When Richard Holland-Oakes started Recare from his home in Oxfordshire in 2008, he set his sights not on selling mobility and rehabilitation equipment, although that’s the crux of the business in simple terms, but on offering unrivalled clinical and technological expertise.
Richard built upon decades of experience working for world-renowned Ottobock to establish a specialist company that provides a solution to every lifestyle and rehab need, and to this day, he and his wife Tina are focused on delivering the best outcomes for all.
The next generation of Holland-Oakes – James and Annie – have also now come on board to lead the business into the future, but Richard still has a hands-on role in the company and is dedicated to solving individual mobility needs.
Here, the CEO sits down with AMP to discuss his passion for providing an award-winning customer service, as well as the challenges he has faced over the years and his long-term predictions for what he believes has become a “sexy” industry.
You pride yourself on being one of the most respected mobility and rehabilitation specialists in the UK. How have you built that reputation?
I think it’s about being very professional and not trying to sell the most expensive item that makes the most profit because that’ll come back to haunt you. Basically, it’s a case of when we’re assessing somebody we’re finding the right product that fits a person’s environment, fits them personally and goes into their wheelchair-accessible vehicle, so it ticks all the boxes. I think it’s also about being honest with people. Sometimes it’s better to turn an order away than sell something that doesn’t meet a person’s expectations. You’ve got to be honest to get the repeat business and I think people appreciate that. I think that’s probably why we’ve done so well and won so many awards over the years for customer service. Without customers, we don’t have a business.
Your children have joined the business as commercial and marketing directors in recent years. Do you still have a hands-on role?
Yes, I do. I suppose my role is more looking at the day-to-day running of issues that come up, looking at new products, looking at distribution rights, developing the company in a different direction and utilising my years of experience. I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire because I have a passion for what I do. However, somewhere down the line, someone’s got to take the baton to the next stage. Unfortunately, in this industry, there’s an awful lot of businesses that are really, really good, but they don’t have an exit plan. They leave everything to the last minute and then they find out that, actually, they are the company and it’s not the business that is the company. We’ve developed our business so that if I wasn’t here, it would still run, so we’re not relying on one person being the captain of the ship. It’s Recare, not Richard Holland-Oakes.
Apart from the pandemic, what have been the biggest challenges you have faced since you launched Recare?
I started the business and everybody said that because of the recession, you can use a pro forma invoice. So I had to fund things before I could get paid for it and that was an extremely difficult way of starting. Anybody that says they’re going to start their own business, they’re not only looking at the amount they’re going to invest, but also the salary that they’re not going to get for the next six to 12 months. So having those issues and not knowing if it is going to be successful is quite stressful. So I think the biggest struggle was growing and developing the company without knowing how successful it was going to be.
Customer service is what I’m most proud OF. You could win an award for selling the most chairs, but still provide a lousy service.”
Is Brexit a concern for you going forward, and is it impacting you at the moment?
It has had an impact. There’s not one manufacturer out there that has not had the issue of not having stock, and sometimes it could be one stupid thing that’s stopping a chair from coming over. We’ve been told by one supplier that they can’t get a certain tyre on a chair so they can’t send it, probably for another couple of months. Meanwhile, we’re sitting with tyres on our shelves, so we’ve told them to send the chairs and we’ll fit them with tyres. In some ways, Brexit has had a huge impact because people have been caught with not having enough stock. The whole thing has been a complete disaster and it’s not just in this industry, it’s in every industry.
COVID hasn’t helped the situation because everyone’s cut down on ordering stock, so now you’ve got a six-week wait before it’s going to come over. So it’s been a double whammy really. Some smaller dealers are living hand to mouth – they’ve sold their products and they’ve got nothing to replace it because they’re ordering stuff that they know they probably can’t get for three or four months. Some of the bigger companies have probably thought a little bit further ahead and ordered a few of the same products in advance, but to do that you have to have more finances and if the products turn up together you’ve got somewhere to put them.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
The pandemic has had an impact because as you see the number of cases going up, you think “is it going to shut down again and are we going to get held with loads of stock that we can’t sell because people aren’t coming out to the showrooms?” But I think we’ve been exceptionally lucky as a business. We’ve got two tiers to the market – the less abled market and the specialist market. The less abled market is the elderly people who have just what I call ‘slowed up’, so they want a stair lift, they want a scooter or a manual wheelchair. It’s an aging thing, it’s not necessarily a disability. That’s the market where as soon as everybody had the two injections you started to see people wanting to get out because they’d had enough of it.
Then you’ve got your specialist market for disabled people, which has never stopped because if you’re solely dependent on a power chair and it packs up then you’re stuck. They’re going to phone up and ask even if you can you come out, even its half past five on a Friday afternoon. So we’ve had a few close encounters. But we’ve been really good at being able to cope with them, and we’re not alone because all the other business in the sector have done it as well. So it’s slowed us up, but it’s not stopped us.
