Retailer Spotlight: Disability Trading Company
Putting ethics at the forefront of retail
When Dave Thompson MBE DL broke his neck during a game of American Football in 1989, his world changed and he was introduced into the world of disability and mobility. Founding the Warrington Information Group for the Disabled in 1991, he would go on to provide disabled people locally and globally with life-changing access to information, advice, guidance and products. Dave discussed with THIIS his introduction to the industry, his approach to ethical retail through the Disability Trading Company and his thoughts for the future.
Can you tell us a bit more about your background; what inspired you to get involved in the mobility industry?
Prior to my accident, I had been a partner in a retail and wholesale business. Following the accident however, I went to a Social Services Day Centre for young disabled people. I lost the business I was running and had to hand it over to my business partner.
I decided however, that flower arranging and basket weaving was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so whilst going to the day centre, I signed up at college to do a Diploma in Social Work.
My introduction to the world of disability and mobility in July 1989 wasn’t a particularly pleasant one. The first wheelchair I was provided from the NHS was a real heavy-duty, cumbersome, Everest & Jennings one arm drive wheelchair and I had to wait two and half years for adaptations to be made to my home.
From there, I went on to purchase my first wheelchair. It was a Quickie wheelchair and the interesting thing was how it was sold to me. The guy who came out to see me brought with him a model that was completely wrong for my needs.
At 6ft 7”, I am a big buy, but the salesman brought a child’s size chair! I was confronted by the salesman saying ‘do you want a chair like this?’ and I was thinking I do, but I would have liked to try it. He insisted on a cheque for £1,600 before placing the order, and I waited nearly 6 months before it was delivered in a box, with no set up, no handover. Of course, nowadays, that kind of situation would never happen, so it really shows how the industry has developed.
What was the inspiration behind the Warrington Disability Partnership?
With the internet, it has become very easy to get hold of information today but back in the late eighties and early nineties, the climate was very different and finding information was a lot more difficult.
Back then, there weren’t any mobility retailers operating in the area I lived in. Occasionally, one would pop into the day centre and bring in new products to show us, or, if the Wheelchair Services or Home Loan Department had somebody working there with an interest in new equipment, then that was the only way to find out about new equipment.
I found the services provided were really quite poor back then.
In 1991, we had an opportunity to set up a small group at the Dallam Day Centre. There were three of us: Eric Shaw, Alan James and me. We became the Warrington Information Group for the Disabled.
It started off purely from an information, advice and guidance point of view as we developed a database of accessible pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, doctors’ surgeries and other services which people could use.
The staff in the day centre thought it was just a little project that we were doing that would give us a little therapy. Never would they have guessed that we were building the foundations of what we are today, the Warrington Disability Partnership.
I also worked in the NHS from 1995 till 2015, finishing my career as an Associate Director, throughout which time I continued to chair the Charity and only stood down after I retired from the NHS and successfully applied for the post as Chief Executive of Warrington Disability Partnership and Disability Trading Company.
How did the Warrington Disability Partnership develop over the years?
In its infancy, we started off just offering a telephone helpline and face to face meetings at the Day Centre, before gradually moving over into the world of access. My Dad was a builder so I had been reading building plans from the age of nine. We started advising on designs inside and outside the town.
As part of my social work course I wrote a paper on Information as a Key to Independent Living. The paper ended up in the hands of the Department of Health in 1991 who invited me to Brussels to present the paper. From this came 47 invitations to visit hospitals and social services around Europe, including Denmark, Sweden, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Finland and more, looking at rehabilitation facilities and discovering some of the best equipment in the world, especially from Scandinavia.
That is when I came across a project in Northern Jutland, Denmark, which was what we would call today a Centre for Independent Living. I came back and that was the model of what I wanted to build in Warrington. We changed our name in 1992 to the Warrington Disability Information Services and we just grew from there.
Over the years, we continued to develop more services, including our Shopmobility and the Disability Sports Forum and in 2003, we combined them together to form the Warrington Disability Partnership.
Today we employ nearly 50 paid staff, 230 volunteers and deliver 27 services to over 2000 disabled individuals each week. We are proud to say that 85 percent of our staff at the Charity and over 90 percent of our volunteers are disabled people, from amputees to people with spinal injuries and hearing impairment.
The growth of the Charity has been very organic and it is something that I was doing in my business before the accident, growing at a sustainable rate. Everything we have done and everything we continue to do today is very methodically thought out and we fill the gaps where health and social care leave them. We work closely with health and social care in developing new services.
Can you tell me more about your social enterprise, the Disability Trading Company?
We first launched the Disability Trading Company back in 2011 and really, it came about from hearing a speech about the Transforming Community Services model which I had come across whilst chairing an NAEP conference. I came back inspired, and soon found backing from our board of trustees and health and social care leaders who saw the benefits of us launching a social enterprise; one which would ultimately benefit their clients and patients, as well as helping to sustain the Charity.
