Famous architect joins Drive

Thursday, June 30, 2005

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y -- Drive Medical Design & Manufacturing has hired a world-famous architect to break the mold of its reputation as a me-too manufacturer of durable medical equipment.
The company announced early last month that it would debut at Medtrade a new specialty line of HME products designed by Michael Graves, who has been hailed by one of the nation's foremost critics as "the most truly original voice American architecture has produced in some time."
"The image of [Drive] is that we are purely about price, or about price and value," said Doug Francis, Drive's executive vice president. "This will for the first time have everybody relooking at who Drive is and what we mean to this industry."
At Medtrade, Drive expects to feature one or two new bath safety products, the first of Graves' designs for HME. Later, he'll rework designs in aids to daily living and then walkers and rollators.
"His words to us," said Francis, " were something like, 'The walker as you know it today, when I'm finished with it, will be used only for a TV stand.'"
Graves is no interloping opportunist in the home medical equipment industry. Two years ago, the architect suffered the consequences of a sinus infection that migrated to his spine and disabled him. Today, he is a paraplegic, and as such, he's smacked into the liabilities of his disability.
While he was in the hospital, he became very interested in these issues when he couldn't reach the sink," said Susan Zevon, a spokesperson for Drive. "If you are a talented a designer, you are very acutely aware of how much better these things could be."
Graves' work in the HME industry is a truly novel development. While other companies have hired celebrity spokesmen (Graves will also serve as a spokesman for Drive), no manufacturer has tapped a renowned designer to revise home medical equipment.
Rubbermaid and now Costco have made bold retail plays in recent years. But Drive is hitching its wagon to a man who received a National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1999, who made the Alessi teapot world famous in the 1980s and who designs a line of home good products for Target.
But can a designer of such note reorient Drive's reputation as a company better known for flair and pizzaz than good stuff cheap?
"If you look at retail stores like Kmart, Sears, they have hard time moving up the channel," said Jack Evans, president of Global Media Marketing in Malibu, Calif. "I don't think you can move up that line once you have positioned yourself."
Drive begs to differ. But at the same time, the company has not lost sight of the need to be ultra cost-conscious in a market of dwindling reimbursement returns.
"We have spent a lot of time with [Graves], explaining while we would love to design a nice new bath bench, not everyone is willing to pay a huge premium for it," said Francis. "In general, he's aware that we don't want to add a layer of cost. We're going to try to where we can bring this product to everybody."