Dolphin Lifts Midlands team outside new facilities
With its growing fleet, Dolphin Lifts Midlands is now one of the largest stairlift specialists in the West Midlands. Credit: Tim Sturgess Express & Star

A rising force in the stairlift market

Having recently moved to its modern new premises, multi-award-winning mobility and access specialist Dolphin Lifts Midlands is leading the charge in the rapid and much-desired professionalisation of the sector. Keen to learn more about the ambitious company, THIIS caught up with Managing Director Lee Farrington and General Manager Steve Wilson to find out about the ups and downs of running one of the Midlands’ largest stairlift companies.

Expanding to a new headquarters

Covering a large swathe of the West Midlands, Dolphin Lifts Midlands has been supplying, installing, repairing and maintaining a range of stairlifts, through-floor-lifts, bathlifts and hoists, as well as housing adaptations, to the private and public sector for over three decades.

Now in its second generation of Farrington ownership, the family-run company was first purchased by Lee’s father in 2007 at the age of 57, having worked for Handicare prior to that.

“When Dad took over Dolphin, we were operating from a tiny facility,” explained Lee.

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“Gradually, we grew the business and moved to a larger facility and from there, continued getting bigger and moved again to a larger premises that we bought on Oldbury Road, West Bromwich.”

Continuing to grow organically as it won more contracts in the region, alongside building its private client base, Dolphin Lift Midlands made the move to its latest facility in late autumn 2019.

“The Government and local authorities are looking into smart homes and assistive technology more, so it is an area that we are looking into and speaking to councils about it.” Lee Farrington

Featuring new offices, a modern meeting space, purpose-built showroom and a substantial 9,000 sq ft warehouse, the headquarters are home exclusively to Dolphin Lift Midlands’ stairlift and access business, with its building business remaining in its Oldbury Road facility.

“We naturally outgrew the space we were in as the company has grown,” reflected Lee.

“Work-wise, the move to the new facility has been great, particularly in terms of space. It means smoother operations and the atmosphere is better as well, which is a big thing.”

Space for spares

Responsible for a number of local authority contracts, Dolphin Lifts Midlands’ Steve Wilson explained why the larger warehouse and larger facility is essential for the company to successfully continue to deliver its contractual obligations.

“When we win service contracts, it is up to us to hold the spares,” he highlighted.

“As we are an independent dealer, we can deal with any lift available, which means we have a portfolio of 80 plus different lifts. It means we hold spares for well over 80 models of stairlifts, spanning 30 years.”

For companies specialising in the servicing and maintenance of lifts, the ability to hold and quickly access spares for models that are sometimes no longer in production from manufacturers that no longer exist is essential for keeping vital contracts and keeping vulnerable clients safe and mobile, the pair pointed out.

“Some stairlifts can be made of thousands of parts when broken down into their individual components, so it means keeping hold of and cataloguing all those parts can be a challenge but it is vital so having the additional warehouse space is important,” said Lee.

“For example, we recently had a fault on a 20-year-old stairlift where the capacitor blew. Getting hold of that part new would be nigh on impossible now, however, fortunately, we had one available from a different model which we had taken out previously.

“It’s important that we have that availability and means we have to be organised when it comes to storing all these parts, so it is a good thing my mother-in-law is in charge of that – nobody can touch any of the parts without first going through her!”

A lesson in lifts

In addition to providing the company more space to run its business, a key reason behind the expansion decision was the ability to cater more for private customers and OTs, according to Steve.

“It means we have a lot more capability to engage more with customers,” he commented.

“We have a nice new big showroom displaying a good selection of different models where we invite private customers, occupational therapists and contract holders in to see our operations and attend educational sessions and workshops.”

“A lot of people fail to understand that stairlifts are less about the stairs and more about the individual who needs to use it.” Steve Wilson

Offering training and workshops is central to how the company delivers its public sector contracts, with the pair highlighting that as an independent stairlift provider they often receive requests from Social Services OTs asking for training as there are so many stairlifts on the market.

“When we win new contracts, the first thing we look to do is try to engage with OT’s to go through our extensive portfolio of products,” continued Steve.

“The problem is, over time, a lot of contracts are won by manufacturers and therefore the OT’s working for that council may only have an in-depth knowledge of one range.

Dolphin Lifts Midlands new showroom
The new showroom facility forms an integral part of the company’s strategy for engaging with private customers and OTs. Credit: Tim Sturgess Express & Star

“There is actually a massive amount of choice available to them so we believe it is essential to invest the time to educate them about the benefits and the features of each one.”

According to Steve, this is why Dolphin Lifts Midlands works hard in developing relationships with OTs as soon as possible through its demonstrations and workshops.