I suppose we were helped by media stories about disabled people being charged astronomical prices or sold the wrong equipment. It was not so much from the local suppliers but mainly from one or two of the national companies who had no connectivity to local communities.
Fortunately, with the help of the British Health Trades Association, the industry has really started to clamp down on that kind of behaviour, although I do think more could be done by the BHTA to promote themselves as the ABTA style watchdog of the mobility and independent living equipment sector.
In the early days when our Centre for Independent Living was simply a showroom, we often found visitors only needed a bath board or something of that nature, costing £18 – £20. But as we weren’t able to sell them the equipment, we had to give them a list of local retailers, which meant them spending more money to travel to buy one.
It felt wrong that people, especially some on tight budgets, were having to spend more finding out and picking up what aid they needed than what the aid itself was actually worth.
I put to the Board and the Trustees the idea of developing an ethical, values-based trading company that would be owned and operated by the Charity. Once agreed, we spent about seven months modelling it and then sat down with our health and social care funders who loved it. From there, Disability Trading Company started and we have never looked back.
How has the Disabled Trading Company grown over the past seven years?
The first retail space we set up was at the Centre of Independent Living in Warrington and from there, it started to grow, before eventually opening up a showroom in the large, local, Golden Square shopping centre in 2011.
Liverpool City Council and Liverpool Health loved the model and wanted us to work with a local charity in Liverpool to develop something similar. The Council however, could not find another charity with the skills and experience, so invited us to run their Disabled Living Centre in the Lifehouse on Brunswick Dock Liverpool back in 2012, which has become our third Mobility & Independent Living Store.
Additionally, we had a small mobility workshop and service centre at our Centre for Independent Living, which we used to maintain our own equipment as the Charity had a fleet of over 300 wheelchairs that would be loaned out, as well as 80 pieces of equipment in our Shopmobility service
During the £1.4 million refurbishment of the Centre in 2008, we doubly extended the workshop and service centre, providing us with the opportunity to take on more work, including warranty and maintenance contracts, local Shopmobility services, private industry and the local hospitals.
We feel “community engagement” has played a major factor in aiding our development. Last year we attended 155 local and regional events and meetings, promoting our services at every opportunity to around 220,000 people. Our Disability Awareness Day, which we have been running for 26 years, now attracts over 24,000 visitors from across the UK.
What is it that makes the Disabled Trading Company different to other retailers?
All in all, the whole retail arm of the charity is a bit like the British Heart Foundation or one of the other big, national charities, which has its retail arm and invests all profits back into the charity.
The Disability Trading Company is wholly owned by the Warrington Disability Partnership, so it has no shareholders and none of our staff work on a commission basis. Rather, they are all on a good, basic salary, which means they can remain completely impartial and do not have to turn each individual who walks through the door into a sale waiting to be converted.
We operate on set profit margin with no gimmicks, just straightforward good prices, backed up by great customer service.
What do you feel is the benefit of being a social enterprise for your customers?
Again, just like the Charity, the Disability Trading Company is built on the ethos of information, advice and guidance. Sales really comes fourth.
It is warming to be able to witness our staff trying to do the best by the person in need. There have been quite a few times that I have witnessed our staff talk somebody out of buying a bit of equipment because it isn’t really what they need.
A perfect example is about 18 months ago when one of our staff was helping a woman with motor neuron disease. She wanted an electric wheelchair but Wheelchair Services would not provide her one because they did not feel she was competent to drive it. So, that prompted our member of staff doing the assessment to say he did not want to sell it to her because he did not think she would get the full benefit from purchasing it.
In the end, we offered to loan her one, but only after she and her family were happy she was able to use it safely. We offered to bring her to the Centre to do full training and essentially, we did everything we could for her, short of selling her the chair. Sadly, she died three weeks later. Now, what could have happened if she went to a retailer whose staff were driven by commission; would she have been sold the chair?
How important is it for the organisation to employ a high number of people with disabilities?
Having a high number of disabled people work in the Charity and the Disabled Trading Company is one of the key reasons we are so successful.
If you were to walk into our Liverpool store today, we have three members of staff in there; one is full-time wheelchair user as a result of a spinal injury, one has arthritis and the other is my son, who has a long-term health condition and has lived through my disability and life experiences for the last 28-years.
People who visit the stores and use our services often say that they felt far more at ease knowing the advice and information they were receiving was from someone who could understand where they were coming from. It is the best form of peer support I can think of.
I remember having similar feelings back in 1989, when often I would feel very alone, feeling I was the only person with the type of condition that I had. I wasn’t aware of other people around me and was not aware of what I could do. Our staff are very good at helping people to understand what they can do by empathising with their feelings and needs and provide advice based off some of their own life experiences.
I think it is these two things, empathy and experience, that really are the most important elements when it comes to helping people and, in the Charity and in the showrooms, that is what we are able to offer people.
What challenges have you found running the Disabled Trading Company?
One of the things I really found when we first started the company, and even still find to a degree today, is that some suppliers do not take us seriously because the Disabled Trading Company is run by a charity.
