Two friends who met while playing wheelchair basketball turned a knack for tinkering with spare parts into RGK, a £3.5m bespoke wheelchair manufacturer.
Greg Eden We were both born able-bodied but a motorcycle accident in 1980, at the age of 18, left me in a wheelchair. Five years later I met Russel while playing wheelchair basketball for the Birmingham Bulls. We shared an interest in adapting our chairs for the basketball court.
Russel Simms In those days your one chair did all. Greg and I would spend hours modifying our chairs for high performance. Before my car accident in 1984, aged 19, I was an agricultural sub-contractor. The accident terminated my combine harvester driving but I went to work in the office learning how the business ran.
Greg Eden I’d been an apprentice car mechanic but I had to quit after my accident because, back then, that job wasn’t something which you could do sitting down. I became a production engineer and later worked for the Sports Council. We had an idea to build a bespoke product but we knew that it would cost more money than we had. There were other wheelchair manufacturers but none were capitalising on the sports market.
Russel Simms We kicked off the business in 1988 from my kitchen, initially with a third partner, Keith Bolesworth, and concentrated on building add-on parts. By 1992 Keith had left and that year Greg represented Great Britain at the Barcelona Paralympics, we got our first industrial unit and quit our jobs to work on the business full time.
Greg Eden Initially a company made frames to our drawings and specifications, we imported wheels from the US and bought other components, and we assembled them all. We quickly realised this couldn’t get us the bespoke product we wanted for a reasonable price.
Russel Simms Loans from my dad and the bank gave us the cashflow to bring it all in-house, take on engineers and start making the whole wheelchairs ourselves. Now we have over 50 people – able-bodied and disabled – working at our factory in Burntwood, Staffordshire, including a four-member R&D team, which is the lifeblood of the new products.
Greg Eden We have diversified into two product lines: wheelchairs for sports – including rugby, tennis and table tennis – and daily life. Sales are equal between the two. We have in excess of 95 per cent of the UK market for wheelchair basketball and have been the key supplier to British Wheelchair Basketball for over 15 years. Our chairs have been at every Paralympics since 1992.
Russel Simms It’s still a niche business, we’re not about volume. We build around 1,600 units a year but they’re individual and hand-built one by one. Revenue was about £3.5m last year and we’re targeting £4m for the current year.
Greg Eden We’ve ridden out the tough times and never been affected by recession, other than seeing our suppliers hit and chasing money quicker than they used to. Our roles split many years ago. I’m engineering director overseeing manufacturing, purchasing and research and development, while Russel is commercial director handling sales and marketing.
Russel Simms Since we brought in a UK sales manager I predominantly concentrate on new overseas opportunities and export, which account for 50 per cent of our sales. The Netherlands, France and Italy are among our key markets and we’re starting to enter Germany and Brazil, the latter ahead of the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Greg Eden The secret of the success of the partnership is that we’ve always had the same ideas. We like each other’s company and we listen to each other. We fall out and we row from time to time but that’s just business. We can usually compromise and if we are at loggerheads we have respected managers whose opinion we can ask.
Russel Simms It’s been a learning curve to empower people to make decisions. That’s where Greg is a great influence on me. Frankly, I try to hold on to too many things.
Greg Eden The relationship works. We are quite different people, with very different interests and skills, which means we are a perfect complement.
Russel Simms Because we were great friends before we started there is such an element of trust that we don’t need to wonder what the other one is doing. I speak to other people in similar situations and they are either vying for the limelight or they’re so concerned about what their co-director is doing that they waste time checking up or wanting to be involved in other areas. We come together, share the information and day-to-day it works. There’s certainly a lot more harmony than punch-ups!