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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 3 years ago

One step up

A tight labor market and facilities 1,100 miles apart are some of the tougher challenges that awaited Steven Dawson at his newest CEO assignment.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Company. Harmar Mobility Industry. Manufacturing, health care Key. Company has a new CEO, Steven Dawson

You could say Steven Dawson's last job helped open the door to his new one.

Prior to being named CEO of Sarasota-based Harmar Mobility in December, he was a vice president and general manager for CGI Windows & Doors Holdings, which was acquired by Venice-based PGT in 2014. CGI was sold to PGT by private-equity firm Cortec Group, which is the controlling shareholder of Harmar Mobility. Harmar, with a niche in auto-lift products, designs and manufactures a line of power wheelchairs, scooters and other mobility accessories.

Cortec had already seen what Dawson was capable of at CGI. The investors were impressed with his focus, high energy and ability to lead and develop teams. And while Dawson is entering a new industry at Harmar, he sees plenty of parallels between the mobility equipment manufacturer and the window and door maker.

“This is a very similar business to the last business I was running,” he says. “It's a dealer-based business that manufactures a quality product. In a dealer-based business, it's all about making sure you're satisfying the customer from a product-design standpoint, from a product-quality standpoint, and from a service and value proposition standpoint. Those are all very similar in both businesses. This is a different product, but I think at the end of the day it's a very similar type of business.”

Helping Dawson with the transition is the leadership team and other employees at Harmar, which is headquartered at a 70,000-square-foot facility in Sarasota. It also has a factory in Missouri through its acquisition of Summit Lifts.

“I was just very impressed by the people,” he says. “I'm enjoying working with the team that we have in the company, and I'm looking forward to enjoying the success of the team's efforts. The more we do together, the better off we'll be.”

Dawson declined to get into specific sales figures, but he did say he thinks Harmar has the potential to expand by “double-digit percentages” in the next several years. To hit those goals, the company has several obstacles to overcome.

“We could get better at meeting our customer needs,” he says. “We can get better at lead times. There's some work to do here.”

Expand the reach
Harmar was founded in 1998, when area entrepreneur Chad Williams bought a small vehicle lift company called All Purpose Manufacturing. He renamed the business Harmar Auto Lift.

In 2003, the company earned the No. 60 spot on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies nationwide (thanks to 2,200% growth from 1998 numbers). It made the list again in 2004 at No. 148.
Over the years it's continued to develop new lifts and add products through acquisitions, such as its 2008 acquisition of Summit Lifts and its 2010 acquisition of Freedom Mobility. In 2010, it reached 10,000% growth since 1998. Harmar entered into its partnership with Cortec Group in 2012 to help position the company for the next stage of growth.

Harmar makes vehicle lifts for transporting power wheelchairs and scooters, stair lifts, and vertical platform lifts for residential and commercial applications. Dawson says the firm is positioned well in the auto-lift sector. “We can serve roughly 40% more configurations and applications than our competitors,” he says

That's key as scooters and power wheelchairs become more complex and require lifts that can handle them. “You have to keep up to speed with them,” says Dawson. “People want the ability to carry a heavier scooter or wheelchair with a lighter lift. That's something where design is really important.”

Dawson sees room to grow on the stair and vertical platform lift side of the business. The Missouri plant makes the company's vertical platform lifts and its stair lifts for staircases that go straight up and down. Lifts for curved staircases are manufactured in Sarasota, along with auto lifts.

A December 2016 report on the stair lift manufacturing industry from industry research firm IBISWorld supports Dawson's growth outlook. It saw demand grow for all types of stair lift products from 2011 to 2016, thanks to an aging population and increases in disposable income. It expects demand to remain steady for the next five years and projects industry revenue will grow an annualized 2.3% to $165.9 million in 2021.

The report found that the total number of stair lift manufacturers in the United States has grown at an annualized rate of 2.5% to an estimated 34 companies in 2016. It estimated Harmar's market share at 4.7% and expected the company's U.S. stair lift operations to generate $6.9 million in 2016.

New products coming on line will also help fuel Harmar's growth and reach new customers and market segments. “We're planning product launches each year,” says Dawson, who declines to get into specifics. “We have an aggressive new product development plan to fill in some holes and to expand our lineup.”

Karl Thatcher, president of Englewood-based Kustom Ability and a longtime Harmar dealer, carries the full Harmar product line. He praises the company and its products for their quality and dependability.

“I've been in this business since 1985, and I've been through the mill with so many companies,” he says. “Harmar is just a phenomenal company. They're the No. 1 mobility equipment company in the United States in my eyes.”

Thatcher credits the quality of Harmar's products and the quickness with which the company supplies parts when needed with helping to keep his own business afloat during the economic downturn. “If I didn't have a company like Harmar,” Thatcher says, “I'd have been gone a long time ago.”

Harmar has about 200 employees in all its facilities and expects to add to the payroll under Dawson. “We're filling in some key positions right now,” he adds.

While Sarasota's quality of life can work in the company's favor, it remains tough to find needed staff, which includes skilled laborers, engineers and salespeople. “The labor pool in Sarasota is fairly tight,” says Dawson. “We're competing with some other manufacturers, including my old employer.”

Positive trends
While new products will help Harmar reach new customers, there is potential in another area — baby boomers. As baby boomers age, there will be more potential customers in general who might find themselves in need of a Harmar lift.

Several data points back up that thesis, including:

There were 46.2 million people age 65 years or older in the U.S. in 2014, according to the Administration on Aging, which represents 14.5% of the U.S. population. By 2040, that number is expected to nearly double to 82.3 million people age 65 years or older, making up 21.7% of the population. The 85-plus population is projected to triple from 6.2 million in 2014 to 14.6 million in 2040;

More than one-third, 36%, of people age 65 and over reported some type of disability in 2014, with 23% having an ambulatory disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Among the U.S. population as a whole, the CDC reported in 2015 that 53 million adults live with a disability. The most common functional disability type is a mobility limitation, found in one in eight adults.

Veterans are another group of Harmar product users, and the company sells directly to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as well as directly to veterans through its nationwide network of dealers. According to the American Community Survey, there were 3.8 million veterans with a service-connected disability in 2014.

Dawson began his career in accounting and held financial roles at companies such as Telemundo. He later started his own consulting practice, Dawson Advisors, which helped guide private equity-owned companies through mergers and acquisitions.

Going forward there are other challenges the business must deal with, from geographic to organizational, in addition to hiring top talent. “It's tough having people in two different locations,” says Dawson. “Managing our relationship with the government is always a challenge.”

On the flip side, Dawson says the positive demographics and customer base are big reasons for optimism. And “what's unique about this business and what I really like about it is that you're delivering a product that people personally use and that benefits them and improves their lives,” Dawson says. “That's a nice feeling.”

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