#212 Amigo Sales Inc.; manufacturer of electric wheelchairs; Bridgeport, Mich. For Plumbing contractor Allan R. Thieme, designing a better wheelchair was easy -- the hard part was selling it.
In 1968, when his wife, Marie, contracted multiple sclerosis, Thieme saw the disadvantages of the conventional wheelchair firsthand. Not only was it too wide to maneuver, it also forced his wife to sit still, unable to move, looking far more crippled than she really was. The replacement he developed, a motorized scooterlike device with a swivel seat and handlebars like a bicycle's, enabled Marie to exercise her legs as the doctor had ordered.
But most medical-equipment distributors had little interest in a wheelchair produced by a plumbing contractor with neither capital nor a reputation behind him. Thieme talked to dozens of distributors, but in five years Amigo Sales Inc. managed to sell only a few hundred wheelchairs, 90% through direct contact with handicapped people.
"I was broke, and I was going to drop it," Thieme remembers -- until the very effectiveness of the product suggested a novel marketing approach. Handicapped people who had been limited to conventional wheelchairs found the machine gave them the mobility to lead a full and nearly normal life. Why not let us sell the chair, several users suggested -- and so was born the Amigo direct-sales staff, 80% of whom are either handicapped themselves or have relatives who are handicapped.
Sales for the Bridgeport, Mich., company began to rise, topping $9 million in 1981. The market remains huge. And no one can tap that market better than Amigo's sales staff. "Many of these people might have trouble finding regular employment; society still makes it hard for the handicapped to find a job," Thieme says. "But the people using the Amigo have a distinct advantage: They know what the Amigo can do. It has touched their lives directly."