360 Wheelchairs Ryan Hirst walking with colleagues
Ryan Hirst (pictured left) has launched his new company, 360 Wheelchairs, with the aim of bringing a new retail model to the market

A 180 turn to create 360 Wheelchairs

For many, the idea of leaving behind the security of a senior role in one of the largest mobility suppliers to launch a new start-up would prove a difficult decision, let alone deciding to do it just after starting a family. For Ryan Hirst, however, it was the arrival of his first daughter that cemented the decision to forge a new path. The former Sunrise Medical executive and his wife established 360 Wheelchairs, their own ‘mini- dealership’ centring around the idea of dealer collaboration, just weeks before the pandemic outbreak. THIIS caught up with Ryan to learn more about the new business, its innovative model and how it survived the coronavirus lockdown.

Well-known across the industry, Ryan is a familiar face to many after spending eight years with Sunrise Medical. Joining the giant wheelchair supplier as a product manager, it wasn’t long before he found his feet and his passion for the mobility industry.

“With wheelchairs, it is interesting because you have so much going on and there are so many idiosyncrasies and options that can transform the product for the user. As a product guy, that always appealed to me,” he recounts.

“I also liked how relatively small and welcoming the industry is – you get to know everybody and over the last eight years, I have had the opportunity to meet hundreds of people who are doing great things in the industry.

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“I remember in my first week with Sunrise, I was at a launch event for the Quickie Jive and did not know a soul. At lunch, Barbara Byrom from Gerald Simonds invited me over and we had a lovely chat about her kids, her background, the history between Sunrise and Gerald Simonds and it was great. There are so many friendly and welcoming people who work in this industry like her and coming from the world of IT distribution industry, mobility was a breath of fresh air.”

Charmed by the customers, dealers and the sector’s “feel-good factor”, Ryan decided to make mobility his permanent home and worked his way up the ladder of Sunrise until eventually heading up its sales and marketing division.

“We have such lean overheads and we only have to turn over so much which enables us to have more freedom to pass over referrals, rather than move into areas where we are not experts.” Ryan Hirst

New father, new goals, new business

Ryan and Jackie Hirst 360 Wheelchairs
Trading corporate security for valuable family time

Climbing the corporate ladder is many people’s professional ambition, however, the arrival of his baby daughter in July 2019 prompted Ryan to change the course of his career.

“To do my job at Sunrise properly, it required me to be away two to three nights a week,” he explains.

“My father was in the army and he spent a lot of time away from home and that is not something I wanted for myself and my family. I want to be around for my kids and I don’t want everything to fall onto my wife so I decided the time was right to set up my own business.”

Leaving the corporate world behind to focus on supporting his new family, the popular industry veteran launched 360 Wheelchairs with his wife Jackie in February 2020.

For many, the decision to forgo the safety and security inherent with working for a large company in favour of founding an uncertain start-up may be extremely difficult to reconcile. Ryan, on the other hand, views the situation differently.

“We’ve left the safety nest of an employed job but our expectations are different in regards to what we earn. The trade-off is that I am around more and we have more time together as a family,” he says.

“Once we were able to resolve the financial aspects, the decision was not that difficult. When I look back, the important thing is that I want to have been around as a father and that’s really what it is all about.

“By working hard and generating our bit of business, we’ll be able to afford to get by while still having the potential to be successful. There are still many different avenues and services that are underdeveloped in the industry.”

A 360 approach to wheelchair provision

It is these unexplored services that the new mobility boss hopes will set his business apart.

With his partner Jackie handling the accounts and administration, Ryan is focusing on what he knows best: wheelchairs.

Using his skills and knowledge in lead generation, marketing and wheelchair provision acquired during his time working with dealers up and down the UK, the family company is specialising in manual and powered wheelchairs.

Based from the family home, 360 Wheelchairs generates prescriptive wheelchair leads which it personally handles or passes on to dealers via a referral scheme. In addition, it actively approaches medical-legal customers such as case managers who manage funding for their clients.

“Those are the three main ins really,” says Ryan.

“Also, because we have such a lean infrastructure, without a shop or staff to worry about, it means we can invest more time and energy into our clients and can afford to pass on a lot of our qualified leads.”

Ryan and Jackie Hirst 360 Wheelchairs
Supported with his wife Jackie, former Sunrise Medical exec Ryan Hirst is bringing a new dealership concept to the private wheelchair market

Working with clients

For the clients that 360 Wheelchairs works with, Ryan says he tries to deliver a service that is as comprehensive and extensive as possible to ensure the chair they choose completely meets all of their needs.

“Our introductory calls are enquiry calls and they can last a couple of hours quite easily. I take my time so that we get to know each other and I get a clear picture of the customers’ goals, objectives and needs,” he describes.

“I’m sure this is nothing new and many dealers are doing this already but, from my experience, it is working really well.”

Visiting his clients’ homes to conduct the assessments, Ryan explains that he takes a holistic approach to the assessment process to build a comprehensive understanding of the client’s life and personal circumstances.

“The assessments we do are extensive and it is easy to talk about ‘time’ because it is the easiest metric to bring it back to but I have done assessments that have lasted four to five hours because we try to cover all the bases,” he continues.

