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THE BIG INTERVIEW: How pharma-focused Fortuna became a mobility titan

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Fortuna Mobility started out in the world as a pharmaceutical focused company but, as Seb Bavetta joined his two brothers in the business after working one day a week in their parent’s attic, it saw room for improvement in the mobility retail sector.

It recruited mobility expert Elaine Ferguson and since, it has grown from strength to strength.

AMP sat down with the dynamic duo for this month’s Big Interview to find out more on their mobility work.

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What’s Fortuna’s background?

SB:  It started around 25 years ago as a pharmacy business. My two brothers were working full time and I was working about one day a week in the business out of our parent’s attic. We were all working 6-7 days a week and our business grew from there. Then, around ten years ago, my brother Julian visited some mobility shops with a view to supplying Fortuna products to them as part of their range.  The experience convinced him we could do better and so Fortuna Mobility began.

Using space we had available downstairs in our building, and after speaking to a large supplier who provided a range of mobility and independent living products, we just started selling. However we had no experience in retailing and we didn’t really know the market. Fortunately, we were put in contact with Elaine Ferguson, who had previous experience within the industry. She took on the management of the mobility showroom. With her guidance, it grew rapidly and the floor space has now tripled in size.

We now have a very wide variety of products and are London’s largest mobility showroom.  Having worked for many years as an NHS doctor, I was looking for a new challenge. I joined Fortuna Mobility full time in 2018, as I could see the huge potential of the mobility sector and our staff.

So, what is your history within the industry Elaine?

EF: I’ve worked in this industry for over 20 years and I love it! It combines technical and human challenges and no day is ever dull.

How has your role developed at Fortuna?

EF: Fortuna is a family-run ethical business and that is why I chose to join and develop the mobility division. The integrity, honesty and focus of our directors is instilled into the ethos of the company.

From my experience, I have learnt that consultation is very important and Fortuna support this approach.  Consequently our strategic aim is to develop a consultative approach, providing a high level of advice, choice and service to all those who need help. We decided against any online selling because although it has advantages and place we are aiming to provide something much more than just a quick sale.

We work everyday with healthcare professionals including occupational therapists, physiotherapist, care staff, nurses and doctors to provides the best equipment and solution possible.

How important are OTs?

EF: Massively. Occupational Therapy is a really important profession for our healthcare service, and it is often overlooked and underrated. This is especially important in the times we live as people want to live independently in their own homes for as long as possible, to retain their individuality and enjoy their lives.

Working alongside healthcare professionals is really important as it enables us to provide additional perspectives on patient management with joint visits, trials and training being readily available, that is along with a variety of other things.

You mention the importance of the personal consultation opposing online sales, is that something you will stick with as time moves on?

SB: Yes, I don’t think we have any plans to sell online. We see ourselves as adding value in terms of advice and expertise. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with selling online, obviously, but that is not how we see ourselves.

EF: We’ve seen far too many people who have made very expensive and dangerous mistakes and even sometimes over the most smaller items like a walker or a rollator, even that, can be dangerous.

People are just not aware of the choices available to them. Mistakes can also cause accidents, long term problems and be very expensive and detrimental to the person using it.

SB: Our website has been recently been redesigned and what Elaine says comes through in this. We did not want to simply create a catalogue online. What we’ve done is to provide information to educate on different types of equipment and accessories. 

For instance our page on walking sticks does not list twenty walking sticks with prices but includes information to inform the reader. 

Our approach with our website, makes it more customer-centred rather than product-centred. So, although we include lots of product categories, we also have pages on medical conditions, so for example, if you have MS, it informs on what sort of equipment might help.

The customer isn’t necessarily someone who wants a walking stick, but someone who has had a stroke and needs advice on how to cope with their new disabilities. We are using it as a shop window rather than what a traditional online shop would be.

EF: Nowadays many people do a lot of research on the web before they visit us and our website provides a lot of information for them. But, their final decision is still dependent on the good advice they receive from our staff and trying out the product for themselves.  Sometimes, at that point, things can change.  It’s very important to try before you buy.

It is very important to me that our staff are trained as trusted assessors, DBS-enhanced checked and very knowledgeable which our ongoing, thorough training programme provides.

