Disability drives man to create corporation that helps others
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent July 21, 2012 11:36PM
The BraunAbility plant in Winamac. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media
Founder and CEO: Ralph Braun
Location: Corporate office in Winamac
Year founded: First company, Save-A-Step Manufacturing, founded in 1962. Braun Corp. founded in 1972.
Number of employees: 829 nationwide, about 750 in Winamac, including engineers, welders, office personnel and others.
What they do: Make wheelchair-accessible minivans, taxis and paratransit vehicles and wheelchair lifts.
What you might not know about Ralph Braun: He uses a wheelchair and wasn’t expected to have survived his teens. The 71-year-old entrepreneur is also an author, having penned the book “Rise Above,” coordinated by the Jenkins Group, relating his personal and professional tribulations and triumphs.
Updated: August 23, 2012 10:44AM
WINAMAC — Ralph Braun was just 6 when he received news that would have devastated most adults, much less a young, active boy.
He had muscular dystrophy and wasn’t expected to live to his 13th birthday. What’s more, doctors told his parents, Joseph and Olive Braun, to leave their young son behind at the hospital so they could “study” him.
Fortunately, none of the Brauns listened to the doctors.
The couple took their son home back in 1947, nurtured him and fought to make his world more accessible.
As for Ralph Braun, not only did he outlive the doctors’ prediction, he married, had a family of his own and prospered. Now 71, Braun is the founder and CEO of BraunAbility, the manufacturer of mobility vehicles and wheelchair lifts, providing the ability for others in wheelchairs to drive themselves and employment for 750 of his hometown of Winamac’s approximately 2,500 residents.
When returning home, Joseph Braun helped his young son get around by giving him piggyback rides. When Braun outgrew that mode of transportation, he used a wheelchair, Megan Wegner, spokeswoman for BraunAbility, said during a recent interview.
But he knew there had to be a better way to get around.
“In his late teens or early 20s, Ralph developed his first electric scooter, which was basically the base of a lawn mower with an office chair bolted on top. He got his mobility back,” Wegner said.
Braun used the scooter to get to his job as a quality control inspector at a factory in the small town, but needed something that would shield him from the sometimes brutal weather when the factory moved 3 miles away, Wegner said.
Braun equipped an old Jeep maill vehicle with hand controls and a hydraulic tailgate lift, and the first accessible vehicle for physically handicapped people was born, Wegner said.
Fifty years ago he started Save-A-Step Manufacturing, making tri-wheel scooters in the garage behind his parents’ home. He built his first “Lift-A-Way” wheelchair lift for a full-sized Dodge van in 1970.
“That caught the attention of the disabled community. People came from Texas, Ohio and other states wanting Ralph to convert their vans,” said Troy Schultz, director of product development for BraunAbility.
Ten years later he started The Braun Corp., which has become an international private company with more than 800 employees at three locations that encompass BraunAbility, BraunTaxi (wheelchair-accessible taxis) and Braun Paratransit, which includes public buses. Other facilities are in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Mesa, Ariz., Schultz said.
Braun’s innovation started the business, but two events in history propelled it, Wegner said.
“The first was when the veterans were coming home from Vietnam, which coincided with the use of the full-size van,” Wegner said. “That created a real demand for wheelchair lifts.”
The second catalyst came decades later, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the 1990s.
“This required public transportation be accessible to the handicapped,” Wegner said.
Braun’s sprawling campus is located just off Indiana 35, the main drag in the small community of Winamac. It includes three buildings and 210,000 square feet of manufacturing space spread across 88 acres.
The main building houses offices and the manufacturing portion of BraunAbility, where workers transform Toyota, Dodge/Chrysler and Honda minivans into BraunAbility vans.
In another building, workers are making a lot of the parts needed for the conversions themselves, even the wooden pallets, Schultz said. A third building houses the warehouse, where parts are stored for delivery.
Outside, a sea of minivans waits to be converted. Those that have already gone through the process await being sent to their owners.
Inside the manufacturing portion, there are separate lines for each car line. Workers remove the vehicle’s original floor and replace it with a more accessible, lower floor.
They clean and undercoat the exterior and customizations are made according to the order.
Some Toyota Siennas are being transformed into the BraunAbilityToyota Xi, which Schultz said has a new in-floor lift that includes a 30-inch-wide ramp. The one shown has a ramp that comes up from the side of the van and can hold 800 pounds and has maximum head and ground clearance, he said. Seats are easily removed with the push of a button so the wheelchair can take its place, whether it be the driver’s or front passenger’s seat. There is a belt system to hook onto the chair for safety and foot rests for those in the back seat so their feet don’t dangle as a result of the lower floor, Schultz said.
The back seat flips for extra storage.
The lift can be operated with a remote or manually, in the event someone is locked in, Schultz said.
The other minivans have rear-access ramps that can be operated manually or by remote. They fold up when not in use.
All vans are tested for quality control and get a front-end alignment before they leave the building, Schultz said.
Peter Zarba not only sells BraunAbility minivans as part of his job as sales manager at Long Island, N.Y.-based Bussani Mobility, he also drives one of their vehicles.
“All their products are modified to personal specifications. They accommodate most people under 300 pounds and up to 6 feet, 4 inches,” Zarba said.
“One person might want a seat that swivels. Another might be a paraplegic and need hand controls. Braun accommodates them,” said Zarba, who became disabled following a car accident while he was a college freshman.
Zarba cited the ADA and Ralph Braun for helping people with physical disabilities.
“Before, people with polio or muscular dystrophy could end up in an institution costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Instead, they are now placed in the mainstream and can become an entrepreneur and an industry leader,” Zarba said.