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THE BIG INTERVIEW: TPG DisableAids managing director Alastair Gibbs

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In an exclusive interview with Access Mobility Professional, Alastair Gibbs, managing director of TPG DisableAids, reflects on a 30-year career dedicated to enabling vulnerable people to live fulfilling lives.

He discusses the greatest challenges he has faced, including delivering essential services during the pandemic, his thoughts on online retail and his immediate concerns for the mobility sector.

Gibbs also talks about his passion for raising standards in the industry and how his new training academy is creating a workforce fit for the future.

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Alastair Gibbs, managing director of TPG DisableAids

You’ve worked at TPG for 30 years now, joining your dad full time in 1990. How have your choice of mobility products evolved since then?

They’ve changed dramatically. When my father and I first started selling mobility product it was very much function over form. It was almost agricultural in its nature and it was very clumsy and heavy. All of the batteries we used were wet lead acid batteries so when we first bought a product we’d have to go to the local supplier and get the batteries filled with acid. They’re horrid things that gassed and smelled and they would fuse all over the place. The product itself had virtually no adjustments – it was just one size fits all.

Thankfully we’ve moved on a long, long way from that now and it’s very much more focused in giving a trouble-free user experience with a lot of products. The technology has certainly improved the experience for the user. It’s improved the manoeuvrability, the transportability and the aesthetics. We’re certainly considering how good something looks, rather than just how well it performs, so it’s a far more complete package now.

I wouldn’t be at all worried if this industry became regulated because it will then at least provide some minimum standards that must be met.

Apart from the pandemic, what are the biggest challenges you have faced during your career?

I think the biggest challenge has been recruiting the right staff, and most employers will tell you exactly the same. This industry, in its raw terms, is engineering, so it’s about putting machines together, taking them apart, servicing them and installing them. However, it has to be done with empathy. The type of engineer that perhaps works on a building site, while they are very skillful with their hands, don’t necessarily have that skill of interacting with our type of end user, which are often elderly or vulnerable people. So it’s always been incredibly difficult to find the right skill set with an individual that is prepared to take on board the sense of responsibility that we have.

That said, some of our guys have been with us 22 years and they absolutely get it. The satisfaction of providing a solution and making a significant difference to somebody’s day-to-day life, and the gratitude that you get for doing it, is worth far more than money.

Do you have any immediate concerns for the mobility sector?

The one thing that worries is me is the increasing prevalence of lithium ion batteries. As a distributor of the mobility product that’s starting to use this lithium-ion battery technology, we need to know what we’re going to do when it comes to the end of its life.

I’ve contacted a whole number of factory suppliers and recycling disposal companies and it is a major problem that they really don’t have an affordable answer to at the moment.

One recycling company said they would take the lithum-ion battery, but they’d charge me £100 to dispose of one scooter battery. Who’s going to pay for that? As much as I love my customers, I don’t see that as my responsibility, so clearly I’m going to end up charging that to a customer. My worry is that the customer might say ‘we’ll dispose of it ourselves’ and they’ll try to hide it in the dustbin or throw it down the local waste site, which is both illegal and very dangerous, with the risk of a thermal runway.

It’s still possible to do the installations during the pandemic and, of course, it’s really important that we do because the alternative is not very attractive.

How can the sector overcome that challenge?

The only recycling plant that is currently available in the whole of Europe is in Belgium. There is not any recycling plant in the UK and there’s currently no other method of actually dealing with them at all in this country. If we can demonstrate a commercial need for it then potentially recycling companies will invest to be able to do that because there is some really expensive components within a lithium-ion battery.

Cobalt, which is currently mined in only one country in the whole world, has a scrap value at the moment of £34,000 pounds a tonne. It’s massive, but you’ve got to find a way to recover it, so therein lies the problem – is somebody going to invest in the technology to be able to do that?

I think there’s a there’s a grave danger that those that end up with one or two batteries in their store won’t know what to do with them or will realise that to do it properly, morally, ethically and legally is very expensive right now.

Lithium ion can explode, there’s no question about it. The waste industry classifies this as extremely hazardous waste, so it’s not even just hazardous, it’s extremely hazardous. If we were to transport it, for example, it has to be in a fire retardant container and completely encased in vermiculite, which is a fireproof material that goes all around the battery. So there are lots of regulations.

Reflecting back on your career, you started as a jack of all trades. As managing director, do you miss the selling, installing and repairing of products?

Absolutely. That face-to-face contact and the walking into a house where somebody’s been sleeping in the dining room for the last two or three years…you go into the house and you install a stair lift and, all of a sudden, the house is reinstated to twice the size. They can go to their bedroom and they can use the bathroom – the things we take for granted – and it has a massive impact. I miss their faces when that happens. It’s a very satisfying industry for all of those that do it well.

