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Apple Independence Mobility offers wide range of products, good service

Monday, Aug 1, 2011

Jeff Apple shows how a wheechair device on a vehicle works. (Photo by Greg Little)

Jeff Apple is the first person to admit he had no clue that in 2011 he’d be sitting in an office overseeing his own company.

“I did not think this would happen,” said Apple, owner of Apple Independence Mobility LLC based in Cookeville.

In fact, Apple believed he’d be a salesman following in the footsteps of his father, Ted. It was 1984 when his dad became a salesman for “Rascal” scooters, which provided mobility for people with disabilities.

His dad had the sales territory in part of Tennessee and Jeff decided to follow in his footsteps, taking another piece of the state as sales territory. But along the way, Apple said the company “made philosophical changes” he didn’t agree with so he spoke with his father, saying he felt “we can make a go of it on our own.” They already had a pretty large client base.

In 1999, Apple formed his company, operating it out of the garage in the family home. But just two years later, he said Medicare rules changed and in order to get reimbursements, a storefront was required. That’s when they opened up the store at 306 North Willow.

At that time, the focus was on personal mobility, including wheelchairs, ambulatory aids and other products. They also started offering power wheelchairs, a product which has become central to the business.

The company also offers a wide variety of in-home products, including stairway lifts, wheelchair ramps, porch lifts and more.

By 2005, Apple said they decided to venture into the business of handicapped accessories for vehicles. That business has also been doing well and expanding.

He said six manufacturers offer vehicles which convert to handicapped accessibility. Apple Independence Mobility is a dealer of various products which are used in the conversions. Nearly all of the conversions are in mini-vans, which Apple said have become very popular. He said clients prefer them for various reasons, including gas mileage as well as how similar they look to regular vans.

Apple said the company works with area auto dealers in making sure customers get the proper equipment when it comes to converting the vehicles.

A changing world

One thing which has changed in the industry is the fact people are living longer and there is a trend in the country where people want to stay in their homes as opposed to living in an institutional setting.

Apple said the “baby boomer” generation is “much more active,” even if they have disabilities. That means they need the proper equipment to stay active. He also believes the “stigma” of being handicapped has nearly gone away over the years and people get out more.

Another factor was passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act which has made accessibility to nearly everything much easier.

In fact, he recently had a client who said he was able to go to the top of Clingman’s Dome, something which would not have happened 20 years ago. There is handicapped accessibility to almost all state parks and other areas, meaning people can be more active and involved.

Apple called it “good for society.”

The proper fit

One of the largest aspects of the business is working with “seating clinics,” he said. Those clinics, of which there are five in the company’s coverage area, work with people in getting them properly fitted into wheelchairs and other devices.

He said it is important that chairs have a proper fit, especially for people who are going to be confined for a long period of time or even the rest of their life.

Apple said around 70 percent of their clients are considered senior citizens, but they also do a lot of work with all age groups. They recently worked with a two-year-old child who had medical problems and needed a mobility aid. Apple said the oldest client he has served is 103 — and the man drove to get the power chair.

Of course part of being in this kind of business means dealing with insurance, something that changes constantly.

Apple said that Medicare generally covers equipment which is used inside the home. The Veterans Administration, he said, works with clients on helping with vehicle conversions, including lifts and ramps. He also said there are other government programs available to assist people in getting the necessary equipment.

A new direction

When Apple first began the company, which is co-owned by his wife, Kerri, he was basically the lone sales representative. Today, they have six sales people on the staff for the personal needs and three more for vehicles.

Now, Apple said they are working to have a full-service home division as part of the company.

He believes there is a need for this service in the area. And that area is basically the Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville triangle which is covered by the company.

The home division, he said, will assist people in determining how their home needs to be modified in order to accommodate someone with mobility needs.

Apple said in working with people at rehab centers, he realized that many of them are thrust “suddenly” into a life-changing situation. It can be through a stroke or spinal injury or any number of reasons.

“It’s a trying time,” he said, both for the patients and the families.

As Apple points out, just a few weeks earlier, that person was living a normal life and suddenly their needs change tremendously. Apple hopes to be able to work closely with people making determinations about their homes.

That can be anything from modifying a bathroom to major kitchen remodeling. In order to do that, he said they are beginning to work with local contractors and have hired a lead salesperson for this effort.

Apple said one of the most critical parts of dealing with these situations is helping people “stay positive” while going through a very difficult time in their life.

“The more independent a person can stay, it is better psychologically for them,” said Apple.

All about the service

Part of working with clients, he said, is providing good customer service.

“Good service is what helps you grow,” he said. “We have been fortunate to grow as much as we have grown.”

Apple said he learned those service lessons from his father, who always focused on meeting the needs of the customers. He also pointed out that in this business, when something does break, the customer cannot function and the problem needs fixed immediately.

He believes many companies look at “one time sales” to customers and don’t focus on service. Apple said when they first opened the store, a lot of their business was from people who needed service on equipment they already owned. That, he says, began their quest to provide the best service and it has remained atop the priority list for the company.

A positive for Apple is the fact many of the products they offer are “very dependable” and durable, something crucial for equipment which is used on a daily basis.

He said it is “much more dependable” than it was when he first got into the business. Technological advances have also played a major role in helping people be more mobile. Inventions like the “joy stick” for wheelchairs have changed the way people with disabilities live.

Holding its own

Like all businesses, Apple said the company did find the going more difficult during the recession. However, he said there were “no layoffs and no pay cuts,” which means they held their own through the tough economic times. Apple said the most difficult period was from 2009 to mid-2010.

This year has been “good,” and he hopes with the expansion things will improve even more.

“We have been fortunate to hire good people,” said Apple.

Nearly all of the employees “come with experience,” he said. “We’ve been real lucky.”

But luck may not be the entire reason. Apple did say he thinks the fact the company is from a smaller community means everyone focuses more on the needs of the customers.

“We try to do what the customers need,” said Apple.

He’s also hoping to be the first company in Tennessee to offer the full range of services, from automobiles to personal mobility to the new home division.

“I don’t think anybody else in the state is doing that,” he said.

Apple Independence Mobility has stores in Cookeville and Lebanon. They also have a warehouse in Chattanooga and a separate automobile location in Cookeville.

For more information, call 931-528-5788 or visit
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