THE BIG INTERVIEW: Grant Abrahams, Drive DeVilbiss Healthcare

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Go into any mobility store around the country and you are likely to see its products. Drive DeVilbiss Healthcare is one of the most well-known suppliers in the market.

Considering its global portfolio, various acquisitions and how many outlets it has made its way into, few would question how successful the business has been since it was founded. Yet as it has developed and expanded, the firm has come up against some unique challenges.

One of these has been, in some cases, being labelled as a box-shifter. This is naturally a reputation that Drive has continually sought to cast aside but in recent months it appears that the company has made serious headway in breaking away from this image. Substantial changes within the company have included a reshuffle at board-level, which as most dealers will now be aware, saw the appointment of Betterlife’s founder, Grant Abrahams.

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Brought in to revamp Drive’s retail strategy, he has now been retail director for just over a year. In that time Abrahams has been relentlessly working to take Drive back to its roots and reclaim a reputation as a comprehensive healthcare company and partner of choice. Trying to change the image of a company as large as Drive is no mean feat but Abrahams’ new direction has already attracted considerable attention in the dealer community.

Using his background in mobility retail, Abrahams says he hopes to see dealer partners’ businesses grow alongside Drive’s. Key to this plan will be helping traditional dealers to compete against internet sellers by ramping up support and levelling the playing field for smaller independent firms.

He says the first five months of his new role was about understanding Drive’s capabilities in terms of its people, products and operations and looking at whether it can leverage what it has already got to achieve quick, scalable growth. It has also included spending time with customers, he says.

“What I found when I came here was that we had one sales strategy for every sales channel. We’d have the same product or proposition and go to market on e-commerce, bricks and mortar and corporate. But you can’t do that. You have to have a specific strategy for each one. So the first five months was about working out what those strategies were and we’re starting to see the successes now quite significantly. There’s a place there for everybody, whether it’s e-commerce, bricks-and-mortar or corporate. But it’s just making sure that we provide the value to them.”

Drive has since split the business into three individual parts comprised of an e-commerce division, traditional bricks-and-mortar dealers and strategic key accounts, for example Ableworld, Eden and Millercare. The response so far has been positive in terms of feedback and sales and Abrahams promises more “exciting developments” in similar vain to its recent in-store proposition, which offered unbranded products to dealers not available online.

Similarly, out on the road, Drive has completely restructured its team in order to develop its dealer channel. Half of its field team is brand new and each member has been tasked with developing partners’ businesses. Abrahams explains initiatives like increasing business development resources is part of a strategy to add value to retailers.

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“Not only have we done the in-store proposition, we’ve also launched next day delivery up until 5pm. That’s been really well received. We may need to tweak some of it, maybe have a look at the carriage cost and how we can be more competitive for them. We’re trying to show the traditional bricks-and-mortar dealers that that’s where Drive came from. That’s the history of Drive and it’s still a huge market – we’ve probably not done enough in that area over the years.

“Drive has historically probably supported the bigger brands, which is when you’re under pressure to grow, probably the right strategy. But I’ve come full circle and want to go back to the roots of supporting those traditional dealers. By having that next day delivery it’s a better service than e-commerce competitors can offer, who can often only offer up to 3pm or 4pm. It’s creating a more equal playing field.”

Keeping the faith

Considering the state of independents on the high street and the growth of online businesses, some traders may still be sceptical of Drive’s step change. Surely it is tempting for suppliers to favour the larger chains and e-commerce firms they know can shift volume. But he continually stresses the importance of the distributor channel.

“The majority of my time this year has been working on the strategy for that channel because that’s where we were probably a bit weaker than we should have been. Drive came from that [channel] initially, but we’ve lost touch a little bit with it. So we’ve changed the team and made sure we’ve got business developers, not product shifters. They want to go into dealers and have bespoke conversations about how they can help dealers to grow their business. It’s not just about product supply, it’s everything.”

Abrahams believes that while e-commerce is growing, it is usually the time-poor relatives or carers of end-users who are doing the buying. The end-users themselves, he says, still and always will want to go in-store for products. But with changing buying habits as ‘baby boomers’ make themselves the prime market, could we see online sidelining mobility shops more and more? While Abrahams knows the online universe is swelling, he is adamant there is still “a huge opportunity for physical shops”.

“People still need to look and a feel. That’s why you see businesses like CareCo opening up stores and Betterlife did the same. It’s hard to get the mix right and it’s very hard to be an omni-channel retailer. I can see some consolidation because it is tough out there. Those that survive will be the ones that really lead with customer experience. If you do that then price isn’t always the determining factor. You’ve got to look at the bigger picture and ask what else can you offer that customer, whether that’s warranty, insurance, aftersales or engineering support.”