I find this is especially the case by some of the professionals, not all of them, because we are certainly winning people round, however some of them think we were just playing at this; similarly, to how people thought we were just playing when we first set up the Charity.
Our turnover is proof that we are a charity run along the same lines as a small business. This year, across our combined activities, we will turnover around £1.4million!
What do you do with the profits made from the Disabled Trading Company?
All profits are channelled back into the Charity, which helps to subsidise some of the other services Warrington Disability Partnership offers.
The Charity owns a narrowboat for example, which last year gave 1400 disabled people the opportunity to have a fantastic day out of the canal. That is an experience many wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for our retail activity which subsides the running costs.
There are also two holiday homes in North Wales that are also subsidised by Disabled Trading Company’s work, giving disabled people affordable, accessible holiday homes to use.
What products does the social enterprise sell?
Everything from your tap turner and knife, fork & spoon, up to the bespoke specialist seating models, profiling beds, stairlifts, scooters and everything else you can think of that an independent living and mobility shop would sell.
One of our staff is currently finishing off an occupational therapy course and we have two staff who are trusted assessors. The team regularly attend training courses run by our suppliers and we joined the BHTA last year because we wanted to up our game in terms of knowledge and credibility. Currently, we are undergoing Motability accreditation and we are looking at establishing our own affordable finance offer for customers as well.
In those situations where we might not have the skill in-house, we work closely with partner organisations. There are three kitchen companies we work quite closely with, as well as through-floor-lifts partners, and toilet and bathing specialists.
“For survival, a lot of charities have to adopt a business model and I think it is possible to adopt a business model but without having to be merciless. At the heart of our model is morals and values.”
Are you seeing any emerging trends that are growing in popularity in the retail market?
The area we are finding the most amount of opportunity for growth is the refurbishment market, with high quality second-hand goods.
We have a triage model in place, where a piece of equipment will come in and we will look at it and determine if it is able to be recycled to be sold again in the UK. If yes, then it is put through the workshop, who will undertake a complete refurbishment.
Some of the equipment we get in has only be used a handful of times and is like-new almost. If it can’t be refurbished to be resold here, then it may be able to be refurbished to be put through our Phoenix scheme or stripped for scrap recycling.
Can you tell us more about the Phoenix recycling scheme?
The Phoenix project is quite unique, as it looks at equipment that may not be suitable to be resold in this country but could be usable in other countries.
We work in partnership with the St Mark Universal Copts Care and other international organisations to ship these aids to places like Egypt, Thailand and Syria, providing invaluable equipment to some of the world’s most in-need people.
We recently received video images of people using the equipment we donated, seeing the difference it has made, particularly the children, is really moving. Giving people the gift of mobility and independence – some for the first time in their lives – provides a great incentive to our team.
What does it take to be a successful charity?
For survival, a lot of charities have to adopt a business model and I think it is possible to adopt a business model but without having to be merciless. At the heart of our model is morals and values.
We have constantly diversified to offer more services but always kept at the heart the same values that we started the Charity with: information, advice and guidance.
We’ve organically grown over the years and a lot of that is a result of our willingness to welcome and take on opportunities when they arise. To be honest, if we didn’t, it is very unlikely we would be having this interview today.
Now we offer 27 services and if we were to try and rely on running this Charity on just public funding and donations, it would be impossible. That is why it is important that we get the retail side right.
Success for any charity or business relies heavily on having a great team and great leaders. I am lucky to have had my son Gavin leading our commercial services for the past six years. He uses his retail experience, developed from working for several national companies, to develop our team and our retail services.
What do you see as being the biggest challenges facing the industry in the coming years?
With every challenge comes opportunity and so, looking at the challenges that are facing health and social care, I think they offer opportunities to the retail side of the industry to help provide solutions for these challenges.
The primary challenge we have as an industry is to keep it honest and to make sure that we do not get into a situation where running a Home Loan Store or Wheelchair Service are treated as opportunity to turn it into a huge profit-making business.
We have to remember we are dealing with very vulnerable people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves reliant on mobility and independent living services.
We have had times when a rep has come through the door and suggested that they cannot let us sell their product at our retail pricing structure. In those situations, we are happy not to sell it and to find another supplier who is happy with our model.
Growing the market in an ethical way, I think is the real challenge. Developing the market in a way that is fair and affordable to the end-users has to be our priority.
What does the future hold for both Disabled Trading Company and Warrington Disability Partnership?
For us, we know who we are, we know where we are and we know what we want to do. We don’t get involved in price match wars and we don’t offer large discounts for part exchanges by advertising inflated prices; we simply offer a fair deal.
The future growth will be very carefully and methodically managed and will remain organic; we will not overgrow. We have two new members of staff in one of our services today and when they are fully up to speed, we will then move onto the next opportunity.
Expansion is definitely on the horizon. We have two more definite service developments and two more possible in the pipeline, with plans for one to be up and running by Easter. This will only happen once we are happy with the staff and their level of skill and expertise.
For us, it always starts with information, advice and guidance and everything is built on top of that.