One of my biggest regrets, looking at the industry as a whole, is that there’s rather too many businesses that come into the industry thinking that it’s a very easy and straightforward business to be in. There’s no qualifications required and so any bloke that’s got a pocket full of money can come in and buy a few stair lifts and go and start installing them. That’s when corners are cut. If you sell a wheelchair, let’s say, to somebody without assessing them properly and getting the measurements right, you can cause all sorts of untold damage, including positional damage and pressure sores, if you don’t really know what you are doing.

I think that’s criminal because they carry on regardless and take their profit. I wouldn’t be at all worried if this industry became regulated because it will then at least provide some minimum standards that must be met to enter the industry. It will upset a lot of existing people in this marketplace, but those that are upset have either got something to hide or don’t want to go to the effort to be audited correctly.

Time and time again, when we pick up maintenance contracts, we see badly installed equipment that should never have been left in those conditions, but there’s no law that stops that from happening. There’s not even a local authority minimum standard requirement. That’s probably why I’m a big supporter of the BHTA because it encourages improved standards and raising the bar, but what it can’t do is force that issue.

It’s a requirement for businesses in this sector to make sure somebody is going to be safe while they’re using our products, so how on earth can you do that at a distance?

You now have your own training academy to encourage high standards in the sector…

Yes and I think that was one of my attempts to try and correct that issue around regulation. I became increasingly aware that we were growing as a company and, actually, it was costing a lot of money to send my staff off to various places around the UK to get them trained. Also, the hotels where they did the courses were never really conducive to good training. So I decided a better way to do it was to train them here. I was very fortunate in that I was able to acquire the building next door to where we normally trade and converted one room into a conference centre and another into a training room with all the right equipment. That was in 2006.

So the manufacturers started coming to us and train two to three people at a time. That works well and continues to work well. We then became aware that some home care staff were visiting people’s homes and using and lifting equipment in an unsafe manner. So we started running lifting and handling courses for home care agencies.

That progressed to the point where we now do ROSPA level three training, so we can actually train home care agencies to train one or two individuals to the very highest standard that will then enable them to immediately cascade that information on.

On top of that, I’ve had conversations with the Disabled Living Foundation and we now run trusted assessor courses. So, again, what I’m trying to do is raise the standards within the industry.

Have you been able to continue to train people during the pandemic?

Absolutely. The numbers are much more limited though. In normal circumstances we can get 12 people in the training room and we’re now restricting that to four. Some candidates already know each other or are from the same bubble. So, if they are from a nursing home, for instance, the chances are they already work together. But they still have to wear full PPE and we make sure that they follow social distancing guidelines. The training is delivered in such a way that candidates get a full understanding of what they have learned. There is an exam at the end and this is sent off for third-party auditing, so there’s no hiding.

I’m concerned for the industry that we’re nearly a year into this pandemic and there are mobility companies still relying upon furloughing staff.

The main focus of your business is to enable vulnerable people to live fulfilling lives. How have you been able to maintain that level of service during the pandemic, when it comes to installing and maintaining equipment?

That’s involved a significant amount of work and it slows down the process considerably. When we first book the appointments we’re having to make sure that the end user has no symptoms and ask whether they are shielding or isolating. We do that before we do the measurements and before we get the go-ahead to install. On the days of the installation, we make sure that the customer stays well away from our engineers, but, of course, our engineers still have to wear the full PPE. They also clean everything before they start, install the machine and then clean it down again.

The instructions for using the equipment are then done at a distance and there are ways that this can be done through videos and things. It’s still possible to do the installations and, of course, it’s really important that we do because the alternative is not very attractive. If somebody is desperately in need of a stair lift, let’s say, the risk is that if they don’t have it installed they could fall down the stairs and end up with a broken neck, or they may have to move into a nursing home where the incidence of COVID is even greater. So they’re better off staying at home with the appropriate equipment to enable them to live safely.

So the processing goes on, but it takes longer. It’s adding an hour or two to every installation we make and, of course, we can’t charge any more for the extra time. So it’s a little bit tough at the moment.

Moving onto the subject of retail, online seems to be a huge growth area right now, especially since the start of the pandemic. How well do you feel mobility products sit in this position?

It doesn’t. It’s something I’ve campaigned long and hard against. I have absolutely no problem with small aids being sold online as they are relatively low value and they’re not going to have a negative impact on somebody’s life if they get the wrong one. However, a wheelchair or scooter absolutely is going to have an impact on somebody’s life if it’s the wrong size, the wrong shape, has the wrong pressure relieving abilities and the wrong geometry.