“OTs can happily come into our environment, look at a range of lifts and options, try them out, really get hands-on with the products and understand the differences in models,” added Lee.

“It also means we can get to know the customers’ and OTs’ needs more and how to service them, so we can offer another level to our customer service.”

With OTs often having wide and varied caseloads covering a range of areas, Steve noted that it is all the more important for the company to have a good working relationship with the OTs in the contracts it works with.

“OTs have an extremely in-depth amount of clinical knowledge but when it comes to just stairlifts and the differences in the products, that is where we can help bring in our expertise,” he said.

“For us, we concentrate on our activities educating OTs, alongside making sure we know what products and solutions are in the market because we are able to choose which products to use, so if something is better and more reliable, we will look at it.”

Stressing that the company never dives headfirst in with a new product, Lee underlined that the company always field test products for a long time and introduces them slowly, ensuring the reliability of a range.

“Our setup allows us to do that whilst a lot of others can’t,” he noted.

“It’s definitely one of our USPs. It gives us the freedom to choose what we carry, so if a lift has a reliability problem, we do not have to keep working with it.”

The importance of professionalism

Speaking with Steve, he emphasised that the new facility also acts as a showpiece for the company to potential clients, showcasing the company in the right light when customers visit the organisation.

“It has put us on a more professional level and really shows the kind of professional organisation that we are, which is extremely important in this industry as we work with vulnerable people. It is important that people can come in, have a look at us and see who we are as a company,” he commented.

“It is something we encourage people to do as there are good and bad companies out there, particularly on the private side of the market.

“There are not many companies out there at the moment that have the facilities we have to do that and I think that makes a big difference because it helps the customer to trust who we are and what we do.”

Lamenting the lack of professionalism still seen in the industry, Lee warned that as the market continues to grow, so to do the dangers of products being installed for vulnerable customers by those lacking the knowledge and experience needed to ensure safety.

A key area fuelling this is the second-hand market, according to the stairlift specialists.

“The industry is growing, unquestionably,” said Lee.

“The baby boomers are getting older and it is there children and family members who are looking for solutions for them and this will really only continue.

“This is leading to a big second-hand market, particularly online on sites like eBay and Facebook Marketplace where people are getting hold of the products and either installing the products themselves or calling companies such as ours to go out and install the lifts they have brought online.”

Second-hand concerns

Stating that its engineers will not fit products purchased from online marketplaces by customers, the West Midlands lift company’s general manager says the number of calls it receives requesting the service is constantly on the rise.

“eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree are becoming more and more popular for stairlifts but people do not know what they are buying,” cautioned Steve.

“A lot of people fail to understand that stairlifts are less about the stairs and more about the individual who needs to use it.”

Stating that stairlifts are 75 per cent about the person and 25 per cent about the stairs, Steve highlighted that whilst the device might be able to get up and down the stairs, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be correct for the person’s posture, feet, knees and other important considerations relating to user.

“In my opinion, too many people have jumped on the bandwagon of selling to vulnerable people over the years,” claimed Steve.

“It is probably a controversial statement but I think there are too many people who are happy to go out there and offer prices that are extremely low because they are buying the products from places like these online marketplaces but have not always had the necessary training to enable them to fit them safely.”

Worryingly, the stairlift professionals confirmed that the frequency of their engineers being called out to look at stairlifts that they would deem as being incorrectly installed is also on the rise.

“It is happening more and more. When we get a repair callout for someone that we do not know, we go out to assess and our engineers can pretty much tell immediately if it is a lift that hasn’t been fitted by a professional and is therefore likely to have been purchased on the second-hand market,” said Steve, concerned.

“There are usually telltale signs – it might be that the bend is not in the right place for a curved lift or the distance between the feet and carpet is dangerous. We’ve even seen a straight stairlift installed on a curved staircase. It is a problem that does not get enough attention.”

But why the rise in people turning to online marketplaces to buy and sell used stairlifts?

Steve explained that often it is the more tech-savvy children of end-users turning to marketplace websites to sell second-hand stairlifts as it offers the convenience of having the lift taken away and an opportunity to make a return.

“The situation is often people who are dealing with the bereavement of a parent and are now emptying their home,” he explained.

“They will ring a stairlift company to ask to have it removed and when they hear the quote and realise it will cost them, they will turn to second-hand websites instead. They can advertise on an online marketplace for free, have someone come and take it away and even potentially earn some money from it as well.

“The result is another piece of equipment out there, likely being installed somewhere it shouldn’t for someone that it is not suited for.”

Asserting that the industry is in need of some form of control, the two are convinced that the concerns surrounding safety will only get the attention needed in the wake of a tragedy – a troubling prospect.

“There are so many ways that these devices can go wrong with awful consequences if not installed correctly,” said Steve.