Observers would be naïve to deny that independents have a fight on their hands. But Abrahams thinks that compared to six months ago, Drive has helped to arm a large portion of its dealers with the necessary tools they need to seize the initiative.

Beating the nerves

Abrahams seems to be moving Drive in the direction the majority of dealers would like to see. But what has the outcome been so far? It looks as though Drive is making good on its promise to “shake up” its strategy and Abrahams claims that the growth it is seeing at the moment is “pretty frightening”.

This would indicate the strategy shift is having some kind of impact on the business but he maintains that it is important to keep the growth under control and ensure core values stay intact. Looking outwards at Drive’s dealer network, Abrahams says growth across its regions have been “fantastic” and “way above expectations”.

“I know there was a lot of nervousness among our traditional dealers when I came on-board because I came from an e-commerce background, but if I’m honest I’ve probably spent most of my time working with independents, going out and listening to them and their concerns. I went out there to understand what challenges dealers have. I found they had a good range, maybe didn’t have the stock, they wanted next day delivery, competitively priced products that can compete with online and they want products that aren’t available everywhere. It sounds quite simple but that’s what we’re trying to fix.”

Abrahams’ past role at Betterlife, which transformed from an e-commerce business into a store concept, has allowed him to appreciate the challenges of physical dealers, he says, noting issues like training, price wars and differentiation. He hopes that this ability to empathise will reassure sceptics.

A new road

Abrahams hopes his work over the last few months has shown dealers Drive is following a new route where its retail channel is concerned. But what can retailers expect from the supplier moving forward? For Abrahams, it will be more of the same.

“We’ll make sure we keep developing propositions, products and service and support according to where they want to trade. That has been the big change this year and we’ll carry on with that. We understand what e-commerce needs but we’re also getting better at traditional dealers’ needs.

It’s about getting closer to them. We’re possibly looking at ramping up the number of business development managers we have on the road, which no one else seems to be doing at the moment. Fortunately we’re getting the growth that’s allowing us to continue investing in that side. The intelligence we’re gathering from the non-retail side is feeding in to the dealer channel. So, we’re seeing where the market is shifting and we can see it is growing hugely.”

On the research and development (R&D) side, Abrahams says dealers can expect a shift here too. He is aware that the in-store proposition may be perceived as “a bit me too” but Drive is set to launch more competitively priced, unbranded products that are unavailable everywhere. Some of these in-store products will include five year warranty chairs and two year and five year warranty scooters.

Summing up what dealers can expect to see from Drive in the coming months, Abrahams comments: “Drive has historically been about big value and it’s meant great growth but we need to be a bit smarter now. We still want that, but we’ve got to add to it. Some of our competitors have done a really good job of that – firms like Van Os, Pride and Kymco – they’ve done a good job of that higher-end but we can do that. We know what we’re doing, we just need to change our strategy slightly.”

There seems to be business sense in Drive’s strategy shift. In developing its partners, the supplier can expect to enjoy more sales and customers.

Abrahams is confident in the long-term he will see the benefits of ploughing resources into the dealer offering, concluding: “I want to get away from the idea that Drive is just a scooter and wheelchair supplier. We’re strong and we want to grow with our customers.”

Keen to break away from past judgments held by some industry members, Drive appears to be aiming to make itself a partner of choice. Mirroring its relatively recent name-change to include ‘Healthcare’, Drive is on a mission to show that while it is returning to its roots where its sales channels are concerned, it is also evolving to become a high quality healthcare firm selling much more than just mobility products.

In another year’s time it will be clearer as to whether Drive’s strategy is really working for retailers. It is hard to deny at this stage however that Abrahams represents a real shift in its direction which can only be seen as good news.

The most promising point to take from Drive’s new strategy, whether it will prove successful or not, is that it shows the market’s largest suppliers appear to have confidence in independent dealers. With competition from large chains, direct sales and online, many dealers are suspicious of suppliers and so if nothing else, Drive’s apparent shift is a positive sign in a tough market.

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Joe Peskett

The author Joe Peskett

1 Comment

  1. I would agree that Drive was associated with the box shifting term and this was one of the reasons I excluded them. However, over the years the product quality has improved and their technical support is probably one of the best. Enquiries are put through to someone who actual know what they are talking about.
    Local support is professional and friendly. The new catalogue is pro showroom the online ordering, including direct to customer, is quick and simple to use.

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