Mills Mobility: A look back at the first 12 months in business

Having worked in the industry for close to 12 years, Greg Mills decided the time had come to set out on his own and open the doors to his own mobility store in June 2017. Now, 12 months on from opening his store, Mills Mobility has made it to the finals for a prestigious business award and even saved its local shopmobility. THIIS caught up with the young owner to discover how he has found his first year at the helm of a mobility retail business during a time when bricks and mortar stores are facing growing pressures.

Can you tell us more about your background prior to opening Mills Mobility?

Before opening Mills Mobility, I was working in the industry for about 12 years at some well-established mobility companies in the region. I also did a two-year stint at a community equipment loan service, which gave me in-depth insight into what happens within the loan service. It was a great learning experience.

Before working in the mobility industry, I was an undertaker, so quite a change!

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What was it that motivated you to leave and enter the world of mobility?

It is a vital job but being an undertaker can really get you down, especially being young, so I wanted to do something that was friendlier and more customer focused.

It was purely by luck however that I ended up in the mobility industry, applying for a job at a local mobility store. I learned a tremendous amount in a short amount of time there, working with wheelchairs, seating, stairlifts and hoisting.

It felt like a more rewarding career because I could see the improvements we were making to the quality of customers’ lives, which gave a far bigger feel good factor.

Why did you take the decision to open your own shop last year?

After working for a number of companies for quite some time, I saw a bit of a gap in the market.

Many companies may only operate a 9am to 5pm service from Monday to Friday because staff will do the hours they are contracted to do. I saw an opportunity to fill that gap of evenings and weekends, which would be particularly useful for people who have been discharged from hospital for example.

“I think this clinical aspect is something more dealers could look at adopting, especially given the amount nurses are paid currently.” Greg Mills

My goal was to provide a seven-day-a-week, unrestricted service where if somebody needed something, it could be accessed.

This was the central premise to Mills Mobility, the idea of going the extra mile.

Importantly, I also wanted to ensure that the store and the team maintained high standards, as I am aware how it is possible for one member of a team to let everyone else’s hard work down.

How many members are there in the Mills Mobility team?

The set up at the moment is myself, my mother who was a nurse for 37 years – bringing the clinical background to the company – my sister who has a retail management background, as well as my father, who was a technician for over 20 years. It is very much a family focused business at the moment.

We also work alongside a mobility and care services company in Gloucester, pooling their resources in regards to the engineering background. There are certain areas of business they do which we do not cover and vice versa.

Rather than the two of us competing against each other, we complement each other’s services in areas we think the other business may have more skills. It doesn’t seem to be the ‘done’ thing within the industry but it is working well for us.

It is all about collaboration.

You recently decided to take over a local shopmobility, can you tell me more about why you decided to take it over?

Again, this happened purely by chance to start with. I was walking through the town and came across a sign for a local charity, The Wellbeing Information Service Helpdesk, which helps provide advice to people regarding different charities, funds, benefits and other support they could be entitled to.

I thought I would pop by and introduce myself to see if there was any business to be done and part of their remit is operated by Services for Independent Living, who were running the local shopmobility. They explained the troubles they were having with operating the service because of funding constraints.

At that point, I said that any repairs, servicing or work of that nature they needed doing, we would do free-of-charge for them to help alleviate some of the budget issues and help the service to continue to run.

It was a little bit short notice and we even explored the idea of establishing a retail arm in the shopmobility for them to help them generate an income because they had lost most of their council funding and other sources of funding over the years.

Unfortunately, in March of this year, the doors were going to close for good because they had completely run out of funding.

Why did you decide to step in and save it?

It didn’t seem right to me. I think companies have a moral obligation to the community and I am firm believer that if you help the community, the community in turn will respect you as a business and will buy local. That was the business justification for it.

We made a generous donation to Services for Independent Living to enable them to support other parts of their service and took over the running of shopmobility aspect.

We are in the process of replacing all the old scooters in the original fleet with new scooters and that is at a cost to ourselves and not to the Service. We are also maintaining the current pricing the Service ran before.

It is not profitable at all but what we are hoping is that off the back of us running the shopmobility service, it will draw customers into our showroom and embed us as a local business that supports the community.

How important do you believe is it for local businesses to support its community?

For us, it is very important. An example is in Hereford, we have a group pick up all the litter in the local area because the council’s budget is tight and some of the streets are looking a bit run-down.

