In their 10th year as business partners, Gareth Watkinson and Justin Truepenny, directors of Dolphin Mobility Yorkshire & Cumbria, explain what is behind their sustained growth and their popularity with manufacturers.
How has 2019 played out for Dolphin Mobility Yorkshire & Cumbria so far?
Gareth Watkinson: It’s been really good so far. This year we’ve taken on a couple of engineers and we’re looking to take on an office apprentice for administration purposes. We’ve grown as far as that goes. Turnover and profit seems to be pretty steady, as it has been for the last 12 months. It’s busy but good. We were recognised for our environmental practice in the Green Apple Awards.
We’re using a computer based service that is designed to eliminate human error when fitting complicated curved stairlifts. When you’re reading a tape measurer there’s that margin for human error and that can cause abortions if equipment is laid incorrectly. That can cause a lot of wastage but we’re cutting that out.
How has adopting the new computer system impacted on how you do business?
Gareth Watkinson: It’s been great actually. It eliminates as much human error as possible. There’s always that element of not concentrating or misreading handwriting. That guaranteed fitting takes the pressure off.
Justin Truepenny: It’s much more efficient too. The efficiency of the best paid work. We’ve got a quicker turnaround time with the building of the lift and it’s actually knocked a couple of weeks off that time from start to finish. That’s great when you’ve got someone who’s desperate and waiting for a lift.
You were recently selected by Platinum Stairlifts as a launch partner on its new curved lift. Why do you think it chose you and what is it that attracts other manufacturers to Dolphin?
Gareth Watkinson: We’ve been using [Platinum] for around two or three years and that side of the business has grown and grown and grown. Given that we’re in York and with them being based in Keighley, we’re probably one of the more local dealers for them to be able to keep on top of the quality aspect. It’s been softly launched into the market and they saw us a partner who could take that forward and give them the feedback, which is what we continue to do.
Justin Truepenny: And it’s the feedback from us. We’re a nice size so there’s enough different people that work on the product but also we’re not too big that it’s not going to get fed back to the manufacturer. There’s a nice balance there.
Gareth Watkinson: Yes. And we can obviously compare and contrast against existing products. We are unique in that we can quote for pretty much every lift on the market. We can give suppliers feedback as to what other manufacturers are doing and how they compare.
You work with the top manufactures, including the likes of Handicare, Platinum and Stannah. What do you look for in a supplier and its equipment?
Gareth Watkinson: Of paramount importance is being able to fit a piece of equipment that is pliable for the end-user. You need to be able to fit something and then almost forget about it. The user needs to be able to use it without any kind of mechanical failure on the product.
Justin Truepenny: I would say we’re quite lucky that we’re able to choose the best lift for the job. We’re not tied to selling just two lifts. We can pick perfectly for the job, especially when it comes to private clients. That’s what we pride ourselves on, being able to offer any lift on the market and not compromising on products.
Gareth Watkinson: It’s quite an exciting time in the industry. It’s been a bit quiet for the last five years but now there’re some new products that have come along. A lot of manufacturers rely on the dealer network to get their products into the market because they don’t go direct to the end-user.
So a lot of them are set up to work with ourselves as it is. They always have us in mind in processes and key account managers in the right place so that they’re factoring us in. That’s how they work. They see us as being a localised company offering a local service and that’s a good route into the market for them.
Justin Truepenny: The products are all leaning more towards diagnostics. They’re more user friendly both for the client and for our engineers out in the field. They’re leaning more towards installation ease because time is money and the quicker it’s fitted the better. It’s probably taken some suppliers a few years to get that ethos in the brand but it’s now at the point where they’re all driving for efficient fitting.
Does dealing exclusively in hoists, vertical lifts and stairlifts give you some immunity from the online scooter battle other mobility dealers are facing?
Gareth Watkinson: Absolutely. All the equipment we service and install are products that need the installation aspect. We’ve invested heavily in the engineering side of things and in vans and stock to be able to support that. A lot of companies see stairlfits as a market they can tap into having done the internet sales but don’t appreciate that for the aftersales service you need vans on the road and that skillset. We analysed the market for things like scooters and wheelchairs when we set up 10 years ago and very quickly decided that it wasn’t really a market for us. It blurred the edges.
Justin Truepenny: We had the odd client that would ask if we could get one so we thought about it but decided to stick to what we’re good at. You can spread yourself too thin sometimes and then you can lose the niche or quality you’ve got in one particular area. But we are now working on things like homelifts.
Homelifts are seen by some dealers as a threat to the stairlift market. What is your view on them?
