Amazing bike, but it’s a shame as soon as special needs is put in a sentence the price rises way too much!

Thank you for thinking our trikes are amazing – we think so too – and it’s all down to three factors we take great pride in – quality, innovation and service.  They are what make Tomcat the gold standard, and without that commitment in everything we do, we’d be just another bog-standard business, selling trikes to make a profit.

But I would also like to thank you for your comments about price (which might seem surprising), but in the case of special needs equipment, you’ve raised a frequent and very reasonable point, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to address it for you – at least from Tomcat’s perspective.

An annotated CAD drawing of the E-Bullet. Title reads: Tomcat E-Bullet Trike. Labels read: Swivel, sliding and removable seat mechanism (optional); Quick Release, Two Piece Frame; Foldable handlebars - for easier transportability; Self-Centralising Steering System; 5 or 8 Speed Hub option; Quick Release Wheels; Easy to Remove Battery Pack.

Quality isn’t expensive, it’s priceless
On this price issue, I’m privileged to wear three hats.  For 15 years, I was a father to Tom Baker who was the inspiration for Tomcat, so I understand the high cost of parenting a child with severe special needs.  My second hat is the challenge of running a business that makes special needs equipment and my third is that I sit on the working committee of one of Britain’s best-loved and best-known charities.  In that role, we try to make our hard-won funds stretch as far as possible, so I really do understand all of the angles first-hand.  Dependent upon which hat I’m wearing at any one time, I’ve been in the position of being angry about the cost of what we’ve needed for Tom; worried about paying the business bills, and frustrated that our charity cannot help more people than it does because of high product costs.

Bob and Tom on a road. Tom is looking away from the camera, facing forwards on the trike, and Bob has turned back to look at the camera. He is holding the Carer Control arm. There is a dog on his right, also facing up the road.

After twenty years, can I see a way to keep everyone happy and resolve this thorny issue… well no, not really, but at least I can explain where the costs come from and then you will hopefully be able to make a clearer judgement on the industry.  Perhaps not by comparing a bike for a child without difficulties, to a trike for a child with many (we all know they cost more), but in value for money terms instead; because they really are two very different things.

What do I mean by that?  Well, by coincidence, yesterday was a day on which – after many months of trial and tribulation – a very intelligent young man whose limbs are strapped to his wheelchair for his own safety, was able to use his body as nature intended and cycle (a Tomcat Bullet Apprentice) for the first time.  The nuts, bolts, design, manufacturing and service cost along the way was high of necessity and far higher than the price paid, but the pleasure it brought to him and his family when the problems were solved was priceless.  What’s in it for Tomcat when our costs exceed our income in that way…?  Knowledge!

Innovation and custom-building
To be able to succeed for customers with such difficult challenges, we need to pay the cost of two essential elements -innovation and custom building.  Both are very expensive but without our innovation over the last 20 years, (and that which is yet to come), the industry would be where it was then, with only the moderately disabled, allowed to ride a trike.  Tom was one of those who was considered unsuitable and I was determined to solve the problems for him – hence Tomcats existence – but since then we have never given up on anyone we thought we were able to help.  Consequently, we have a near 100% success rate and I think most parents would prefer to pay a little more for a life-changing achievement than less for yet another heartbreaking disappointment.

It is a matter of public record at Companies House (as is any UK company’s profit and loss!) that Tomcat consistently spends approximately 25% of its turnover on innovation.  Over the years, our custom building has brought over 40 innovations to the industry; many of which (such as our Dual Axle™ and our Carer Control™ system of steering and braking from the rear) have become industry standards worldwide, and have become compliance conditions for many government tenders.

A girl on a red trike, smiling at the camera. Se has two prosthetic legs and her arms end at the elbow.

Innovate don’t imitate
 I have to have a wry smile when organisations who have copied innovations that have taken us so much time, effort and money to perfect are seen as the good guys because they are cheaper!  Usually, the design is ‘dumbed down’ to reduce cost, but I have to wonder if the end result benefits from the same safety testing and stress analysis as the original innovation.  If it seems too good to be true, it probably is…!

However, if we, and the many other companies who genuinely innovate in this industry, were to stop doing so because of that frustration, then until doctors can eradicate all disability – both genetic and acquired – the quality of life of so many people the world over, both young and old, would be so much poorer.