I was really impressed with what they were doing so I called them up and donated a box of mobility grabbers which could be used as litter-pickers.

It is the little acts of generosity that any dealer could do that will help generate good publicity and more importantly, show your company is caring and compassionate. In this marketplace, it is important to be seen as somebody who cares.

We are in business and we do want to make a profit but there is a right way and wrong way to do it. People are more likely to recommend their friends and family to you if they know your company truly cares and are not just in it for just a quick sale.

So, this is you embedding yourself into the community for the long run?

Definitely. With the shopmobility, we have saved a service that was running in excess of 35-years and made it sustainable for the future because I’ll be operating it out of our building and using my staff. It reduces the running costs substantially.

Off the back of that, we are replacing some of the older, smaller scooters with bigger models because we are a bit further out from town.

This means if people want to go off to other parts of the county, they are no longer restricted to just the city centre. If they want to go to the cathedral or check out some of the sights, they will have the option to go where they wish.

I think it is sensible step and hopefully, if they enjoy using the scooter, they may see the benefit of purchasing one for themselves and come back to us, which is the business side of it.

It is a win-win really and early on, we had some people asking why we moved the service further out from the town. Once we have explained the situation of the old service going bust however, they were glad to see a service still available.

We are offering the same pricing as before which helps, as well as giving free lifetime membership to people who had been a member of the original service. They were supporting the original service so I wanted to support them now.

It doesn’t cost us anything but it is a sign of good faith and it is targeting the client group we want, whereas putting an advert in the newspaper will cost a small fortune and often not reach the desired target audience.

What has the feedback been from the community?

The feedback has been positive and the footfall in our showroom has increased massively since the news spread in the local papers that we were taking the shopmobility on.

Before, we had the odd few customers pop into the showroom, whereas now, we have customers coming in daily. It has done wonders for the footfall. People are aware of who and where we are now, which is great.

You were recently a finalist for an award in the Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) Celebrating Small Business Awards 2018. What is it that Mills Mobility is doing to stand out and receive recognition?

Entering last December, we made it to the shortlist of the regional finals for microbusiness of the year and considering the calibre of applicants we were up against, it was fantastic to make it to the finals.

Unfortunately, we didn’t win but we got down to the last four for the whole of the West Midlands, which was quite an achievement in itself.

It is down to the fact that we started as nothing at the end of last year and now we are at a point where we are taking on a community service, helping the local community and upscaling quite quickly.

We have huge volumes of stock now at the premises and all the money the business makes is reinvested back into the business.

“It is the little acts of generosity that any dealer could do that will help generate good publicity and more importantly, show your company is caring and compassionate.” Greg Mills

Also, we were nominated before our announcement of taking over the shopmobility, so it was off the merits of our work prior to shopmobility news. The business really has grown in the last 12-months and I am very proud of where we have managed to get to.

A lot of it comes down to the support of the suppliers and manufacturers that are working with us. For many, it required taking a leap of faith and putting their trust in us.

Many of them know me from old so having those relationships helped, especially as we were asking for an account with them even though other companies in the area already held an account. It was a big ask.

There are a few companies however who have stuck by me through thick and thin and I really appreciate their support.

What factors do you believe are most important for being a successful retailer in the industry?

Having staff that know the products and never comprising on the quality of service are so important to being successful.

There was once an occasion where I have had an issue with a stairlift at eight o’clock at night and I have jumped in a van and done a 120-mile round trip to get it sorted because I wasn’t willing to have someone struggling to get up and down the stairs for the night.

Starting at seven o’clock the next day made for a very long day but I think these are the lengths you have to go to sometimes to be successful. If a customer is in trouble or in need of help, then handling that quickly is what sets you apart.

What it really boils down to is that a happy customer will tell close friends and family and you will get some good word of mouth advertising. An unhappy customer will tell the masses. Our aim is to ensure every single customer is a happy customer.

The gradual increase in positive word of mouth recommendations is what is causing the business to grow and that is driven by not accepting anything but the best in terms of standards, qualities and products.

Has there been any stand out moments you are particularly proud of?

I wouldn’t say there has been one stand out moment, but rather, each time we help a customer, it makes me proud. The whole experience has been rewarding.

What have been the struggles over the past 12 months?

The most difficult thing is creating our place in the local marketplace against some of the more well-established, reputable companies.

