VMI’s Vision of the Future
Story by Scott Daravanis
Phoenix-based wheelchair van conversion manufacturer, VMI, is a long-time friend of the disability community. Our newest contributor, Scott Daravanis spoke with Doug Eaton, VMI’s Founder and President, about the values and vision that have shaped the organization and kept VMI in the forefront of conversion vans for more than 25 years. Doug (above) embodies VMI’s core values of “One team. One journey.” This plays out when he walks the assembly line chatting with team members or cheering at any one of the community-based events VMI sponsors.
Modified SUV Expands WAV Market
Vantage Mobility International (VMI) is adapting to a changing marketplace, leading the way in expanding the options for Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs) and in formulating how to meld self-driving technology into reality.
Fifteen years ago, America’s auto manufacturers drove nearly two million minivans off their assembly lines annually. Today, on average, manufacturers build around four million Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) and 500,000 minivans per year.
“Consumers are voting with their wallet and they’re preferring SUVs.”
VMI President and CEO, Doug Eaton, continued “The minivan provides the perfect platform to make our conversion. Though they prefer the SUV, they’re not going to compromise their needs for style, so we said, ‘If we’re going to do an SUV, it better have the same features as a minivan.’ The best-case scenario is to provide the need and the want.”
They found it with the Honda Pilot, which has the same chassis structure as the Odyssey van. Still, VMI had to come up with some innovative adjustments to make the Pilot accessible.
“Normally a hinged door opens at 60 degrees. We found how we can open it really wide so we can get a 32-inch wide ramp in it,” Eaton said.
“I have no problem getting into a minivan, spinning around 360 degrees with my wheelchair and getting up to the driver or passenger position,” Technical Support Expert and Trainer Tiger Desmarais adds. “I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to achieve that in the Pilot because of the size but (Honda’s designers) did a lot of slick modifications and I can do the same thing in the Pilot as I can do in the minivan.
“Your soccer mom has moved from a minivan to an SUV. That’s the market we want to be able to appeal to, and I think the Pilot does that well.”
Eaton said Honda has been very supportive of VMI’s plans and alterations. The first VMI-modified Honda Pilot should roll off the assembly line before the end of 2017.
“SUVs are so popular and the Honda Pilot is very stylish. We’ve done the research and we’re convinced it is going to be a really big seller for us,” Eaton said.
“It’s going to be great asset for us. It will catch a market that just doesn’t want a mini-van,” Technical Support Expert Howard Martin added. “The veterans that just came back from war; they don’t want a mini-van. They want a cooler vehicle and the Honda Pilot will be that niche for them.”
Eaton has a delicious analogy to express his excitement. “I joke we’ve been building chicken sandwiches for 25 years and chicken sandwiches are incredibly popular, but everybody wants a cheeseburger, so now that we’re in the SUV business, we get to build our own cheeseburger!”
The Future of Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles
“The economic future is very bright because Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles is a growing market and there are investments pouring into this market,” VMI President and CEO Doug Eaton said. “What keeps me awake at night is we have to work together with the manufacturers to solve complex problems. The main problem to solve is how to make our vehicles more affordable. We simply are going to price ourselves out of the market at this pace. The vehicles are more expensive and we’re making our conversions bigger and stronger and faster, which means they’re more expensive, so creating more affordable products is mission critical.
“(In addition) Our industry has to get together with the technology giants like Google and Apple and the auto makers like Toyota and Honda and Chrysler and GM and figure out how we’re going to integrate self-driving technology with wheelchair accessible vehicles. We have so many quadriplegics that simply cannot drive because they can’t use their arms or legs. We need to give them the same independence that everyone else has.
“If we don’t embrace that technology, then we’re going to miss a huge opportunity.”
VMI fulfills its customer-focused objective through researching and promoting new designs and developing technologies
“The greatest companies focus on the customer experience; that is what VMI is all about. We’re the leader in this industry because we focus on the customer and the customer experience more than any other company in the industry,” Eaton said. “We know who we are and what we stand for, and that’s our customers. We believe we’re called to serve others. Our purpose is to never forget the challenges our customers face. We do this for more than just a paycheck.”
Photos by Loren Worthington
Scott W.L. Daravanis is a graduate of Indiana University and has worked in television, radio and newspapers. Scott has been a reporter/photographer, Managing Editor, Associate Editor and City Editor for weekly, twice-weekly and daily newspapers. He plays sled hockey and enjoys photography. Scott and his wife, Amy, reside in Prescott Valley. He has one son, two step-daughters and four step-grandchildren.