When it comes to specialist mobility firms pushing equipment boundaries, there are few names in the market that stand out as much as Gerald Simonds. As one of the longest-standing and best-known distributors in the business, we sit down with managing director Doug Robinson to learn what makes it one of the most popular gateways to the UK market for overseas mobility manufacturers.
Gerald Simonds professes to be a pioneer in mobility equipment and ahead of the curve when it comes to products and materials…
Yes, we’re always looking for something a little bit different. We operate in a niche and it’s the high-end of the market. In powerchairs, it tends to be complex rehab we’re involved with, in manual chairs it’s what used to be called ‘high-performance lightweights’. We work with products using the latest materials. It was aluminium, then it was titanium and today it’s carbon fibre.
Where do you source most of your equipment from?
We look for the best manufacturers wherever they are. It just so happens that the ones that we’ve sourced have tended to come from North America, Europe or Scandinavia. We work with Canadian manufacturers, US, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and indeed UK suppliers.
There must be some inherent challenges when working with overseas suppliers.
Sure, if you’re an importer there are challenges. The most obvious one is exposure to currency risk. If you’re buying from a supplier outside of the UK you’re buying in euros or US dollars or something else, and that is a particular challenge for us and other importers. Straight after the EU Referendum, when the pound suffered a bit of a crash, we certainly noticed it. Most suppliers in the UK are impacted by that. Even if they are manufacturing in the UK they are likely sourcing components from abroad, so no one’s immune to it. That’s a challenge which we’ve had to deal with over the last few months. But you develop a good relationship with the manufacturer and the fact that they’re 5,000 miles away doesn’t make a lot of difference. Their delivery lead times are no worse than somebody who’s manufacturing on your doorstep. We fly all of our products into the UK anyway so once it’s been built it’s with us within 24 to 48 hours.
Why is it that a lot of overseas mobility manufacturers choose to enter the UK market via Gerald Simonds?
We’ve been around for a very long time. That in itself doesn’t make you the distributor of choice, but it certainly helps. We’ve been around for a long time and are going to be around for a long time. Manufacturers want a partner that they can rely on for years ahead and certainly when we go into a relationship with any manufacturer, then it is for the long term. Our track record shows that we’ve been with many of our manufacturing partners for a very long time.
What has been your key to strong relationships with mobility suppliers?
It has to be a two way relationship and our responsibility, and indeed our duty, as a UK distributor is to deliver volume for that manufacturer.
Are you able to offer feedback on which products sell well and which need rethinking?
They rely on it. A manufacturer based in West Coast America doesn’t know the UK market like we do. We’re the ones on the ground so they rely on that feedback and they take it on board, not always straight away, but they listen, they gather evidence from other markets, and usually they’ll respond. It’s also very important for that two-way relationship to work for us, because we need to know we are working with a quality supplier that will give us excellent service. If there are issues, you want to know that they’re going to listen and iron them out. We don’t want unhappy customers and if a manufacturer is failing us, it’s letting us down and therefore our customers. We will go through a process with that manufacturer, but if things don’t change we’ll walk away, and we have done. We rely on our reputation for our future and we can’t afford for any manufacturer to damage that reputation.
It’s clear to see from shows like Naidex that kit and market players are continually changing. What are the largest changes you are seeing in the market at the moment?
I think our customer is becoming yet more discerning. There’s a huge amount of choice and material out there and it’s only a click away. The fact that the customer is becoming more informed means that you have to stay on top of your game all the time. That’s the main change I perceive at the retail level. In terms of the supply chain, it’s becoming more and more consolidated. More and more manufacturers are being acquired by some of the multi-nationals. We’ve now got three main groupings on the supply side in Permobil, Sunrise Medical and Invacare.
What’s that like for you? Does it mean less choice?
We have always enjoyed working with the independent, privately-owned, entrepreneurial businesses. In fact, all of the distribution partners that we’ve had over the years started out as that. Many of them have been acquired by one of the industry majors and that for sure has brought us challenges because we’ve quite often lost a distribution contract. The multi-national company takes over and wishes to use its own distribution channel. We understand how that works. So we have to always be looking for the next big thing. Usually, although not always, that’s going to be with an independent, privately-owned, entrepreneurial company. That’s what we look for. That consolidation has its challenges for us as UK distributor.
Do you plan on diversifying your offering as the market develops?
We’re focused on the demographic that we currently work with but very much with an eye to the future and where the growth is occurring. Clearly, we’re an ageing population so there is an enormous opportunity within that demographic, but we would need to diversify our product range to reflect that, and that’s something that we’re looking at.
Your model clearly works but is it something you’ll be looking to tweak in the future?
To use a cliché, stand still and you go backwards. My prediction would be most certainly. First and foremost we’re a distributor. We are a dealer as well but being a distributor is in our DNA. We like bringing a product to the UK market where it’s had no presence before and creating a market for it and seeing it fly. That’s what we like doing.