A lot of people thought we were just doing the same thing when we opened up but we are trying to demonstrate to customers that whilst some of the products are similar, we are not the same and we offer services that differ in the marketplace.

For example, any customer who purchases with us is given my mobile number so they can contact me personally, any day and any time of the week, in the event of something going wrong.

That leads onto to the other challenge; there simply are not enough hours in the day. It has been pretty flat out since we started, however if you put the hours in, you reap the rewards.

Another challenge is the internet. It is already a competitive market and the internet is a very difficult thing to compete against because the prices online are so much lower and customers can compare there and then instore.

The challenge is letting the customers know that when you are buying from us, you are not just buying a product. You are buying everything that comes with it. If there is a problem, you can come down and see us or we can come and see you and if it is broken, we’ll lend you another one.

Essentially, you are selling a package, not just a product and it is a challenge educating people about this.

Have you found yourselves having to educate people to look beyond the initial price?

All the time. Everything has a value and a cost associated with it, so I always tell customers that if they buy that scooter online and something goes wrong with it, how much is it going to cost to send it back.

The best way I demonstrate this is asking the customer to think how many stamps they will need to pop onto the box to send that scooter back. Then explaining that by buying from us, they will never need to worry about that.

Essentially, we are selling peace of mind along with the product. If they have an issue, it will be resolved and they have a face and name to put to the product.

As you continue to scale, do you think you can continue to offer such a highly personalised service?

We are careful to scale up at the right pace. We don’t want to run before we can walk and we don’t want to lose the core values of the business, those being that we are a family-run business that truly care about our customers.

In the first 12 months, we have scaled up quickly and we are getting to a point where we need to take a step back and focus on the direction of the company. It is also about looking after our existing customers and as we get busier, it gets more difficult.

Later this year, we plan to increase our staffing levels again but it is vital we take on the right members of staff.

How do you try and stay competitive in the market?

It is trying to do ideas that haven’t been attempted before. I am also very lucky to have my mother in the office, who has been working as a nurse for the last 37 years with adults and in paediatrics, so she has a very strong clinical understanding.

Having a registered nurse who understands the conditions and can help advise which products would be best for their needs really helps set us apart.

I think this clinical aspect is something more dealers could look at adopting, especially given the amount nurses are paid currently. It gives the customers a lot more confidence dealing with a registered nurse because they can really trust the advice and the company.

What range of products do you sell?

We sell quite a diverse range of products, including mobility scooters, stairlifts and overhead hoists. Ultimately, we are trying to get to the point of being a one-stop shop.

A core part of our portfolio is Kirton as we are a Kirton dealer, so we do a lot of the Kirton healthcare chairs, as well as a lot of riser recliners as well.

We also do full bathroom conversions, having just completed our fourth one in as many months so we are literally installing a bathroom a month which is great.

We carry these adaptations out ourselves and I have a team who comes in and we project manage the whole thing so that the customers do not have to worry about a thing. They just tell us what they want and as a general rule, we can get the conversion completed in a week.

Is the bathroom adaptation work growing?

It is growing. To undertake bathroom adaptations requires a pretty specialist skill set, making it important to make sure to use the best trades people to do the job.

We are very choosy about who we use and there is an awful lot of work that goes into actually completing a project, as well as needing access to the right products as well.

The projects can be very difficult and very time consuming which is why I think I it puts a lot of dealers off taking it on, whereas a stairlift can be fitted in two to three hours.

What does the future hold for Mills Mobility?

There are plenty of ideas in the pipeline, including looking into the possibility of a lease-service for mobility scooters now that we have the shopmobility.

The lease-service would give people the opportunity to lease the scooters on a more long-term basis, potentially up to a year, which is important for palliative clients, as well as those who are a bit unsure or who just want a scooter for a few months in summer.

It will be almost like a local alternative to Motability, where we will provide the service, the scooter, the insurance and if the needs change, we can change the product.

Also, we can be flexible on the pricing for those who do not just require new. So, it is about making mobility equipment accessible for all. That is something we are looking into launching towards the end of this year.

We also have full training facilities onsite, which we can rent to care homes, nursing homes, healthcare professionals and more so they don’t have to do training away from their setting and have access to overhead hoists, hospital beds, transfer equipment and more. That is another string to our bow.

We have spread our wings a little bit but we will only ever take on the work that we can manage. At the moment, we are trying to keep our feet firmly on the ground whilst trying to continue the growth we have seen so far.

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