If innovative genius inevitably bred business success, Nikola Tesla might have been as rich and famous as his rival Thomas Edison instead of dying alone in a New York hotel room.
So give Steve Kitchin credit for at least starting his own company, even if his dream of providing sporty transportation to the wheelchair-bound might not be alive today if not for the intervention of people who know how to make money – an underappreciated talent in a political climate that too often views entrepreneurs with suspicion and profit with downright contempt.
“The concept was good. We knew we had a product people wanted, but we had to shut the company down last year because we made promises we couldn't keep,” said local auto dealer Tom Kelley, who as I reported two years ago had partnered with Kitchin to create a company called GoShichi to convert pickup trucks for use by the disabled.
As it turned out, however, neither Kitchin nor Kelley really knew how to operate a manufacturing company. Orders went unfilled and bills went unpaid, causing Kelley and business partner Keith Busse, founder of Steel Dynamics Inc., to pull the plug on the company and its 40 employees. And that might have been the end of the story if not for the realization by Kelley and others that a diamond was still lurking in the rough.
In March a new company Mobility SVM (Special Vehicle Manufacturer) rose from GoShichi's ashes – a company that has already replaced red ink with black, mended fences with customers and suppliers and restored those 40 jobs, about half of them filled by former GoShichi employees.
It wasn't rocket science, just good business.
First, Kelley and Busse brought in an experienced management/investor team led by Jerry Linzey, a former engineer with Delphi Automotive who had rescued other troubled companies in the past and new serves as Mobility's co-owner and CEO. Team members analyzed every aspect of GoShichi's operation and eventually streamlined the manufacturing process to the point that a conversion that previously took up to 500 hours can now be completed in less than 100.
Design problems have been fixed, and marketing, supply and distribution have been improved by being designated an authorized General Motors “Special Vehicle Manufacturer.” Mobility products will even be on display at this month's Indianapolis 500.
Kitchin, 46, started GoShichi in 2009 because, having been a quadriplegic since breaking his neck 12 years ago, he wanted to give the disabled more transportation options. “It's bad enough that getting hurt takes your manhood away,” he told me in 2010. “Driving a mini-van made it worse. I'm not a soccer mom.”
When you see the way guys react to the product, it's incredible,” Linzey said – a reaction that makes him confident the demand for his product will remain strong.
Kitchin's apparatus that extends from and retracts into the cab is unique, Linzey added, because it allows people to operate the vehicle without leaving their wheelchair, and does not require the use of ramps or the loss of seats. GoShichi is Japanese for “five” and “seven” – numbers Kitchin and an engineering friend had wore on their softball uniforms.
And if all goes well, Mobility SVM may expand its product line and outgrow its current facility in Kelley's now-defunct Saturn dealership at 505 Avenue of Autos. “Keith (Busse) is already talking about a new building,” Kelley said.
If that happens, more jobs will be created (the company is already looking to hire), more taxes will be paid and more customers will be liberated from their physical limitations. But the true meaning of what Kelley, Busse, Linzey and others have done transcends this or any other single company.
President Obama's re-election ads are already attempting to brand Republic challenger Mitt Romney a “job killer” because the venture capital firm he once led made money by closing or downsizing "underperforming" companies in order to invest in companies considered to be more potentially profitable.
But consider the ramifactions of such a position: Should Kelley and Busse – or maybe even the government! – have continued to sink money into GoShichi despite its inefficiencies? Or was the wiser course to close the company so it could be reborn in a more efficient, profitable and sustainable form?
That is, in a sense, what Romney's Bain Capital did when Busse founded SDI in 1993. Bain's $18 million investment turned into an $80 million profit when SDI proved successful, no doubt at the expense of its more-established competitors.
But today, SDI employs more than 6,000 people – more than 2,000 of them in northeast Indiana – and reported net income of $278 million last year.
And that kind of success is still a good thing. Isn't it?