“It can be what car do they drive or what car do they expect to purchase in the future, transitions between different thresholds, activities & hobbies and even what shoes do they wear. It all helps build a complete picture so we can find the chair that ticks all those boxes.”

“I would say one of the things that I am very good at is knowing what I am not very good at!” Ryan Hirst

Working around coronavirus

Delivering this level of assessment has become a far more complex challenge, admits Ryan, since the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown.

At the start of the outbreak, the company paused its assessments to try and find a way of continuing to provide its services to clients whilst keeping himself and his customers safe. And, unlike other sectors of the mobility industry, videoconferencing was not a viable alternative.

“Fundamentally, I disagree with virtual assessments for prescriptive wheelchairs as you need to be able to feel and understand your client’s posture,” maintains Ryan.

His solution: “PPE and common sense!”

“Initially, we did nothing in the way of assessments,” he notes.

“Then, as the lockdown began to ease and we had the correct PPE, we did a handful of appointments. The weather also helped as it meant that I could talk to our clients in their gardens and keep a safe distance.

“I would then don the full PPE when measuring up and conducting their environmental assessment. This has worked well and meant that we have still managed to generate some revenue.”

Out of the crisis, Ryan says that he has found new ways of working with clients that he will continue long after coronavirus has gone.

“The sanitation process for the chairs and the constant cleaning is more hygienic and makes sense to continue past COVID. I also think the move to latex gloves is probably something I will stick with when measuring someone as I think it just feels a bit more professional for both parties,” he reflects.

“I think there is a lot to be learnt beyond this too and I certainly haven’t known anyone to have a common cold during this time!”

Dealer to dealer cooperation

Stressing that he has no ambitions to take over the retail world, Ryan says his dealer operation is centred around the idea of being small and manageable, allowing him to work with a limited number of clients and passing qualified leads over to dealers in a win-win scenario

“There have already been instances where I’ve felt I haven’t got suitable products to meet a client’s needs so we have referred them on to other people,” he says,

“We have such lean overheads and we only have to turn over so much which enables us to have more freedom to pass over referrals, rather than move into areas where we are not experts.”

Playing to his strengths

Having worked with key Sunrise Medical manual and powered wheelchair ranges over the years, Ryan is playing to his strengths and sticking to the chairs he knows best.

“When I first started at Sunrise, I was the manual wheelchair product specialist so my fallback is that I know those models inside and out,” he emphasises.

“On the powerchair side, I did cover that as a product specialist for some time and launched new products in that segment for years but I would say when it comes to specialist programming and specialist controls, I am certainly not an expert.”

Specifically, Ryan is working with Sunrise’s active manual and powered Q-Series range (excluding special controls, Sedeo Ergo & Up), as well as the supplier’s seating products.

“There are product ranges that I see as a necessity to bring on board,” he continues.

“You can’t sell an active user chair without selling the add-on attachments these days, be it add-on bikes or drive supports, so I have already sat down with some people in the industry to explore bringing add-ons to our offering.”

In the instances where the products or knowledge required is out of 360 Wheelchair’s field of expertise, Ryan plans to pass those clients on to dealers that can best meet the individual’s needs.

“I would say one of the things that I am very good at is knowing what I am not very good at!” he points out.

“Fortunately, I have met and worked with a lot of dealers over the years who are exceptional at programming special controls, setting up specialist chairs or have more knowledge in specific areas, such as standing chairs or chairs for 24-hour care.

“It makes a lot more sense trying to work with, rather than trying to compete against, experts like Recare,  Wheelfreedom, Motus, Lifestyle & Mobility and Better Mobility who are already phenomenal at what they do in the complex-end of the market.

“So, for areas where my knowledge and skills are still developing, I will be working with other dealers through referrals who I know are the experts ins certain fields.”

Ryan and Jackie Hirst 360 Wheelchairs
360’s referral scheme aims to bring a ‘win-win’ element to dealer-to-dealer interaction

Picking up referrals

Alongside generating and passing leads over, the company is also available to pick up leads from retailers that may already have too many clients or may not have an expertise in the prescriptive-end of the wheelchair market.

“For those dealers already working in the prescriptive space who may already be working with a case manager network, they may see the value in being able to refer that business on to me if it is off their patch but they still want to maintain the relationship with the case manager,” suggest Ryan.

“Whereas for those retailers that operate at the more lifestyle end of the market, we can offer our services via a referral commission scheme, through training, or even a white-label service.”

New ways to collaborate

In particular, Ryan highlights that for retailers where this complex-side of the market is more foreign and they may have to traditionally rely on a manufacturer’s support or pass the opportunity up, 360 Wheelchairs can help.

“We can work with retailers by having me come in and help train staff so they can better qualify leads and maximise their lead generation. It is something I have experience doing across many national retailers I worked with during my time at Sunrise,” he continues.

“There are smaller dealerships out there that find they are constantly having people come in for riser recliners and associated products but they are not generating wheelchair enquiries as they do not feel confident to do so. I would love to help them from a training aspect and a fulfilment aspect after that.”

