How we beat the odds: Bespoke wheelchair manufacturer RGK

Greg Eden & Russel Simms, founders of bespoke wheelchair manufacturer RGK, on turning life-changing accidents into business success.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

We started the business in 1988 with another friend Keith (who subsequently left RGK in 1992). We were all three originally able-bodied people who had life-changing accidents in our 20s.

Greg [left] had a motorcycle accident, Russel [right] had a car accident and Keith had an industrial accident: spinal injuries; all paraplegics. A big part of rehab was sport. We were sporting people before the accident so we just changed to wheelchair basketball, and got on with it.

As our basketball careers grew [they are both ex-GB wheelchair athletes], so did our opportunity to start a business - we knew we needed better chairs to play the sport. The wheelchairs we used then were everyday chairs that had no performance design. We'd get to our training sessions and start taking bits off the chair to help us perform better and a lot of people wanted to know if we could do it for them.

What was really difficult was knowing we wanted to make a wheelchair but not knowing how we were going to do it. To begin with, we sold wheelchair tyres and accessories, and that gave us some of the finance we needed because we didn't have a pot of cash.

We never thought about getting anybody to invest - look at who we were: a bunch of young lads with this crackpot idea. Bank borrowing was difficult at that time because we had no equity.

Also, it's not like today, with the media and the Paralympics, when you talk about wheelchair basketball, people have an idea what it is. Then, very few people did.

Our big break was when we met Brian Upright, who ran a little engineering company in Birmingham, which built our first frame. Brian is a clever man who is always open to suggestion and would always listen.

We would go to him with what we wanted to do and instantly the lightbulb would come on. He was pretty much our only constant supplier from start to finish, right up until he retired. He helped us become the £3m business we are today.

Greg drew our first chair, and got a couple of his colleagues to do some proper engineering drawings. That got us a long way because we had something tangible to show people.

It was a different world back then. At some of the other manufacturers we tried, we were referred to as 'the wheelchairs'. We'd get there, knock on the door and we'd be throwing stones at the windows to get in because we couldn't get over the steps.

We'd go in with a great idea but very quickly we'd become the charity case, and that was the way so many people saw us. They couldn't see the market and they couldn't see the opportunity.

They didn't understand that there was a whole other culture of emerging athletes in wheelchair sport, who today are taken seriously - we see them in the honours list, in the London Marathon, in the Olympics.

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