Niche Godmanchester wheelchair firm set to expand internationally
BRITAIN S leading manufacturer of racing wheelchairs could be set to go international. Godmanchester company Draft Wheelchairs faces the same dilemma as any other successful business built on a combination of quality and personal service – how to expand w
BRITAIN'S leading manufacturer of racing wheelchairs could be set to go international.
Godmanchester company Draft Wheelchairs faces the same dilemma as any other successful business built on a combination of quality and personal service - how to expand without compromising what it does best.
Draft is to wheelchair racing much akin to what Huntingdon-based Lola is to the 12-cylinder world of motor racing.
A staggering 23 medallists in the last two Paralympics, including three Beijing gold winners, raced to success in chairs custom-built by the Godmanchester company.
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The 2012 event in London will be another potential springboard, and is a key marketing opportunity for the �500,000-a-year Roman Way firm, which was founded in Papworth in 1997 by wheelchair racer and basketball player Barry Norman in partnership with engineer and cyclist Dan Chambers.
The firm moved in 2000 to larger premises in Godmanchester, where it combines a showroom with its manufacturing facility, and where the partners employ three others, most of them also wheelchair users.
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Although its bread-and-butter business is in everyday wheelchairs - "the vast majority of our customers don't race wheelchairs, but they like to be associated with the success" - Draft is one of just 10 companies around the world specialising in racing chairs that are tailor-made for individual athletes. It even produces off-road racers.
The company name raises some eyebrows outside the racing world - it derives from the American spelling of draught, the cycle-racing term for slip-stream.
"People are astonished that there should be top-class international stuff made in a little place like Godmanchester," Barry Norman, who has been in a wheelchair for 40 years, told The Hunts Post yesterday.
"We started out when I was selling other people's products, and I thought I should be getting a share of the profits. A mutual acquaintance put me in touch with Dan and it went from there. It was like a marriage made in heaven."
In the firm's early days it ran a factory race team to show off, prove and them improve its products.
"We sometimes wanted things to break so that we could move on from there. Now we have what is regarded as the best in the world."
But, with strong interest from overseas, particularly Canada and Finland, Barry and Dan want to build on the five per cent of their output that goes for export. And they are convinced that success in the 2012 Paralympics will provide an additional springboard to getting the Draft name better known across the world.
"Once somebody sees our product, they want it," Barry said. "The trick is to get them to see it. Then, to be able to go to the factory and talk to the guy who builds your chair is fantastic."
"We know there's a big market out there for us," Dan explained. "We started as two men in a shed. Now, if we have too many orders, we can't cope with them. We need to expand capacity before we sell it."
Apart from initial stock, the company has never used debt to finance the business. But that may have to change if expansion ambitions are to be realised.
Draft has called in Business Link for the East of England (BLE), the free Government advisory service for small companies that has helped 8,000 Cambridgeshire firms in the past 12 months. So impressed was business adviser Brian Stammers, whose background is in the pharmaceutical and hospital diagnostics sectors, that BLE's board called on the company yesterday.
"The issues are three-fold," Brian said. "There's the continued quest for new materials, there's what happens about manufacturing - whether it's in the UK or overseas and how you keep on top of the quality, and there's marketing and whether they should go into other markets."
That leaves Barry and Dan with a lot of decisions to make - about which they remain tight-lipped for the time being.