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From City worker to top dealer: Ability Plus boss on building his business

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From investment analyst in the City to running one of the top mobility retailers in the South East in just over 10 years, Graham Johnson has experienced just about everything the industry has to offer. Here, he explains the key ingredients to building up a strong multi-site distribution model and how he plans on scaling up in an evolving market.

The mobility industry has a horde of people from an endless variety of different backgrounds. Just over a decade ago, Graham Johnson, managing director of Ability Plus, was working as an investment analyst in the City of London. But he traded the life of a City worker for a mobility business in Kent, which, now in its 10th year, consists of five retail outlets and an engineering hub. Speaking passionately about his business, it is clear that he has not looked back.

In a country where the population is ageing, it of course makes perfect sense to open a business targeting elderly care provision. Johnson’s case for a new retail concept in Kent was made even stronger by the apparent lack of competition at the time. Before Ability Plus launched, the competition in the Kent region was fragmented and equipment provision was generally poor. Johnson had set up a reselling business that dealt in various products but increasingly he saw mobility scooters being brought to him.

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“We’ve got lots of glass windows and I say to my customers: ‘If you’re not happy with our service you’re quite welcome to come and put a brick through the window’. You know where to find us and that’s important”

“More and more scooters came to me,” he says. “People had bought the product, found it wasn’t right for their needs and the local company wasn’t giving them any assistance. I thought it was unbelievable what they were paying compared to what the second hand market was. Back then, it was still early days but there weren’t as many companies as there are today and because they weren’t providing that level of service it gave me the opportunity to open up my own business. All competition is good but bad competition is even better.”

Ability Plus runs what it believes is the busiest and best-stocked Shopmobility in Europe.

When Johnson launched his business, a firm called UK Mobility dominated the local retail scene and held the lion’s share of the market for Kent. He says that the business was about as large as Ability Plus is now and that when he first started out it was in a very small unit, a world away from the large corner unit in Gillingham that acts as HQ. Over the years, Ability Plus’ model has been built on providing for a need where others have, in the past, struggled to. The business demonstrated this strategy clearly in its most recent store launch in the Bluewater shopping centre.

Johnson explains that around two years ago, when UK Mobility stalled, he was able to jump on its prime unit in Bluewater and two other outlets in Kent, one of which had been a mobility shop for 20 years. He says: “We’d been speaking to Bluewater prior to opening there and they phoned up one day and said the liquidators had come in for this other store. That meant they were without a Shopmobility service.

“I said to them: ‘don’t worry’, and I phoned up all our engineers and got them to take as many scooters as they could get on-board to Bluewater. We got that call at around 9.30am and by about 11.30am we had scooters down there ready to hire out. We were in there like a shot. We had to go through the process of the liquidators dealing with the previous store and I ended up buying the stock from the liquidator to speed up the process.”

Naturally, taking on that number of stores, and in Ability Plus’ case, doubling its portfolio, in such a short space of time, incurs challenges. Johnson admits that it was a difficult decision to make but once his son, Ben, came on-board, he saw that the ambition could be fuelled and so the pair decided to “go for it”. Since making the decision to rapidly expand its portfolio, the business has evolved to pitch itself towards the more specialist and high-end equipment market.

Johnson comments: “What you’ve got is a few small, one-man-bands that serve a marketplace we don’t necessarily service. It tends to be lower-end, cheaper, second hand products; and they can do that because they’ve got low overheads. Whereas something like an Edge powerchair is going to cost in excess of £6,500 and someone who’s spending that wants to buy from a company who they know will be there next week. We all know that retail is struggling and it’s not going to get any easier for anyone. You look at the likes of House of Fraser and other established retailers going to the wall and we know that the internet is going to be where people buy a lot of their products in the next 10 years.”

Johnson says it is important that Ability Plus adapts to the changing market and offers a specialist service to go alongside a bespoke product. Made-to-measure rather than out-of-the-box equipment is very much where the physical mobility retail market is headed, Johnson believes. In the face of internet competition, he is determined to run an expert operation instead of trading as a box-shifter. That side of the business, he says, he will continue to develop, believing the growth potential in high-end, made-to-measure powerchairs from the likes of Pride and Sunrise is greater than that of the mobility scooter market.

“We’re good for nine months and for three months, between November and January, we’re struggling. When you’ve got five stores and more than 20 staff, with those sort of overheads, you’ve got to be really tight on your numbers and finances”

With bricks-and-mortar concepts under intense pressure currently, evolution is critical for businesses in all retail sectors. Ability Plus has a unique insight into mobility retail given that it has stores both on the high street and in shopping centres. Johnson says that while shopping centres enjoy much higher footfall – Bluewater attracts nearly 30m shoppers each year – his high street shops perform just as well.

“We’ve been within the Medway towns for 10 years and we’ve got a good reputation. People are comfortable to come here and take our advice and know that they can bring products back to us. With Bluewater, you get your regular customers and you also get those that have purely come to hire a scooter. So even though you’ve got much higher footfall, we wouldn’t necessarily say that Bluewater is doing better than our corner unit in Gillingham.

