The traditional 10th anniversary gift is aluminum — appropriate for a maker of complex rehab manual wheelchairs, including ultralightweight models. But as it celebrates 10 years in the industry, Stevens Point, Wisc.-based Ki Mobility has other things in mind. One is its brand-new facility, ready to welcome employees in early March. And there are new and newer manual chair offerings, including the rigid-framed Rogue Xp, designed especially for adolescent and young adult users, and making its debut at this week’s International Seating Symposium.
Over the years, Ki Mobility has become more than an ultralightweight specialist. With tilt-in-space manual chairs for kids (Little Wave Flip) and adults (Focus CR), a K0004 lightweight chair (Catalyst 4), and a stable of rigid and folding ultralights (titanium and aluminum), the company has quietly gone about its business of designing and producing manual chairs for the entire complex rehab technology spectrum. That’s by design, company founders Doug Munsey and Murray Slagerman told Mobility Management.
From First Sale to 50,000th
Munsey, who serves as Ki’s president, and Slagerman, VP of engineering, are industry veterans who met as colleagues in 1991, and 10 years later began working together on a chair design that would eventually become the ultralightweight Catalyst. By October 2005, Munsey and Slagerman were working with investors to create the Ki Mobility brand, and they launched the company on Sept. 19, 2006, at Medtrade in Atlanta. Ki sold its first wheelchair, a Catalyst 5, in December of that year.
Last December, nearly nine years to the day of its first Catalyst sale, Ki Mobility sold its 50,000th chair. But the company’s growth is measurable in other ways, such as its upcoming new home.
“It’s going to be a fairly substantial building,” Munsey said, “and we’ve become a fairly substantial employer in our community, with 120 employees and growing fast. That’s a milestone that — when you’re trying to come up with a product and figuring out how you’re going to sell it to somebody — you don’t think of. I didn’t have the goal of being an employer of note in the community that people depend on. We’ve been in this rodeo for awhile, so we know how this business works. But that’s probably an achievement we had not thought of in the beginning.”
Slagerman looks at Ki’s history through its product roll-outs.
“In terms of product, each product that ventures into different spaces is an achievement from my perspective, looking at Catalyst, Rogue and Focus,” he said. “Each one of them serves the heart of different aspects of complex rehab. So those introductions stand out quite significantly.”
Munsey added, “We want to be a full-line manufacturer for all of those products, and that has been in our plans from the beginning. I think the major products are in the right order.”
To which Slagerman added, “The order is correct, it just took us a little longer than we planned.”
Today, Munsey is frank regarding the initial hope of establishing Ki Mobility as quietly as possible.
“We sort of hoped we’d be under the radar a little bit,” he noted. “Part of what Murray’s talking about, with it taking a little bit longer, is if we came up with a new idea that the market actually said, ‘That’s a good idea,’ the other guys would come right back at us. So we had to be fairly nimble to make changes. It’s not just free-floating R&D and coming up with the coolest ideas. There are other companies out there that we had to keep our eyes on and remain competitive with.”
Complex Rehab, Then & Now
Asked about the biggest changes they’ve seen during Ki’s decade-long life, Munsey pointed out the effect that certification, such as the Assistive Technology Professional (ATP) designation, has had.
“A lot of the increased professionalism, especially on the supplier side of it, are things that other industries have, especially for manufacturers,” he said. “We have standards that we have to meet. I think for the [ATPs] that do it really well and have for a long time, they’re probably not doing a lot different [as a result of certification requirements]. But what the certifications have added is they’ve taken those minimum expectations and spread them out over a larger population of people. There are more people doing it right than there ever were before. The elite people were always doing it right. They passed the certifications fairly easily, and not a whole lot of changed in their lives.
It’s the people below that top 20 percent — we’ve raised the ocean, and the boat came up with it, and I think that’s made it a lot better for consumers across the country.”
On the manufacturer side, Slagerman added, “It’s becoming tougher to be a new entrant to the marketplace. There’s a major level of expectation on the manufacturer in terms of the sophistication, and the pressure of cost means you have to have your product well designed for cost and be able to meet all the requirements in design of functionality and durability and regulatory [requirements] just to be able to enter the market. Twenty years ago, you could have people in their garages making product. It’s becoming really very difficult for that type of company to even consider entering the market now. You have to have an organizational approach to establish a company that can compete in this marketplace, in my opinion.”
But the biggest change to the industry, they say, is the reimbursement environment.