On the matter of the cost implications of quality, the industry has to set higher standards in materials and design, with all the cost that implies, because of the vulnerability of the customers we frequently build for.  Some conditions – and I will give hypertonia as just one example – subject the equipment to unusual and often very high stresses that would never be a factor in a machine built for a non-disabled person; say a two-wheeled bicycle versus a special needs tricycle.  However, the need for a higher specification extends right across most supportive equipment such as wheelchairs and the like.

There is also the obvious factor of volume.  When you are only making small volumes of any product, material costs will be far higher.  Similarly, the processes you are restricted to are often very costly in small volumes.  For example, we use a lot of alloy castings in our machines because they are suited to low volume, but we could reduce the cost from pounds to pennies if only we had the volume to die-cast or injection mold in thousands!

From our custom building point of view, it is far better for the customer and the company that we adopt the policy of quality in everything we do.  It sets a standard the whole company works to without question, and in my experience, spending a little more to achieve quality is always cheaper in the long run as there is no fun in being stranded miles from home!

Customer service is not a department, it’s an attitude…
The last price factor is service.  As always, that’s a matter of getting what you pay for.  You can cut costs by buying a readymade, off the shelf product, but get it wrong and you are likely to be lumbered with an expense that doesn’t work and cannot be altered with all the disappointment and stress that that infers.  My motivation to offer our customers the very best service we could provide was the result of exactly that experience.

Tom’s mum (now my wife) had bought Tom a trike over the phone from one of the UK’s best-known brands, only to find it was useless because of his learning difficulties.  There was a 25% re-stocking charge and carriage charges both ways if she wanted to return it.  I thought that was an industry disgrace and still do for those companies that operate that policy and there are many.

My thoughts were that Tom’s mum was buying her first trike for a child with a multiplicity of problems, from a company that was building hundreds of trikes every year.  Surely, it should be the expert – the company supplying the product – that took responsibility for getting it wrong, not an overstretched and exhausted single mum.   As a consequence, when I set out my philosophy for Tomcat it was that in all things we do, we do them in the best interests of the rider and their greater family – without exception.  That has never changed over the years and is one of the many reasons why we won the Queen’s Award in 2013 and our social media presence is what it is!  Social media has its faults but it is the very best indicator of the respect a company has for its customers!

A group of people stood behind a man at on a pink trike with his dog beside him.

To achieve the level of service I thought was required to ensure that none of our customers were ever disappointed, I thought it necessary to custom build, so we had the specification exactly right from a technical point of view, but also that we held our customer’s hands through all the anxieties that come with making such an important purchase.  This included assessing the rider, allowing in the design for conditions that might improve or deteriorate, advising on the best spec to fit in with transportation and family life, liaising with physiotherapists and consultants, guiding and advising on funding help and resources, and perhaps most important of all, ensuring that the finished product is exactly as it should be.  As a consequence, we need staff who don’t get their hands dirty building the trikes but to our customers, they are trusted friends who have helped them achieve what they are hoping for, with honesty and fairness, every inch of the way.

I am very proud that that remarkable service shines through in our social media and it is why our customers often describe us as the gold standard or, dare I say it, – fantastic trike!  It can’t be those things in just one area and not in others, it has to be in every aspect of helping our customers, both during the purchase and after, and that includes being as fair as we can over pricing whilst allowing us to stay in business

Observe, Listen, Understand and Assist #tomcatstory

I hope this blog has made some sense of the high cost of special needs equipment.  It is a reality that will affect every parent of every disabled child at some time and without government help to purchase these important items, it puts a heavy burden upon parents and charities.  But let me give you a warning about government funding!  Tomcat has been able to innovate as a direct result of the lack of direct, equipment support for our disabled population, whereas across Europe most equipment is nationally funded in some way.  That sounds good at first glance, but set funding and strict specifications stifle all innovation in these countries that appear to be more socially aware!  At least our system of private and charity funding has given us the freedom to innovate.  In doing so, we have been able to change lives for the better, not hold them in limbo as copied innovation and government funding tends to do, so I hope you will continue to support Tomcat and all the other true innovators because none of us know when we will need the next innovation for ourselves.

Bob Griffin