“And similarly, our smaller unit in Sheppey doesn’t do an awful lot but there’s not as much competition and the overheads are smaller. Our store in Westford Cross is in a small shopping centre and that can be a challenge. Once again, there aren’t massive overheads but you need a good size unit to make it work. You need to be able to balance the overheads versus the sales.”

Johnson notes that he is still learning a great deal about the industry every day, despite his 10 years of experience, and finds that retail is becoming increasingly strained with the rise of the internet. Part of the regular research he does alerted Johnson to a toy retailer called The Entertainer, which has around 80 stores in its portfolio. The owner admits that without finance support from the bank then the toy business would not be able to operate because it makes its money over three months of the year.

Johnson comments: “I found that interesting because it’s very much like our industry but reversed. We’re good for nine months and for three months, between November and January, we’re struggling. When you’ve got five stores and more than 20 staff, with those sort of overheads, you’ve got to be really tight on your numbers and finances and have good relationships with your suppliers and bank manager. My suppliers have been great to me and we’ve got good relationships with the top manufacturers.”

His background as an investment analyst therefore, has certainly helped Johnson keep on top of his numbers. The margins in the mobility sector, especially these days, are so slim that the balance between overheads and sales is often very fine. Additionally, Johnson’s background has helped him to market the business, which is an important skill often missing from smaller, family-run firms.

Just as important as the books however, is a company’s ability to provide added value and a service customers cannot find online. Ability Plus has been able to maintain itself and grow thanks to its service-based philosophy, Johnson says, owing its success to a kind of retail litmus test. He calls it ‘the grandmother test’ and encourages his staff to adopt an ethos of: ‘If the service is good enough for your grandmother then it’s probably good enough for the customer’. This kind of core principle is one that has been successfully implemented in mobility dealers across the country and is an important foundation for customer service.

Unsurprisingly then, Johnson says he owes Ability Plus’ success so far to the staff that run its showrooms and engineering operations. He is under no illusions that a successful retail operation cannot be achieved without its staff, which is a notion shared by the vast majority of mobility bosses.

“Like any business, you need to be recruiting the right staff and ensuring that your philosophy is understood. There’s a certain type of person who is right for this industry and there’s a certain type that’s not. One of my ex-senior managers came from a sales orientated background and he said to me: ‘It’s so easy to employ the wrong sales person [in this industry] because this is an easy sale where you can be overly aggressive’. Direct sales companies can often charge over the odds. We’ve got lots of glass windows and I say to my customers: ‘If you’re not happy with our service you’re quite welcome to come and put a brick through the window’. You know where to find us and that’s important.”

Having the right staff to ensure each showroom delivers the same service is crucial. But as any business scales, one challenge is finding people who share the same outlook and principles as the owner. What’s more, it can be extra tough to find appropriate staff in the mobility sector, which traditionally struggles to attract new blood. Ability Plus is fortunate in one sense because of its Bluewater store. One job advert there will easily attract 200 CVs, Johnson explains, but the majority of applicants will not have the adequate skill set or experience. There might only be two potential candidates who make the grade after the interview process.

Johnson says that the apprentice route can be beneficial as a business can train, mould and develop them with the various company values. At the other end of the scale, he notes that people returning to work who might have professional backgrounds are able to bring other skills and experiences to the table.

He says: “There are benefits of taking on both younger people and more mature people. The industry can be very rewarding and hassle–free because you’re dealing with great people. The customers are fantastic. I encourage my staff to get to know the customer. When you’ve got 20 staff you want to make sure they treat every customer in the same way as you would treat them yourselves. So staff training is very important.”

It is quite clear that Johnson expects his staff to deliver on the company’s behalf and ensure consistency across the brand. But their efforts are not undervalued. Part of Johnson’s plan for the future involves rewarding staff loyalty with the potential of allowing them to open their own businesses under the Ability Plus banner.

Hinting at the possibility of a franchise model, Johnson says: “The loyal staff that have been with us long term have a vested interest in the business and so scaling up would be giving them an opportunity to own their own store. You benefit from two aspects: you’re showing staff in the company there’s an opportunity to own your own business and you’re rewarding the loyalty of those staff. In the next two to three years I’d like to see that happening.”

For the business as a whole, Johnson says its plans are reviewed every year. In the next 12 months, Ability Plus will be proactive in winning new customers by doing its own shows in shopping centres and catchment areas. The hope is that it can access a different clientele that wouldn’t necessarily walk past the stores. This year will be about “getting out and about”, according to Johnson, and continuing to develop the specialist, made-to-measure side of the business.

In the 10 years Ability Plus has been in business, Johnson has certainly learnt a great deal about the mobility sector and alongside his son and the rest of the team, has built a serious market player in the South East. When he moved into the world of mobility retail, Johnson says it was “refreshing” to be dealing with a different kind of person. “It’s a different pace and the older generation still appreciate a service and they’re happy to pay for that service,” he concludes.

Working in the mobility retail sector may indeed be a slower pace than slogging in the City. But if there’s one thing professionals in this industry know, it is to always expect the unexpected and if last year is anything to go by, the next 12 months will certainly keep anyone in the mobility space on their toes.

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Joe Peskett

The author Joe Peskett

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