“It’s the continual sledgehammer that we’re getting to the side of the head from reimbursement that’s making it very difficult for people to practice the way they really want to,” Munsey said. “They have to stay in business. The reimbursement impact has probably been the biggest change in the last 10 years.”
Munsey pointed out that trying to find cost efficiencies while meeting the needs of highly involved clients — many with one-of-a-kind requirements — is a difficult balancing act.
“There’s a natural evolution in business, operationally, for standardized work,” he pointed out. “If you make it standardized, it’s easier to do it correctly every time. There’s less variation. But in our industry, we’re using the word complex because it’s more palatable than the word custom. I think the challenge for our industry going forward is to resist the standardization of work that many people do, where everybody who has this reimbursement gets this chair. They’re trying to do things to operate more effectively, but at the same time, we’re in complex rehab. If you keep saying, ‘We’re making it simple to do complex,’ the reimbursement people can hear that. We all have to be very careful about sending the wrong messages.”
So over the last 10 years, it’s become more difficult to create customized solutions for highly involved clients while still meeting funding requirements?
“Yes,” Slagerman said. “But that’s the fun part.”
Standing Out in Many Ways
Slagerman suggested that quality could be a factor in succeeding in the ever-more-demanding complex rehab environment.
“That is becoming more and more the area that becomes a method for making your product compelling in the marketplace,” he said. “You offer features and options that create a better platform for use of your product than a competing one. As the product becomes more complex, it gives us opportunity. Our customer service is a huge part of what we see as a differentiator in the marketplace. Creating an environment where those features and options can be easily communicated and then put into order and supported through customer service is very important. How am I going to use this, when am I going to use this? Trying to do more in terms of how we interface with ATPs to get that information out there is a challenge, but something that we’re working on.”
As it’s grown, Ki Mobility has also become an important community entity, and increasingly able to take part in advocacy efforts from an industry standpoint. Munsey indicated the company will continue to build up its participation.
“Our community involvement — in our community and the disability community in general — is growing,” he said. “There’s lots more requests, but we’re also proactive about it. The advocacy part — especially when we’re talking about reimbursement on the national level, whether it’s the separate benefit category or the effort on competitive bidding of accessories — we participate in that. And we have lots of people who have lots of experience in our industry. Ki Mobility is only 10 years old, but we’ve got hundreds of years of experience in our organization, and a lot of people who participate in trying to educate and push for those changes. And we look forward to taking on an even stronger role.”
“We’ve been very fortunate to attract some very talented, high-quality people to the Ki team,” Slagerman added. “Organizationally, we always wanted to attract high-quality people, but we’ve always been very fortunate in terms of those who have chosen to join our team. We’ve had some terrific people join Ki.”
In the near future, that team is focusing on moving into its new facility and welcoming visitors during a springtime open house. As for long-term goals, Slagerman points to sales efforts outside the United States: “There’s already a strong international sales component to our business at this point, but it’s growing, and I think we’ll put more emphasis on product lines that can be marketed internationally.”
He also said the company will work on making new products available more quickly, always a challenge given the regulatory hoops that must be jumped through before a new wheelchair can launch.
“We’ve been building the organization so we can be capable of bringing more product to market in a shorter period of time,” Slagerman explained. “There are more product engineers leading projects, more product managers focusing on the requirements, and that all comes with growth and being able to afford to do that.”
For the industry, Munsey said the company will focus on streamlining the wheelchair procurement process for its business partners, namely the clinicians and ATPs buying Ki Mobility products.
“We look at the clinical wheelchair professional, the ATP, that is our customer,” he said. “Our aim is to make their jobs easier. Not just easier to do business with us, but easier to do their jobs. We’re not done developing products; within the manual wheelchair lines, there are plenty of other opportunities for us to expand, and we’ll be looking at the kinds of things that an ATP or a clinician in a rehab [facility] needs to be able to meet the needs of their clients. What would be the most appropriate solution and how we can add value.”
In an industry known for the longevity of its veterans, 10 years might not seem like too long. But Ki Mobility has already made a difference.
In their community, Munsey said, “I talk to people all the time, people who have known about us for a little bit, and they’ll come up to me and say, ‘I’ve got a sister who has MS and they put her in this kind of wheelchair, and I know you guys do better stuff.’ The fact that we’re here means everyone within shouting distance knows more, and knows more is out there. They don’t just take what they’re given. They’ve become more educated. I see that every day.”