When it comes to staff, we are very careful in our employment. We are looking for a certain type of person. It is quite a multi-skilled job, you’ ve got to be a very good listener, you have to be happy to get your hands dirty, and you have to be happy to get involved in the equipment, get involved in the customer’s lives which can be tricky.

SB: We impress on them that we would rather that they turned away a sale than sell something someone the wrong thing.

That is in our ethos for moral reasons but we also believe that it benefits us in the long-run as we want to be known as a company that can be trusted.

From a business point of view, do you worry that not tapping into online sales could hold you back?

SB: We could probably make more short term sales but we are looking at a longer term perspective. 

EF: If people require a quick response for instance if someone comes to us saying they need a bespoke bed and a bespoke chair tomorrow.

We have a large and varied rental fleet to meet people’s needs in the short term.

Problems and requirements are not always simple but we can usually find a solution. We say we will always find some way of enabling people and keeping them safe.

How does your operation fit in with how suppliers work?

EF: Although we have several strategic partnerships, we also work with lots of different suppliers to maintain our problem solving capabilities.

Obviously, with experience over the years, there are some suppliers that you can build more strategic relationships within terms of ordering regularly, but in general we do prefer to not to be tied to rigidly.

SB: Our aim is to find solutions to problems. You find out what a person’s problem is and we find a solution to it.

I’ve been at Fortuna for nine years and previous to that I was actually self-employed and as a self-employed person I worked with OTs. For me, that is what is necessary and although we are a bigger company and have more resource available, we don’t work to set things, we understand there are things that just have to be done for any particular reason.

EF: I always say we are not selling anything, we are just finding solutions. In that process, we do sell things, but it is not what it’s all about.

SB: I believe it’s that which isn’t compatible with the internet model where you have to be very rigid, grind the price down, you have processes that are extremely efficient and it becomes a ticking box process and it isn’t compatible with that problem solving aim that we try to adopt.

What proactive measures do you take to solve people’s mobility concerns?

EF: I do a variety of educational talks and training sessions with different people. We also work with care homes and offer specialist seating training to try and educate staff in seating needs.

It saddens us to see people who are in seating that does provide correct positioning, posture and pressure needs, as this can adversely impact their health.

We talk a lot now about extending our life span but in fact, it is about the quality of that life that is important to us and a challenge for modern life.

People are becoming more independent and don’t want to be put into an institution, if it can be avoided.

Away from that, how does your relationship with your suppliers work?

EF: We have a great relationship with our suppliers. At the moment they are great, all of our suppliers give us the right information and can make things the way we want them.

We only deal with suppliers who do what they say, who do things on time, have high quality production and good warranty.

SB: On top of that, what we are trying to do is bring in more novel and innovative products.

And how does all of this fit in to how Fortuna started as a pharma focused company?

SB: When we set up mobility, one thing we had in mind was that there would be a lot of overlap with the pharmacy side of the business.

EF: And that was because a lot of Fortuna’s existing products overlapped into the mobility market and that’s where the interest came from.

SB: That’s how we started, by looking to sell those products but we also thought that mobility products would sell into amounts to pharmacies, however the overlap has turned out to be more limited than we expected.

Tell me more about your work with CCGs?

EF: We work really closely with CCGs, trusts and hospitals. This happens because of our close working relationships with OTs and we work with several local authorities, CCGs, trusts and consequently this has developed over the years into other geographical areas.

SB: The retail side also gets signposted from OTs who will say advise people to come to come to Fortuna to try equipment and get good advice.

EF: We’ve got everything in place to work with the CCGs as we understand the expectation of the CCGs and the pressure the CCGs are under and what they need to do. We offer a good quality, economical services.

You operate nationally, how are you looking to expand that in the coming years?

SB: Over the last few years, the horizons of our assessments have broadened and we cover a far wider area.

At the same time, we recently acquired the UK distribution for Bambach Saddle Seats and created a new division with a national rep who can provide assessments for both Bambach and our other specialist Fortuna products across the country.

Would you look at opening somewhere else?

SB: This year we’ve grown 25% and looking forward we want to keep that growth above 20%. At the moment, we are concentrating outreach services, but in the future we might consider a second larger showroom.

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Alex Douglas

The author Alex Douglas

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