The husband and wife duo now run two arms of H&M Health & Mobility – Hugh handles the bathlift business and Yvonne focuses on retail
The husband and wife duo now run two arms of H&M Health & Mobility – Hugh handles the bathlift business and Yvonne focuses on retail

Taking a dip into bathing

In February’s issue, THIIS mentioned a new bath lift entrant looking to make a splash in the market. Formed under the name of reputable North East retailer H&M Health & Mobility, THIIS caught up with Hugh Malone, joint owner of H&M Health & Mobility and driving force behind new market entrant H&M Bathlifts, to find out more about the retailer’s history, its expansion into bath lifts and its ambitions for the future.

Both sides of the fence

With over two decades of homecare industry experience, having successfully operated his own company and worked in some of the industry’s largest players, Hugh Malone is no stranger to the market.

First working for Bison Bede in 1995 before forming bath lift specialist AquaJoy in 2002, Hugh sold his company to Drive DeVilbiss in 2011. Over the years that followed, he ran the AquaJoy brand and was instrumental in the acquisition of Mountway, turning around the latter’s flagging fortunes.

Well known in the industry on the supply side, what many may not know is that whilst running the AquaJoy brand, Hugh was also partly involved in the establishment of a new retail operation in County Durham.

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“Having built up a customer-focused organisation with AquaJoy from 2002, the OT Service in County Durham approached me in early 2012 to set up a mobility business that would help protect the elderly and vulnerable people in the area from any rogue traders,” Hugh told THIIS.

“AquaJoy was acquired by Drive in August 2011 and I was 100 percent focused on my role within Drive, so my wife Yvonne set up H&M Health & Mobility in May 2012 in order to satisfy the OT Service request.”

Gaining considerable insight into the retail side of the industry from his years as a supplier, Hugh emphasised that he’d had the pleasure – and occasionally displeasure – of working with retailers at both ends of the spectrum.

“I have worked in the homecare market and also been a supplier for many years, so you manage to sniff out the good from the bad,” he told THIIS.

Applying what he had learned over his time in the industry, the husband and wife team set about creating a company that he describes as having the community at its heart.

“The focus has been creating something we can put back into the community by providing the most appropriate products at the most economical cost for people in our local area,” asserted Hugh.

Prices to provide a community service

Since 2012, the BHTA-member retailer has made a name for itself in Consett and the North East, working closely with local OTs in the area and priding itself on the customer service provided by its dedicated team.

“H&M staff do their very best for the community; it’s a passion and we won’t sell a product if it isn’t right for the person,” stressed Hugh.

“We pride ourselves in making sure we specify the most appropriate products to suit our customer’s needs, always ensuring we charge realistic prices to meet our customers’ various requirements and budgets.”

Discussing the decision to adopt a low pricing strategy, Hugh pointed out that the store’s prices reflect the needs of its local customers, rather than driven by a desire to maximise profits.

“We never went into it planning to get rich but wanted to make sure the community was getting the right equipment in the correct manner,” he commented.

“Our selling prices are below market price but we live in an area where it is difficult for people to afford some of the mobility products we sell, so we operate on low margins in order to help the community.

“We are more focused on being caring than costing out each operation as our reputation has been built on trust, compassion and fair pricing. We can spend a couple of hours with someone in their home demonstrating a chair or scooter without making a sale and also an hour fitting Cosyfeet shoes or slippers in our store without making a sale; the most important thing for us is selling the correct product and helping improve a person’s independence.”

H&M Mobility and Bathlifts Team Image
The North East-based team are now looking to push ahead with its new KANJO bathlift range, focusing on local authorities

The caring and costings balancing act

In an industry that demands a high level of customer service however, the company is no stranger to the pressures of being a caring retailer maintaining a low-price strategy.

“It is really difficult to find the balances between delivering competitive pricing and offering free of charge home assessments for people who can’t make it to our premises, as well as providing aftercare services,” said Hugh.

“Online sellers where the selling price is sometimes lower than our purchase price is a real challenge. We can take a long time with customers and when they are given the price for a product they sometimes go online and we’re shocked that our trade suppliers are selling the same products online cheaper than our purchase price.

