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From The Bridge 2002

Draft Wheelchairs
Max Cashback

As I write this, the day after watching the London Marathon, I wonder how many people are aware that many of the racing wheelchairs used in the race – including the one used by Tanni Grey Thompson - were designed and manufactured in Godmanchester.

Charlotte Oldwood met Barry Norman to learn more:

Tucked away on the Roman Way Industrial Estate is a very interesting business. It’s called ‘Draft Wheelchairs’ and is owner managed by a lovely man called Barry Norman. From the unassuming position, and front fascia of the unit, it comes as quite a surprise to learn that Draft Wheelchairs is a market leader in providing all types of mobility aids to all types of people.

The business moved from Papworth Everard to Godmanchester in February 2001. They were looking for an industrial unit that created the right impression, and they also needed a good road network to sell nationwide. They are expanding in the near future, taking over the unit next door, building a better showroom. Barry made the point, however, that they do not need a really plush showroom in the centre of town, as buying a new wheelchair isn’t usually an impulse buy!

When I arrived at the unit to interview Barry, an elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Christiansen, were just loading a new powered shopping cart into their car, to try out over the weekend, before buying it. Mrs Christiansen told me how she had a powered chair she was very happy with, but wanted a smaller, buggy type vehicle to ‘pop around the shops in’.

Barry told me later that he’d been dealing with this couple for years, and he believes that this softer approach to selling is a key ingredient in his success. He gets a great deal of repeat business, building up trusting relationships over a number of years.

Barry first got into the business when he used high performance chairs himself for basketball and competitive racing. Barry finished the London Marathon each year from 1987 to 1998 and travelled all over the world representing Great Britain. Over the years, Barry has also gained the knowledge and skills to sell chairs therapeutically. He can assess a person’s needs, and sell them the right chair from the bewildering number available. Barry is very aware that if he gets it wrong, he could be affecting a person’s posture, and therefore health for the rest of their lives.

Barry also needs to take into account the issue of ‘style’ – as Barry says, if you’re sitting in the chair most of the day, everyday, it’s got to be the best possible looking chair. Barry has many customers who like to have the latest set of wheels – if there is something new on the market, they’ve got to have it.

With new technology and design improvements, wheelchairs are getting better and better all the time – Barry told me that the first wheelchair he had in 1970 weighed 56 pounds, whereas the one he has today weighs only 18.5 pounds. When Barry is lifting it in and out of the car 4 or 5 times a day that becomes an issue. When Barry was racing himself, he met his partner, Dan Chambers a cycle designer/builder in Huntingdon. They got together, and produced a racing chair, which is now manufactured on site, and is used by many of the world champions – Tanni Grey Thompson amongst them.

Draft Wheelchairs employs three sales reps, one of which sells chairs in the world of Rugby, one specialises in racing chairs, and the other covers the whole of the Northern region. Through this network, Barry and his team have managed to secure a fair portion of the market.

But Barry and Dan are happy designing and selling at their current rate – they have no pretensions of vastly expanding the business, and becoming millionaires. They both enjoy the hands on approach in their specialist fields, and do not want to recruit and manage a large team.

Having said that, they are about to launch a major advertising campaign to the local market, through the local papers, emphasising the scooters and powered chairs, as they are all too aware that many local people are completely oblivious to their existence.

So, if you’re looking for a new chair for the summer, why not give Barry a call?

Draft Wheelchairs, 6 Roman Way, Godmanchester, Tel 451247

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