“When I look back, the important thing is that I want to have been around as a father and that’s really what it is all about.” Ryan Hirst

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown, this collaborative approach to working together may be an attractive prospect, particularly if extended Wheelchair Services waiting times prompts an increase in people turning to the private market for their chairs instead.

Also, with many dealers keeping staff on furlough as demand slowly returns to the private wheelchair sector, Ryan points out that he can help provide quick additional resource for short-handed companies.

“I can offer other dealers a white label service where I can go out and conduct a full assessment and hand over under the guise of their dealership,” he notes.

“I can see this being helpful for them whilst they are trying to find the clutch point between bringing staff back whilst they are tracking behind their forecasted revenue.”

Championing cooperation

Often, the addition of a new dealer to the mobility landscape spells out ‘opposition’ to others in the sector, however, Ryan is keen to emphasise that his business model focusses on cooperation rather than competition.

“Importantly, I do not see other dealers as competition because we are not a typical dealership,” he elaborates.

“It’s just me, my van and my workshop servicing a handful of clients and passing leads on to others. I do not see these being opposing so hopefully we can generate enough leads to make our business viable.”

Interestingly, referral schemes and dealer training are something more often associated with suppliers. With formal dealer-to- dealer arrangements less usual, Ryan hopes his concept will take off, changing the more tribal aspects of the mobility retail sector.

“From a services perspective and bringing people together, it may be a challenge trying to get people to understand what we are trying to do,” he admits.

“I know people have had discussions about the things we are doing before but I do not think anyone has put together a proper referral scheme and formal processes in place.

“I hope people see the value in it and how it can benefit them but I know it may take some convincing. Fortunately, there are companies that have already helped me and support what I am doing – they have been great friends through the transition.”

Partnering with third-parties

Ryan’s collaborative approach to business does not stop at working with other dealers. The entrepreneur is also working with another former Sunrise executive and OT, John Fitzpatrick.

An expert in the field of wheelchairs, John previously worked for the mobility manufacturer as an area sales manager before creating his own company, Silverfern Therapy.

“John can provide something that I don’t do and can’t do,” explains Ryan.

“He runs a company providing independent Clinical Assessments focused on postural aspects and a full prognosis of each client and their full medical history to substantiate a product offering which is clinically justified.”

Delivering a valuable clinical string to 360 Wheelchairs’ bow, John can provide third-party sign-off for funding and provide important Expert Witness services and clinical advice – all essential for 360 Wheelchairs, medical-legal work.

“It comes back to the idea of collaboration and knowing who are the experts in the industry,” continues Ryan.

“As an OT, John has been in the industry for 18 years and worked in a Wheelchairs Services, for a distributor, for a manufacturer and now as an independent OT.”

In addition, Ryan points out he has a master’s degree in ergonomics so, from a wheelchair advisory and clinical expertise perspective, his credentials are exceptional.

“Working together makes a lot of sense,” he emphasises.

“He wants to use his skills and knowledge in more of a clinical advice capacity without having to necessarily sell wheelchairs and maintain them afterwards, which is our area of expertise.

“With each wheelchair we sell, we offer a three-year aftercare package which is the delivery of the business. The assessment and handover are just the start of the journey; delivering that aftercare afterwards is our core.”

360 Wheelchairs Krypton
Ryan is sticking to what he knows best: Prescriptive wheelchairs from Sunrise Medical

Staying positive during the pandemic

Launching a new business just weeks before a once-in-a-century global pandemic is, objectively, bad luck for any entrepreneur.

According to the ever-positive mini-dealership boss, however, he says the lockdown strengthened his resolve to make 360 Wheelchairs a success.

“I had the opinion that 360 Wheelchairs had to work because there wasn’t going to be any other options in terms of finding a job,” stresses Ryan.

“Also, without sounding insensitive, my ultimate objective was to spend more time with my daughter and help my pregnant wife which, by default, happened.”

Putting the situation in perspective, Ryan says that he counts himself lucky that his experience throughout lockdown has not been as difficult as it has for so many others.

“We are lucky. We had already planned to have a quiet few months and all of our family are in good health (and still are),” he contends.

“There are so many people in the UK and globally that have had to live through a nightmare because of this: those that have lost their lives without their loved ones around them, the doctors and nurses that have busted a gut to care for people, and those that have been confined to solitary throughout this.

“We are lucky to have each other at home and lucky to have amazing weather through this because there are many who have not had such luxuries.”

A new normal for wheelchair dealers?

It remains to be seen if the pandemic is the spark that ignites a collaboration revolution in the private wheelchair market. As the sector starts the long road to recovery, however, Ryan’s ‘win-win’ approach may chime with those currently working in, or looking to move into, the prescriptive wheelchair space.

And, with the coronavirus outbreak having disrupted the usual ways of working across almost every sector imaginable, now may be the perfect time for 360 Wheelchairs’ concept of dealer collaboration and cooperation to enter the marketplace.

Working with 360 Wheelchairs

For dealers interested in working with 360 Wheelchairs or keen to find out about its different services, be it the referral scheme, training, marketing support, white-label support and more, contact Ryan Hirst on 0330 380 1411 or email info@360wheelchairs.com

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