Bruno to quit making power chairs and scooters

Sunday, June 5, 2005

OCONOMOWOC, Wisc. - Disappointed by low margins and offshore alternatives to their American-made mobility products, Bruno Independent Living Aids is winding down its power wheelchair and scooter business and regrouping on the greener pastures of its lift business.

Bruno has been quietly extricating itself from the market since January when the company began telling customers it would discontinue production of its three K0011 power chairs. In April, the company told customers it would stop making six different models of scooters.

Bruno makes both products here in a 250,000-square-foot facility. Annual sales in scooters and power wheelchairs total about $4 million to $5 million. Overall, Bruno expects to generate sales of about $75 million to $80 million this year.

"We had a very good power chair," said Mike Bruno, Sr., the company's CEO. "I hate to get rid of them."

At the same time, the company's president, Mike Bruno, II, said mobility products, though they yield a decent margin, don't make the same sort of contribution to the bottom line as Bruno's other lines. The balance (and bulk) of Bruno's business is split evenly between vehicle lifts and stairway lifts.

"The lower the margin, the higher the volume has to be to cover overhead costs," said Bruno, II. "We were never geared up to be a volume player."

Though Bruno has already stopped making some of its power chairs and scooters, production on a number of models will continue until the inventory is depleted. Bruno said the company will inventory parts and supplies on its scooters and power chairs to fulfill its seven-year warranties.

Bruno started selling scooters about 15 years ago and power chairs after the emergence of the senior mobility market in the mid-1990s. But the landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, making it much tougher for American-made manufacturers to compete.

The lightweight travel scooter, which sell as cheaply as $600-$700 at discount big box retailers, have cornered the market. And power chair production has moved decisively to Taiwan and China. To compete effectively, Bruno would have had to ship its operations offshore.

"Mike," said one industry source, "had some real concerns about the kind of quality he could get from overseas."