Brexit has had a huge impact because people have been caught with not having enough stock. The whole thing has been a complete disaster.”
Moving away from challenges, what have been your greatest achievements over the years?
The greatest achievement was having the Prime Minister [David Cameron] come to open our facility. I even had some manufacturers say to me “how the hell did you do that?” Yes, he was our local MP, but he also had a disabled son and when we asked him to open the facility for us, he came back in 20 minutes and said he would do it. We were told he would only be here for 20 minutes, but he was actually here for 40 minutes in the end, even though he was 10 minutes late. They tried desperately to get him out, but he was really enjoying himself. He was so relaxed talking to disabled people, looking at the ReWalk exoskeleton suit and seeing some of the people who had dog helpers. It was a really good day.
We’ve also won seven or eight customer service awards over that time, and customer service is what I’m most proud of. You could win an award for selling the most chairs, but still provide a lousy service. So I think having customer service awards really says that you’ve made it and other people out there have appreciated what you do.
How have you seen your product range evolve since you started?
The products have evolved because we like looking at new technology and new ways of being able to come up with a solution. We are so specialised, so if you want a moulded seat made onto a certain base with adaptations and environmental controls, we can do that. We’re focused more on clinical services rather than on mobility sales. We’ve got a box containing over three and a half thousand pounds worth of bracketry that enables you to fit anything onto any product and make modifications. There’s not many mobility companies that would invest in that. We’ve also invested in pressure mapping since last year. We have the experience of knowing what’s going on with someone’s seating position, but sometimes you need to convince someone, using evidence on screen, that a product is appropriately shaped to offer the best-seated position.
Sometimes a customer might think that a cushion they’ve had for the last six years is the most uncomfortable thing they have ever sat on, so they’ll try 20 more, but actually the cushion they came in with is giving them the best readings. It might be uncomfortable because of the way it has been set up. Also, if you bring a product out and say “try this” and they get a good reading, it’s not me convincing them, it’s the evidence in front of them that’s giving them the information they need to make a decision. We’ve also invested in a clinic facility here for offering moulded seating, and we’ve got other clinical work that we want to be doing, getting back to my prosthetic and orthotic days.
Have you found that the needs of individuals have become more complex as we’ve come out of lockdown?
Unfortunately, we have lost 10 customers to COVID and I know of three people who have long-term COVID and have become customers of ours as a result. The number of people who have had strokes and who have Parkinson’s and MS are ever increasing and, also, some elderly people who have hibernated over the last 12 months have come out in a worse position than they went in because they haven’t been as active. So when we talk to people to find out what their needs are and you say to them “do you think you’ve got progressively worse over the last 12 months?” 99% of people will say yes, they have. I really do think it’s had an impact and there’s certainly less abled or disabled people than there was prior to this. And of course it’s not over yet – I think we’ll probably be talking about this in three to four years’ time.
What are your ambitions for the company over the next two to three years?
We’ve just started another business called Rebotics Technology, which offers exoskeleton products and neuro products, so anything that’s non-wheel related and more clinically led. We’ve now got the sole rights to support and promote ReWalk in the UK, as well as ExoAtlet, Syrebo neuro hand therapy systems and the Keeogo from B-Temia, which is a smaller exoskeleton suit for people have MS, Parkinson’s, a spinal injury or have had a stroke.
I really think that’s the way technology is moving forward. Yes, there is a cost element to it because it’s expensive, but so were calculators and phones years ago. Things have moved on, and this will move on in time. You’ve got to start somewhere. Speaking from an able-bodied person’s point of view, what I’ve learned over the last 40 years is that you’ll never fully understand what is going through a disabled person’s mind. To be able to walk for 50 years or more and then, suddenly, you’re not able to walk, the psychological effect is incredible. All disabled people want to do is stand and walk. So I think that’s where the robotics market is going to have an impact and we’re only at the tip of it at the moment.
The prosthetics and orthotic joints that are out there are changing people’s lives. We work with Ottobock and they are so supportive of Paralympic sports because it gives people the opportunities that weren’t there 30 to 40 years ago. If you look at mobility now, it’s become quite a sexy industry and it’s started to have a lot of street cred. You’ve got people that have an amputee above the knee and they’re showing off their £100,000 worth of prosthesis like it’s the keys to their Bentley. Nobody tries to cover anything up anymore and people want to have that cool factor.
The NHS do a fantastic job to meet clinical needs, but they can’t meet everybody’s needs. What they could do is utilise their funding with a personal wheelchair budget to help give people the products that they want, as long as they meet their clinical need. When people go into Specsavers, they don’t want NHS glasses, they want to have something that looks smart, and that’s what’s going to happen with mobility. There’s nothing wrong with what the NHS provide, but sometimes they are very institutional because they’ve got a budget to meet.
People are looking on the internet now, wanting something that looks cooler and the NHS can’t fund that, but they can help towards it and that’s the way forward for the disability side of the sector.