van Os can concentrate on just getting the spare parts out efficiently. The company now operates a next-day delivery policy on 95% of its spare parts inventory. Sustaining this current model is a challenge, Crabtree admits, especially as its fleet expands and demand increases.
“Customers love it though,” he insists. “If they’ve got a problem on a Monday morning, on the Tuesday afternoon a parcel arrives for that product — that’s fantastic for them and it’s brilliant for us and our reputation. I know it sounds like a small issue but it’s massive. You’ve got to be able to look after people. Importantly we can get the spare parts to the dealer quickly because if the end-user’s product breaks down, they need the spare part off the dealer as fast as possible.
“We can go for market share, it’s there, we could extend it tomorrow, but it’s false economy — we go for quality and that’s how we stand out. If you’ve got to the stage where you’re having problems with your products then you’ve not invested properly in the first place”
“It’s a bit of a throwaway statement, but the easiest thing in the world is to sell a product and get market share and sell it at a cheap price but for us we’re achieving nothing in that. Yes, we sell competitively but we spend and invest a lot in service, support and aftersales. The whole infrastructure of our company is built around aftersales. It’s expensive but the proof is in the pudding — we’re 10 years old in January and that’s 10 years of growth.”
Throughout its journey of growth, Van Os has been accompanied by a broad network of mobility retailers who have shared in its success. Having proved an attractive supplier to work with, the Sherburn company has pulled in around 150 specialist dealers and a few retail giants including Costco and Tesco. Van Os also supplies to the NHS through the Ability Matters group.
For Crabtree, a successful distribution network is all about quality rather than quantity. “We’re very fortunate; we have an exclusive relationship in the Republic of Ireland through a great dealer partner called Beechfield Healthcare. That’s a massive part of our business. We try to link up with key distributors and offer exclusivity. We don’t have a vast quantity of dealers — we’re not that interested in supplying 500 or 600 dealers because we’d rather get into exclusive partnerships with firms like Eden, Ableworld, ScootaMart and Beechfield, to name a few.”
While Van Os is enjoying a solid dealer network and customer base who are only too happy to work with the company, it knows it cannot rest on its laurels and always needs to be moving. Simple things like exchange rate are a concern for Crabtree, given the volume of products it imports. “It puts enormous pressures on margins but I still think that by investing in the right way, investing in logistics and staff, you can offset some of it,” he says.
But even with these added pressures, Van Os is doing its best to avoid shifting the burden onto dealers, as so many suppliers have been forced to in recent months. Asked if the economic stresses are trickling down into retail partners, Crabtree is insistent: “No. Although we’re still in the middle of [an industry] price increase, our prices froze in December when everyone else put theirs up. We’ve had no need to increase them yet. We had a nice enough margin as it was and our dealers knew what our margin was. We haven’t put pressure on our partners and said there are price increases coming. All we have to do is just cut our profit accordingly. It’s not fair to pass on pressure to dealers yet.”
And when it comes to margin, Crabtree is not interested in compromising on quality for the sake of bolstering profits. He is fully aware of manufacturers from the Far East offering lower prices, which could lure the company into a margin war. But that is not the game it plays. Van Os’ USP is about a quality product replicated by equally strong service, Crabtree reinforces.
“Mrs Smith in London wants a £400 wheelchair but she doesn’t want it to fail in three months. We’ve got a responsibility to make sure we still buy from the best suppliers. We can go for market share, it’s there, we could extend it tomorrow, but it’s false economy — we go for quality and that’s how we stand out. If you’ve got to the stage where you’re having problems with your products then you’ve not invested properly in the first place — you’ve not quality controlled it, you’ve not checked it, you’ve not done it with the correct partners. We try and steer away from that by buying from the best suppliers.”
Championing quality is nothing new in the mobility sector. But Crabtree’s obsession in ensuring it comes even before margin is helping Van Os to gain respect from industry peers.
The company’s approach has not gone unnoticed and now it will be hoping that a new logistics system, among other things, will help dealer partners to offer their customers an even better experience when selling its products.
What’s more, this type of quality-focused approach inherently drives competition in the industry and raises the overall bar, which ultimately ends in a better deal for the retailer and importantly, the end-user.
In any case, Van Os’ innovation appears to be a winning formula for itself and its partners in the UK.