It’s a requirement for businesses in this sector to make sure somebody is going to be safe while they’re using our products, so how on earth can you do that at a distance? I just don’t get it. You can’t expect a delivery driver to drop a scooter off and say “83 year-old Doris came and collected it and she wasn’t too sure how it went together, but she’ll be fine”. She might be completely blind in one eye or deaf. You can’t sell product like that.

We absolutely insist on seeing the end user first, even if it’s only a modicum of an assessment to make sure they’re not going to endanger the lives of pedestrians. A scooter weighs around 150 kilos and even if it’s only travelling at dour miles an hour it can break somebody’s leg. I wouldn’t want to be contributing to that. So I will refuse a sale rather than allow somebody to have something that’s dangerous. 

I need to make sure the business is always ready for whatever comes its way, whether it’s an acquisition or a merger, I can’t ignore any of those possible opportunities.

What do you make of the support the government has shown to retailers, and mobility retailers in particular, during the pandemic?

I think the assistance with business rates and furloughing staff has been very welcome, although we’ve only furloughed people that really needed to shield and we’ve had plenty of work for others all the way through. I’m concerned for the industry that we’re nearly a year into this pandemic and there are mobility companies still relying upon furloughing staff. If they’re still having to furlough staff, how viable is that business?

However, as I said earlier, it does take us significantly longer to do some of the work because of COVID restrictions and we are not getting any financial help for that. We also had to pay a lot of money for PPE, which added to our overheads, so some assistance with that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. Having said that, we’ve got a huge debt as a nation and it’s not my place to be adding to that debt unnecessarily. Every single industry is going to have to pull together to get ourselves out of this and that’s going to be painful, so let’s not increase that pain by digging a bigger hole. 

How have you prepared for Brexit, and how do you think this will affect your business going forward, in terms of supplies?

As a whole, Brexit shouldn’t really have been an issue because we’re not directly importing product from other countries – we’re buying it from companies that retail it in the UK. So we wanted to make sure they had sufficient stock holdings and we did increase our stock holdings of the popular products quite extensively.

But I gather that this is not just a Brexit issue – there is a worldwide shipping problem as well. I’ve got anecdotal evidence of transport companies raising their costs so high that they’re trading for the biggest bidder. I’m looking at multiplications of 20 times the cost to get containers unloaded into UK ports and that is just not sustainable. I spoke to an importer the other day who brings in barbecues in from Australia. They were paying $900 for a container and it’s now $21,000 for that same container. I’m afraid that’s going to happen in the powered wheelchair market as well. We’ve become over reliant upon manufacturing in other parts of the world, even if it’s only component manufacturing.

The marketplace isn’t interested in spending that sort of money just for the sake of bringing it on a container from elsewhere. So, in the long-term, I think it’s going to improve the opportunities for British business and British-built product.

However, Brexit and COVID has come together to be the perfect storm. One or the other by themselves would be so much more manageable. If you had a similar conversation with an importer of mobility scooters, I’m sure they are currently pulling their hair out.

I’m responsible for 50-odd staff and that means I’m responsible for 50-odd families who have mortgages to pay for, so it’s important to me that I can give them stability.

Do you worry about your business going forward?

Ultimately, no, because the demand isn’t going to go away. People will always get old and they will always get ill. We provide for a whole range of settings and have a very broad range of products. Sometimes you think “oh my word, we do everything”, but actually, that’s a good thing. Mobility right now is a really tough business because a lot of people are in lockdown and they’re not considering how they get outside and be mobile – they just want to stay indoors and stay safe. We are very fortunate in that the mix of products, including stair lifts, hoisting equipment, mattresses, and not all sectors have become suppressed and subdued at the same time.

What are your future ambitions for TPG DisableAids over the next five years?

My passion is still to make sure that I increase and improve the standards within the industry. At the same time, I’m also increasingly aware that you can’t stand still, otherwise you get swallowed up. So we’re always going to be looking at ways in which we can improve our offering in the way in which perhaps my parents would want it to be offered to them. There needs to be a more mainstream offering that perhaps can prevent some of our expensive NHS costs. So I certainly would always be looking for innovative product and I will always try my best to work with as many suppliers as I can to help them with their research and development.

As far as the business is concerned, I think I always need to have an eye on the future. I’m not indestructible and COVID has proven that to us all. I need to make sure the business is always ready for whatever comes its way, whether it’s an acquisition or a merger, I can’t ignore any of those possible opportunities. I’m responsible for 50-odd staff and that means I’m responsible for 50-odd families who have mortgages to pay for, so it’s important to me that I can give them that stability and that there’s a job to be done if they do it to the best of their ability. Playing loose with other people’s lives is not an option. So stability and long-term growth is really what we’re looking for.

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Sarah Clarke

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