Gareth Watkinson: [Homelifts] are just a natural progression with some customers. We’re not medical experts necessarily but we can see what kind of conditions call for a vertical lift. It can sometimes be the natural upgrade. If their mobility decreases enough then a vertical lift can be perfect. Stairlifts won’t go away, it’s a lesser cost for a lot of people.
Justin Truepenny: Exactly. And with a stairlift there’s no building work required. A homelift is a different beast altogether really and it’s not for everybody.
Is it difficult recruiting staff when you’re dealing in equipment as complex as homelifts?
Gareth Watkinson: Yes, there is a certain skillset you need to have. We’ve always looked at being experienced in the industry as a plus point but some people can bring baggage with them. If they’ve worked at a manufacturer then they might have been used to doing something a certain way that we do differently. We’ve taken on a couple of people from outside of the industry and trained them up, which is working.
How do you envisage the homelift market evolving?
Gareth Watkinson: They have been out there for a while although there’s historically only been around three manufacturers. It’s probably not a massive market at the moment but as moving and handling policies change and carers aren’t allowed to physically move people as much as they are doing, they could play a bigger role.
That said, properties are getting smaller so the size of the product can be a challenge. With stairlifts, manufacturers are trying to make their lifts smaller while also trying to carry a heavier client. We leave the R&D to the manufacturers – they know the challenges in the market.
What is your position in the Dolphin Group and what does it mean for your business?
Gareth Watkinson: Back in the day, about 20 years ago, they were true franchises where they used to pay head office a certain amount of turnover. That was before we joined and there were probably about 21 offices around the country. Nowadays, we all try and get together every year in a franchise meeting, which means we can chat to other branches and band some ideas about. It’s good to see which products are working for the others and to see how things are done differently in different markets around the country. The benefits are that we’re not a standalone company.
Justin Truepenny: We do it all independently so it’s now more of a group of companies rather than a franchise. We’re all separate businesses that operate independently but we still stay in touch. We’re separate companies without being in competition with each other and we pass leads onto different branches.
How do you operate differently from other businesses in the group?
Gareth Watkinson: Every Dolphin company is a different size. Some might only have two engineers, others have double figures. Price points are different too depending on where you are in the country. In terms of geographical area, in Yorkshire and Cumbria there are a lot of fields and no real big cities so we travel more to the average customer. Cost points are different too so experiences can differ massively.
Justin Truepenny: There are some branches that don’t really do much with local authorities and others who don’t really deal with the private market. We’ve got a balance between the two so that’s probably one of the main differences.
How much of a challenge is it operating across such a wide area?
Gareth Watkinson: We’ve structured our engineering team so that we are able to cover the areas well. It’d be easier if Cumbria was 100 miles closer but we’ve got a system and 10 years on we’re still sticking with it.
Justin Truepenny: We’ve only got two engineers based in York and then the rest are situated in other areas. We’ve got some closer to Cumbria. We did have a unit in Cumbria but we found it wasn’t really getting used and so we dropped it to make things more efficient. It is a remote area but we’re used to it.
10 years into trading, where do you want the business to be in the next five years?
Gareth Watkinson: I can’t envisage not doing what we’re doing now because we’ve put so much hard work into it. It’s only really now that we’re seeing it all come to fruition, where, we’re not exactly able to take a step back, but if one of us isn’t here or takes some time off then it still ticks over.
Compared to when we first started out, when one of us was away then it was 50% of the company gone. We’re always going to be involved, we won’t be directors that just sit back and let it take care of itself. We’ve got too much invested in it for that. We’ve never really had to borrow any money to do it. It’s just been organic growth.
Justin Truepenny: We’ve seen a few companies over the years that have sprung up and then disappeared. On the outside it looks like quite an easy industry to get into until you get into it and then realise that you need the structure and customer service side of it. So you do get quite a few people jumping on the band wagon and then disappear a few months later. With the businesses that try and get too big too quickly, it doesn’t take much to tip them. We’re about steady growth and to just keep going.
What has been the key to your longevity?
Gareth Watkinson: It’s been a case of going for organic growth, doing it slowly, building our reputation and putting the customer first. It’s impossible to get things right all the time and if we do get it wrong then we admit it and try and come up with a solution to the problem. We’ve always moved on from problems quickly after finding a solution.
You can waste a lot of time money and energy trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Also, the benefits of having a core local authority market is that you’ve got that repeat business without having to go out and challenge for every individual job. At the same time it proves we’re doing something right.