Ability Products: New Distributor Seeks to Fill CRT, DME Gaps
- By Laurie Watanabe
- Jun 03, 2020
In the Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) industry, wheelchairs and seating systems get a lot of attention and conversation. But CRT professionals know that behind every successful seating and mobility system is a carefully curated group of critical components to refine that system so it’s uniquely tuned to its user’s needs.
Providing those critical components is what Ability Products, a new distributor business, is all about.
A Partnership with Rolko
CRT veteran Patrick Meeker, MS, PT, is Ability Products’ VP of Sales.
“Ability Products was kind of a happy accident,” Meeker said of the company’s creation. Mark Chelgren, the founder of Frog Legs, “was looking to have better European distribution for Frog Legs and got into a discussion with Rolko at REHACARE.”
Rolko, a leading manufacturer of wheelchair and seating components, is headquartered in Germany, but also has locations in Denmark, The Netherlands, and China. Rolko agreed to be Frog Legs’ leading distributor for most of Europe.
In return, Meeker noted, “Mark said, ‘We might be able to sell some of your products over here, if you want.’”
Rolko had never made a big push into the North American market, but was ready to give it a try. “In August 2019, Mark came to an agreement to form a company called Ability Products and become the North American distributor for Rolko,” Meeker said. “And that’s when he contacted me to see if I’d be interested in running the sales part of the business.”
While most of Meeker’s corporate manufacturing experience has been in seating — including a lengthy tenure at ROHO, which was eventually acquired by Permobil — he said he was familiar with Rolko particularly because of a very specific component.
“I’d heard of them before because they were the OEM manufacturer for Ottobock arm troughs,” Meeker said. When Permobil acquired Ottobock’s custom seating division and Ottobock then exited the North American wheelchairs and wheelchair parts business, Meeker saw dealers “scrambling to find those arm troughs.”
Now, via Ability Products and its Rolko distributorship, “We have access to those products,” Meeker said.
Building a Product Portfolio
The truth about components such as arm troughs is that they aren’t the flashiest parts of CRT. From a business perspective, relatively few people who use CRT wheelchairs need arm troughs, so demand isn’t through the roof.
But another truth is that wheelchair users who need arm troughs really need them to help with positioning; an arm trough, for instance, can give a wheelchair user consistent and functional access to power chair driving controls. That’s why clinicians, suppliers and consumers can become very attached to certain components.
“We were at the NSM [National Seating & Mobility] show, we were at ISS [International Seating Symposium], and that one product above all is the one that ATPs came up to and touched and felt, and it’s the one that grabs their attention because there was a lack of availability for that particular product,” Meeker said. “You see a lot of quads and ALS clients using those arm troughs. It’s not like a tire that you use thousands and thousands of. But it’s the one thing that Rolko has that people [in North America] recognize.”
One of Meeker’s jobs now is to work through literally thousands of products — “They have in excess of probably 4,000 SKUs of products,” he said of Rolko’s current roster — and choose the ones most suitable for North America.
“Mark and I met with the Rolko CEO [Torsten Eikemeier] at REHACARE last year, and we toured not only Rolko Germany, but went to Rolko Netherlands to look at their operation because we wanted to get some ideas on how to set up our new company in the States to be able to move high-volume products most efficiently,” Meeker said. “We have about 300 products that we chose to initially have in our warehouse to supply. We also reached out to industry folks that were looking for particular products.”
While Rolko products currently make up the bulk of Ability Products’ offerings, Meeker said, “Our intent is to have a full portfolio of products. Our vision is to be that one-stop shop for all wheelchairs, parts, accessories and product sourcing. We’re also sourcing other companies and parts from other manufacturers that Rolko doesn’t make. So my job is two-fold: to sell what we have, but also to figure out what the market wants that they haven’t been able to find or haven’t been able to find affordably. There’s a lot of really experienced ATPs out there that have been making products one-off, two-offs, and other people see it and want one, but they can’t make them affordably for the mass market.”
Rolko’s formidable manufacturing capabilities can answer that need. “Because Rolko has six or seven factories around the world that they work with, a couple of which they own, we have the ability to take ideas from customers and make custom products pretty effectively,” Meeker explained. “We have a big engineering team; we have folks to do testing. It’s an opportunity to help the industry get things that they need.”
And Rolko is highly motivated to contribute such resources, Meeker added. “As of January, Rolko made an investment in Ability Products to be the majority owner. Not only are we their distributor, but they’re actually the majority owner of Ability Products, which was really their long-term goal: to set up a North American operation.”
Finding & Filling Product Gaps
Meeker said his top priority is filling CRT component and product gaps: “Our mission is really to supply the best, most cost-effective repair and replacement parts,” he noted. “That level of business is out there, and there’s not many people anymore that are doing that really well.
“We’re starting with tires, tubes, wheels, basic seating and positioning products, and building upon that. Rolko is Europe’s largest parts and accessories company. They’ve got more than 300 different-sized caster wheels. These routinely replaced parts is what they’ve built their business on, and having access to all of those in every size you can imagine is super helpful to the dealer who has basic and high-end power chair wheels coming in every day, but they need new tires for them and they need new sets of caster wheels. For the most part, dealers are buying them from the manufacturer, because they haven’t had another source. So we’re an option for OEM-sized caster wheels and caster forks and spoked wheels.”
Ability Products will carry some DME, again as a way to close the existing parts gap. “We have headrests and hardware that are more basic, what I consider more DME grade than CRT grade,” Meeker said. “But there is a huge chunk of people that don’t need a CRT-grade head support. They need something to support their head because they’re in a tilt-in-space chair in a nursing home. So having a quality-made product that is on the lower end of the scale is just as important as having one that’s multi-positional for someone with significant windswept scoliosis. I think both of those types of head supports have a place in the market.”
And having come from the very exacting world of CRT seating, Meeker said, “I have a mindset of quality first. The last thing I need is a call-back saying, ‘Your product didn’t perform as expected.’ Having a lot of different products is a tough goal, but if there are products that don’t meet a client’s need or don’t live up to expectations, that’s where — by being part of Rolko — I can go back to engineering and say, ‘You know what, an ATP said this was great, except we need to have another gusset here for strength.’ And for the next round, they can put it into the building plan so we can make the product stronger and better.”
Ability Products is headquartered in Bloomfield, Iowa, just a short drive from Frog Legs’ location. But this distributor in America’s Heartland is already making a lot of noise, having recently signed an agreement with The VGM Group, also based in Iowa.
“That was my number one goal, to get signed with VGM and to partner with them and U.S. Rehab,” Meeker said. “They serve a large swath of the DME and CRT independent dealers in the U.S.”
And Ability Products will simultaneously use its international pedigree to find and try out the best seating and wheelchair components across the globe.
“There’s some really cool products that have been made for particular markets in Europe, for example, where the funding has allowed innovation to occur instead of stifling it as it has in the U.S. sometimes,” Meeker said. “The European market, the Asian market, the Middle Eastern market for rehab products are similar, but yet different. Our CEO is super engaged with us: We have a call every week, he’s always asking questions, he wants to understand our business. For a guy who’s running a very large company, he’s taken a very active role in making sure we’re successful. That kind of partnership is pretty cool.”