Ralph Braun built his company out of his creativity in meeting his own personal needs. Growing up in rural Indiana, Braun had difficulty climbing stairs, and doctors diagnosed him with spinal muscular atrophy. At age 14, Braun needed a wheelchair to get around. He was disappointed but developed his mechanical aptitude, honed by years of helping his uncles fix motorcycles and race cars, and used it to build himself a battery-powered scooter. With the scooter, Braun was able to navigate his way around a job at an automotive supply factory, where co-workers would ask him to build something similar for their family members and acquaintances. Later, for better transportation to and from the job, Braun figured out how to convert a Dodge van with a lift so he could enter the van on his scooter and drive it from there.
Again, people saw the van and asked for something similar. Eventually, Braun took all his earnings from scooters and van conversions and started Save-A-Step Manufacturing, later named BraunAbility, which has become the world’s largest maker of wheelchair-accessible vans and wheelchair lifts. The passion and purposefulness of the company’s founder are reflected in the structure of BraunAbility’s jobs and work. Recruiting is inclusive, with an especially great appreciation for the potential of disabled workers. Cindy Garnett, the company’s director of human resources, notes that a person with a disability has to go through life solving accessibility problems creatively, so that person is likely to have become a great innovator. Wherever possible, work schedules are tailored to employees’ needs.
Many employees have flexible schedules, working their choice of eight hours between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Some employees telecommute full-time or part-time. Even production workers, who must coordinate their tasks as vans move from one work station to the next, have flexibility to negotiate arrangements that work for them as a group. They told the company that they wanted just a couple of short breaks during the day instead of a long lunch break, so they could leave earlier. BraunAbility went along with the idea. As you might expect from a company founded by a creative man, innovation is valued over hierarchy at BraunAbility.
On a typical day, Ralph Braun tours the facility in his wheelchair, observing the work and talking to production workers and staff. Garnett says, “If anyone has an idea, that person is listened to.” For example, an employee suggested that, rather than going through the process of safely disposing of leftover paint, workers use it to paint the vehicle floors under the carpet, for a little additional protection of the vehicle. The company readily adopted the suggestion. Along with feeling respected, workers at BraunAbility feel their work matters to society. In Garnett’s words, because the company’s vans make it possible to travel independently, employees “know that they’re changing the lives of people with disabilities with every product that goes out the door.”