Ralph W. Braun was 6 when he was told he wouldn’t live past his teens. He and his cousins were playing with toy cars in his aunt’s driveway when he stopped to show them a bottle of newly prescribed pills and, to his dismay, the pills tumbled into the dirt. That’s when he first got the bad news: It doesn’t matter, his cousin Harry said. I heard our parents talking, and they said you’re going to die anyway, probably before you grow up.
A doctor earlier on that summer day in 1947 privately told Ralph’s parents their boy walked upstairs on unsteady legs because he had muscular dystrophy (the diagnosis was later corrected to spinal muscular atrophy, also a degenerative disease). Nothing could be done, they said.
Confusion and hurt gave way to determination for the small-town Indiana boy, who not only survived but seemed to be motivated by people saying “you can’t do that” and went on to make it big. Braun went on to found The Braun Corp., which calls itself the world’s leading maker of wheelchair-accessible vehicles and wheelchair lifts. The global company, now 40 years old, has 850 employees, many headquartered in Winamac, Ind., Braun’s hometown located amid cornfields, halfway between Indianapolis and Chicago.
“I didn’t set out to be this successful,” says Braun, now 72 and the married father of five adult children, speaking from his large office with windows that provide a view of semitrailers going into and out of the 88-acre complex. “I set out to put food on the table and shelter my children.”
His enterprise started out small… and out of simple necessity: Young Ralph Braun grew tired of pushing himself around in a wheelchair, so he motorized the wheelchair by adding lawnmower parts and go-kart tires. That led to a side business that grew by word-of-mouth and eventually creating the Tri-Wheeler, the world’s first motorized scooter. (“I’m pretty much the one who is responsible for all those things being run around in the shopping malls.”) The scooter provided him a way to get to his day job as a quality control inspector at a nearby factory. When the factory moved too far to arrive by scooter, he engineered his first accessible vehicle out of an old postal Jeep with hand controls and a hydraulic lift. “For the first time, I could drive and ride from my scooter without having to rely on someone else—freedom,” Braun says.
Braun still was working as a factory inspector by day when, during his off hours, he created and installed the Lift-A-Way wheelchair lift for vans. He worked nights and weekends to meet the demand of disabled people who called from far and wide. He founded The Braun Corp. in 1972 (and around that time quit his factory inspector job). The White House in 2012 named the boy-made-good a “Champion of Change” for “overcoming society’s barriers to bring mobility to the world.”
“It was kind of devastating,” Braun says of his muscular dystrophy diagnosis. But “that just made me more determined to do what I needed to do as quickly as I needed to do it.
“I knew that if it were true and I wasn’t going to live past my teens, then I’d better live a fast and quick life during those teens so that I could enjoy life as much as possible.” He realized death could take him any day—“which it could to any of us.”
Obstacles were many for a disabled young man creating a business, and his experiences can enlighten other entrepreneurs. For example:
★ At 22, Braun was an inventor with no money, no business plan and his parents’ garage as a workshop. “It was all by the seat of my pants,” Braun recalls. If he faced obstacles such as needing to borrow money, he’d try his hardest to get it, “but I found it a lot easier just to do without.” His M.O.: Every time he’d make a few dollars on something he built, he’d reinvest the profits into his business so it would grow. “I still do that,” Braun says. “Really, there has been no change, even though I could borrow probably whatever I wanted to from the bank. My philosophy still is to take the profits and invest them in the business and just keep growing.”
★ Braun didn’t patent his products (because of the potential cost of defending patents). His motorized scooter ultimately attracted more than 20 lower-cost competitors, nearly all of them offshore, so he faced a turning point. He stopped making scooters. “There was no way that I could compete against offshore stuff,” Braun says. He focused instead on his other innovations: the wheelchair lifts for vans and trucks—products that aren’t easily imported. Braun hasn’t patented his wheelchair lifts, either. If you can build a better mousetrap at the same price or better than anybody else can build it, he says, and you keep making the product better, why do you need a patent?
★ He chose his 2,500-population rural hometown as company headquarters. Braun says it “never really crossed my mind” to locate his 210,000-square-foot manufacturing facility anywhere but Winamac. “By staying in my hometown, I had the familiarity with everything that goes on here and the people structure and the people’s work attitudes so that you could get things done. If you go into a strange area, it could take you two to three times longer to get a zoning ordinance passed or who knows what.” Besides, “the work ethic of the people in this rural community is untouchable. There are none better.”
Town Council member Tom J. Murray, who grows hay on some of Braun’s farmland, calls Braun a big asset for the community. Murray’s dad, Tom C. Murray, a part-time real estate agent who as a kid rode the school bus with Braun, couldn’t agree more. “There’s a lot of employment and he’s been real good for the town,” he says, adding that he sees Braun just about every day eating lunch at Vicky’s Restaurant in Winamac. “The town would be a ghost town if it wasn’t for him.”
★ Like many great entrepreneurial ideas, his business grew out of necessity and met unsatisfied needs. Just think: There were no curb cuts and no wheelchair ramps when Braun was young; his dad for a long time gave him piggyback rides to get him around, and Braun’s high school buddies carried him to the school’s second floor. Braun was stunned when—as his business started to grow in the early 1970s—he learned that many disabled people were kept at home, never to venture out into a formidable obstacle course of a world with multiple steps, curbs and tiny bathrooms.
“There were a lot of people that were put in a closet,” Braun says. It “made me almost ill to see how backward” some people were, “where the parents just didn’t want to take them out in public and basically just kept them at home with no education. It was sad.” He hasn’t come across such stories in years, “so apparently we’ve done something to move things along.”
★ There’s “no magic potion” for success. “It basically comes down to just hard work and determination.”
That’s how a company that started as a side business in his parents’ garage grew up and recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a fireworks show and company picnic that, a spokeswoman said, drew more than 3,400 people for its carnival rides and hot air balloon race. (Interestingly, Braun himself has competed in hot air balloon races. He is believed to be the first person in a wheelchair to compete in the Indiana State Fair Great Hot Air Balloon Race; he finished among the top five in that 2002 competition.)
Braun currently is fighting cancer and, as he puts it, is “doing a real good job of it.” He sold part of the business to three groups and maintains majority ownership. A new leadership team is carrying on his vision. He still works half-days as chairman and CEO. “There’s no retirement for me.” He has told his story in an autobiography, Rise Above (2010, The Braun Corp.); proceeds from sales go to The Ralph Braun Foundation, which assists people with mobility needs.
He remembers praying as a kid to ask God to perform a miracle and make him able to walk. “I have to say that miracle did happen: He blessed me with the ability to take care of myself and help others,” Braun wrote in Rise Above. “My prayers were answered.”
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There’s still a place for figuring things out on our own, for going into unfamiliar places without a manual, to get wet, to get lost.