“The industry needs to be properly regulated and I think the second-hand market for these products is an area that needs looking at.”

Dolphin Lifts Midlands Lee and Steve
General Manager Steve Wilson, Office Manager Bev Turner, MD Lee Farrington and Compliance Manager Teresa Farrington. Credit: Tim Sturgess Express & Star

A need for regulation?

Stating that something needs to be introduced, Lee added: “The second-hand market will continue to grow because it is lucrative and when it is done properly, it is fine. The issue is people installing them without the required training and knowledge but it is impossible to name an industry where this is not a concern. There certainly needs to be particular attention paid to the stairlift sector however because of who the customers are.”

With the concern of user safety in mind, the idea of a registration similar to that of the Gas Safe Registration was raised as a possible solution, where only those qualified to work on the products can install, maintain and service stairlifts.

Questioning how realistic such a scheme would be, general manager Steve said: “I would like to think of a registration or licence would come into place but I don’t know if it will ever happen. Something like gas or electricity is an everyday occurrence but no one gives stairlifts much thought until one is needed.”

A shift in public sector thinking

Despite predicting growing safety concerns in the private market, the pair do see positive changes taking place in the sector, particularly in the public sector.

“One major way I see the industry changing is with new builds, where more ‘homes for life’ will be built,” suggested Steve.

“These will incorporate lifts, wetrooms and other home adaptation elements at the start and I can see that increasing as the years go on.”

According to the company, local authorities are increasingly gaining a better understanding of the relationship between housing & independent living and social care, as well as the significant impact one has on the other in terms of cost.

“If you think a lot of the UK’s housing stock was built in the 50s, 60s and 70s when they were built, disability and accessibility barely registered in terms of requirements and a lot of the equipment we have today was not around then but today, local authorities are more aware,” explained Lee.

“The big thing now is future-proofing. When we do work for a council, we have to consider future-proofing and whether the solution will be fit for purpose years down the line.”

Lee pointed out that this consideration of future-proofing, along with the current Disabled Facilities Grant system, is also fuelling the increase in demand for through-floor-lifts.

“Through-floor-lift demand is definitely growing and we are seeing councils changing their attitudes towards them,” he continued.

“The way Disabled Facilities Grants work is playing a big role in this because people are provided one grant that is up to £X amount so it requires authorities to consider the long-term needs. So, whereas a stairlift may be suitable for now, if a council has a doubt that in a few years’ time the person will be unable to use it, then they will opt for a through-floor-lift instead.”

Steve added: “I think there is an understanding that local authorities do not know what their budgets may be in the future so if they can make sure that what they are providing equipment for people that will last for the future, it helps prevent more spending that could arise down the line when budgets may be tighter.”

Moving with the times

In spite of the challenges that lay ahead of the industry, the stairlift and access veterans are confident that Dolphin Lift Midlands remains well placed to continue its success into the future, with their sights set on expanding the company’s offering further in 2020.

“We are currently looking into our product portfolio and putting more products into it,” disclosed Lee.

“It will not be a dramatic shift from what we do now to ensure we stick to what we are good at but we will diversify slightly.

“The Government and local authorities are looking into smart homes and assistive technology more, so it is an area that we are looking into and speaking to councils about it. I can see our portfolio evolving slightly to cater more towards this area.”

An emerging and rapidly expanding market, the shift to embrace the smart home arena is one that Steve is confident will pay off for the company.

“The smart-side is something that will grow massively and the mobility market will grow with that,” he said.

“It is something that we will keep an eye on and move with the times.”

With decades of experience working with new technologies as they have come to the market under its belt, this willingness to move with the market will likely enable keep Dolphin Lifts Midlands growing into one of the region’s leading mobility provider.

“We have to adapt because if we don’t, someone else will definitely come along and we’ll find ourselves playing catch up,” finished Lee.

“I think our adaptability is something that has kept us competitive. The plan for the future is to continue doing what we have been doing, stay grounded and keep moving with the times.”

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We respect your privacy BarnettNewsroomRetailer NewsRetailer SpotlightTrade FocusTrade Newsaccess,accident,assistive technology,disabled facilities grants,Dolphin Lifts (midlands),eBay,Facebook Marketplace,Gas Safe Registration,Gumtree,Lee Farrington,lifts,Occupational Therapist,OT,Safety,second-hand market,smart homes,Stairlift,Steve Wilson,West MidlandsA rising force in the stairlift market Having recently moved to its modern new premises, multi-award-winning mobility and access specialist Dolphin Lifts Midlands is leading the charge in the rapid and much-desired professionalisation of the sector. Keen to learn more about the ambitious company, THIIS caught up with Managing Director...News, views & products for mobility, access and independent living professionals