A Pasco manufacturer of custom manual wheelchairs will have more resources to expand as a result of being acquired by a larger Swedish company.
TiLite founder and CEO David Lippes announced this week that TiLite recently was sold to Permobil, which builds power wheelchairs.
Lippes remains at the helm as CEO and will be a partner in TiLite, which will remain a separate company.
Plans are to keep TiLite at its Pasco plant, which opened in December 2010 after a $7 million project that created a streamlined wheelchair manufacturing facility out of the former Food Pavilion on West Court Street.
TiLite has grown from 15 to 200 employees since its beginnings 17 years ago in the Port of Kennewick's Oak Street Industrial Park. In the last three years alone, those employees have doubled the volume of wheelchairs made in Pasco and sold around the world.
The sale came about after Permobil hired the Boston Consulting Group to find the best manual wheelchair company as part of its planned expansion efforts. The consultants recommended TiLite, Lippes said.
Both companies already were familiar with each other, because Lippes had built a relationship in the past decade with some of Permobil's employees at its manufacturing facility near Nashville, Tenn.
"We share the commitment to innovation for the benefit of the user," said Jon Sintorn, Permobil Group's president and CEO, who visited TiLite on Thursday.
Sintorn has been eyeing TiLite for a while, but had to wait until the timing was right, he said. He has been impressed to see what Lippes and his employees have created with spirit, culture and ingenuity.
"It is astonishing, actually," Sintorn said.
The purchase and sale agreement was signed in Stockholm on Memorial Day, with the sale closing two days later. Sintorn waited a week before coming to the Tri-Cities to give employees some time to digest the news.
A game changer
TiLite will help Permobil expand as more people need manual wheelchairs, Sintorn said. Being able to offer manual and power options will help the companies gain faster access to new emerging markets.
And the resources Permobil makes available are a game-changer for TiLite, which has been reinvesting its profits in new product development, better customer service and other needs to expand the business, Lippes said.
But as a small company, they've had to pick and choose what they can afford, leaving some projects on the wish list.
TiLite's eight full-time sales representatives will work with 60 Permobil sales employees in the United States, who will split their time between both companies' products, Lippes said.
He hopes some of TiLite's 33 independent U.S. sales representatives who also sell other companies' products will get hired by Permobil, he said.
Next week, 80 Permobil sales representatives from North America will visit TiLite to learn about its products.
And TiLite's research and development team will have a larger network to rely on to help them with designing the next best wheelchair, Lippes said. The team is working on new models and recreational products to be released in the future.
"We have great opportunities ahead of us," Sintorn said.
Filling a void
Permobil, started in the 1960s, is a mature company, and TiLite is a relative newcomer. But the reasons both companies were created mirror each other.
Both began because someone noticed the void between the wheelchairs that were available and what technology could create, Lippes said. Both have treated wheelchairs as a consumer product that must meet high quality standards, instead of as a medical device that someone has to have.
When TiLite started, "(manual wheelchairs) were heavy, they were ugly, they didn't fit particularly well," Lippes said. And that made the people using them feel undervalued.
And they didn't make for a good mobility device, he said. Poor ergonomics cause people's shoulders, elbows and wrists to wear out faster, meaning they have to move to a power wheelchair sooner, a costly and difficult transition.
A Permobil wheelchair costs about $20,000 to $50,000, while TiLite's wheelchairs are about $3,000 to $5,000. And other changes such as modifications to living areas and different vehicles might be needed.
TiLite's wheelchairs are sleek and light, weighing about 15 to 20 pounds. They are specially fitted, with 10 adult models and another model, called the Twist, specifically designed for children's bodies. Each is made specifically for the customer who will use it, including customizing the frame.
"We make what we call wheel prosthetics," Lippes said.
Permobil also customizes its power wheelchairs for an individual customer's needs, Sintorn said. Like TiLite, the company continues to create new models to improve the choices available to people who need a mobility device.
"We will take care of any need," Sintorn said. "That's what we are trying to do."
It's hard, demanding work, in part because of the care employees have to have for the people who will ultimately use the wheelchairs, Sintorn said. There is a sense of urgency because there are more people who need access to wheelchairs, which means ramping up production.
Sandra Gladstone, who has been with TiLite since day one, found out how much customers appreciate TiLite after taking over management of the company's social media efforts, she said. She collects some of the comments each month to share with employees and help the company improve its processes.
Comments from TiLite customers through social media in May touch on "superior fit," customer service, comfort and mobility. One customer wrote "I'm a TiLite fan for life," while another said, "The TiLite Twist is the finest manual wheelchair for active little ones. Easier for them to push and interact with their world and explore it. And develops their independence and fitness."
Some customers have expressed concerns about what the merger will mean for TiLite's quality, Gladstone said, but there is consistency between the companies' visions.
"That's what makes this merger so good," she said.
It will mean opportunities for TiLite's workers, and for the community as a whole as the company accelerates its growth.
"They are going to be getting some awesome chairs that they may not have access to now," Gladstone said.
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-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org