“Also, homecare supermarkets that focus on a B&Q style retail strategy as opposed to a best clinical need is a challenge for independent retailers in the industry. Organisations that plough vast sums of money into TV advertising have to pass their cost on to the customer and our concern is overcharging for a product that may not be suitable.”

With seven successful years under its belt however, H&M Health & Mobility has learned how to remain competitive in the face of growing market pressures, with Hugh sharing his insights into how to enjoy sustained retail success.

“Develop a great team that cares about each potential and existing customer and avoid using any pushy sales techniques,” counselled the mobility veteran.

“Link in with occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals in your area and build a good, trusting relationship with reputable suppliers. Also, keep a watchful eye on new products that will help improve your offering and keep a watchful eye on online pricing.”

Dipping into bathing

KANJO H&M Mobility new bathliftAs market pressures squeeze margins for many smaller retailers, the mobility retail landscape has increasingly become one where companies are having to find new ways to generate revenue, reach the market and remain competitive.

Heeding his own advice, the H&M Health & Mobility’s joint owner kept his eyes peeled for interesting new products and now has his sights set on the bath lift sector – a market worth an estimated £12million in sales and one that Hugh is well versed in.

After spending seven years with Drive DeVilbiss, running its AquaJoy and Mountway brands, Hugh parted ways with the multinational supplier after the organisation restructured.

Following a period of time away from the industry, Hugh decided to return to the bath lift market, bringing with him an interesting new German product range.

Launching H&M Bathlifts at the beginning of 2019, the newly-formed specialist division of H&M Health & Mobility is the exclusive UK distributor for the KANJO bath lift range.

Not such a new face

Manufactured by Eureha, part of Europe’s Dietz Group, the company is a supplier of a wide range of mobility aids, including wheelchairs, rollators and other walking aids, bathroom and toilet products.

Whilst the name KANJO or that of its manufacturer may not be familiar in the UK, Hugh says that the company is a well-established manufacturer in mainland Europe and one that has been on his radar for a while after stumbling across it at Rehacare.

“I had first seen the product and took a photo of it in 2010, but, at the time, I didn’t think they had quite got the right design. In 2015, they significantly invested in it,” recollected Hugh.

“Having personally designed the AquaJoy Premier Plus – the bath lift that really changed the market in 2005 – and AquaJoy Saver, I knew this redesigned KANJO bath lift had all the features of the AquaJoy Premier Plus but with significantly less weight whilst also being far easier to clean.

“It was much more manageable and the thing that blew me away was a four-year warranty, which extended to the hand controller and charger.”

A running start

Hugh Malone with Thomas Godhoff & Johannes Wagner, joint owners from Eureha – part of the Dietz group – after signing the exclusive UK distribution agreement of the Kanjo bath lift
Hugh Malone (middle) with Thomas Godhoff & Johannes Wagner, joint owners from Eureha – part of the Dietz group – after signing the exclusive UK distribution agreement of the Kanjo bath lift

Impressed with the new range and the potential benefits on offer to potential customers, Hugh decided that the time was right to re-enter the market as the sole distributor for the bath lift aids.

“The timing of this is absolutely perfect,” he explained.

“I have the experience, I have the contacts and there is no way I would have got back involved in this market unless I believed that this bath lift was the best in the world.”

Alongside his experience and contacts, Hugh has also brought back some familiar faces to H&M Bathlifts.

“Some of my AquaJoy/Mountway by Drive team was made redundant last year and we’ve joined forces again to make a fantastic, happy team who will provide experienced customer focus and support,” he continued.

Launching a new product and a new brand into the market can be tough, with building a recognisable name, trust and credit history all serving as substantial barriers to entry for many start-ups.

Fortunately for Hugh, his connection with H&M Health & Mobility essentially provides the new bath lift player with a running start into the market, overcoming some of the hurdles other new distributors find when launching.

“H&M Health & Mobility has a great credit history, seven-years successful trading, it is well known in the local community with customers and healthcare professionals, and it has a good reputation for being a caring organisation,” said Hugh.

“It is difficult to trade as a start-up business, so this makes complete sense and has allowed us to compete on tenders and for other business from day one.

“Also, our team has built up successful relationships around the UK for many years, so this helps us to get into the market quickly.”

Combining these factors with Hugh’s genuine passion for bath lifts has allowed the company to bypass many of the traditional start-up roadblocks, placing H&M Bathlifts in a privileged position to enjoy distribution success.

For other retailers considering distributing a new brand alone however, Hugh has some invaluable and cautionary advice.

“Other mobility dealers may not have the same contacts or experience, so it may be difficult,” forewarned Hugh.

“Manufacturers may only grant sole distribution to an organisation that has a proven track record in a certain market, so diversifying into this area needs detailed planning and quite a bit of funding as costs for marketing, travel and exhibitions are expensive.”

Growing from local to national

Despite benefiting from the name of a well-reputed local mobility retailer and an experienced leader at the helm, H&M Bathlifts still faces the challenge of raising its presence across the whole of the UK.

“We still have a job to do to build our national standing,” conceded Hugh.

Aware that getting the H&M Bathlifts and KANJO name cemented in the market will not happen overnight, the company says it is currently on the lookout for partners to help it expand its reach.

“We are linking with some strategic partners in order to give maximum exposure for the KANJO bath lift range. This will take time, but we want to ensure we build a trusting relationship with all of our partners so it’s a win-win for us, them and their customers,” maintained Hugh.

“We are confident that our partners and local authorities will see significant savings in spares and call outs if they purchase the KANJO as their standard stock as our competitors will not match our warranties.”

Having already spent numerous years in the bath lift sector, Hugh is also all too aware of the long timeframes involved when selling to local authorities.

“Winning local authority business through tenders or other means takes years of perseverance but if you know you have the best product and best team you know the end result will be a success,” he continued.

“It took nine months with AquaJoy to get our first bulk local authority order but we’ve managed to get one in the first month with the KANJO, so that’s been very encouraging for the team.”

According to the bath lift expert, H&M Bathlifts has been built on the same successful strategy that was at the heart of his other business, with the delivery of every order within 24 hours of receipt and free of charge product and technical training to nominated staff.

To offset the sometimes-substantial length of time required to secure major local authority wins, alongside the time needed to establish long-term strategic partnerships, the fledgeling bath lift division has also initially turned to popular online marketplace Amazon to help raise awareness and early sales – something Hugh confirmed will be phased out as its partners grow.

“As a national supplier, we have to create brand awareness for the KANJO bath lift range and make quick sales, so Amazon has helped us to do this in the early days,” he elaborated.

“We have an Amazon expert on our team and we are selling our KANJO bath lifts using the Amazon platform currently, however, this will change as we partner with specific retailers in the future. We have invested substantially in our website and we will continually develop the website in order to help our customers and partners.”

One to watch

Working to penetrate a public sector market that has seen budgets scrutinised and squeezed over recent years whilst simultaneously competing in a competitive retail market, the North East retailer and now distributor undoubtedly has its work cut out.

“On the retail store side, we will continue with our customer-first approach to help the people in our community to live more independently. We have also recently invested in upgrading our website and will work with our suppliers in order to build a better offering online as well as instore,” confirmed Hugh.

“For the bath lift side, private sales are growing in the market, which is good for retailers and online, whilst the local authority market is stagnant or dipping because of funding and refurb/recirculation.”

Undeterred by the lack of growth in the local authority sector, Hugh underlined that it is this very stagnation that he envisages driving the demand for the company’s new bath lift range.

“This presents a great opportunity for the KANJO bath lift because its four-year warranty and build quality mean the recirculation costs are extremely low over a four-year period,” finished Hugh.

“We anticipate substantial growth in this product in Community Equipment Stores, retail and private markets in the coming years by providing substantial savings to customers.”

With a unique product, experienced leader and motivated team, Hugh finished by stating he relished the challenge ahead.

“We’ll give it our all and we’ll do it with a smile on our faces, because, that is the important thing. The team is together again and it really is like a little family,” /

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