Dealer Tim Ilderton still remembers one of his first customers to buy a wheelchair-accessible van: a frequent churchgoer named Harold who lived in the country with just his cats.
It was the early 1990s, and Ilderton had recently taken over the small conversion van division of his family's Chrysler-Dodge-Plymouth store in High Point, N.C. Harold used a wheelchair because of a condition that kept his feet bandaged and his legs so stiff that they couldn't bend.
Ilderton sold him a converted van stripped of the front seats to make way for a wheelchair, kept stationary by an electric lockdown mechanism. Ilderton's service techs extended the steering column by nearly a foot. Hand controls were added for the brake and throttle.
His customer's gratitude gave Ilderton a rewarding feeling that has never gotten old, even a few thousand customers later.
"The car business can be such a grind," says Ilderton, 62. "My mobility business offers a much more human aspect to selling a car. It forces you to slow down and work with that customer for a long time to determine their needs and help them achieve their freedom."
He says: "It gives me the energy to carry on with the rest of my car business. I feed off of it."
The rest of his car business is enough to keep him busy. His 80-employee Ilderton Dodge-Chrysler- Jeep-Ram sells nearly 500 new and around 300 used vehicles a year.
But Ilderton Conversion Co. is a particular source of pride. He sells about 150 new and used wheelchair-accessible vans a year, accounting for about one-third of the store's $60 million annual revenue. He is one of just a handful of U.S. new-car dealers to also sell conversion vehicles for people with disabilities.
Fifteen employees work in the conversion division, which sells vans out of a small showroom in a building next to the main store, from stand-alone van conversion stores in Charlotte, N.C., and, in a gleaming showroom that can display up to five vans, in Charleston, S.C.
Ilderton's conversion division sells converted Chrysler, Dodge, Honda and Toyota minivans upfitted by Braun Corp., a Winamac, Ind., company that bills itself as the world's largest manufacturer of wheelchair-accessible vans. Braun's models feature lowered floors, power fold-out ramps, easily removable seats and an auto-kneel function for easier access.
Ilderton often sells the vans as-is, but customizes plenty of them, too. Inside a 10,000-square-foot conversion shop in High Point, service techs cut out roofs, raise doors, install lifts and add hand controls and steering aids. The price tag on a new conversion van with extensive customization can run up to $60,000, Ilderton says.
Selling both new cars and wheelchair-accessible vehicles makes Ilderton a rare bird. That's because the turn-and-earn mentality of the car business generally translates poorly to selling to people with disabilities.
"The mentality to sell and service a customer with a disability is quite different," says Nick Gutwein, Braun's president. "You need to really understand the disability, the family situation, the type of scooter or wheelchair. The sales process takes a lot longer."
Ilderton is among fewer than 10 new-car dealers in Braun's 100-dealer U.S. network, Gutwein says. Most are used-car dealers or niche retailers of mobility services. Ilderton also is among Braun's top 10 dealers in sales volume.
"They've been able to set up a culture that has the patience, empathy and product knowledge to serve people with disabilities in an entirely different way from their able-bodied customers," Gutwein says.
He attributes that partly to Ilderton's long family history in the business.
Ilderton's grandfather founded the store as a Dodge dealership in 1926. In 1972, his father, T. Carey Ilderton Sr., sold his first wheelchair-accessible van to a government buyer.
The store nurtured the niche. By 1990, Tim Ilderton had been working as the service director but was feeling burned out. When the opportunity to run the conversion business popped up, he jumped at the chance. He eventually built the new showroom and opened the satellite stores.
In 2004, Ilderton's brother and the dealership's owner at the time, T. Carey Ilderton Jr., died. Tim took over the main store while still running the mobility business on the side.
Profit margins on converted new vans are modestly higher than those on new cars and trucks, Ilderton says. But that alone isn't enough for him to recommend jumping into the business.
It's much lower volume and "a lot more high maintenance," he says. Initial evaluation visits or phone calls with prospective customers can last hours. Buyers who are going to drive the modified vehicle on their own must pass special driving tests to get certification. Any modifications by Ilderton's techs must meet stringent federal requirements.
In addition, his finance and insurance personnel typically spend extra time helping customers cobble together payments from various third-party sources, such as U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs subsidies, Medicaid funds and insurance companies. Banks often tailor six-, seven-, even 10-year financing packages.
Even so, the toughest part for Ilderton seems to be not spending enough time on the high-maintenance side of his business.
Ever since taking over the dealership full time, "I've become the car dealer guy, running around between stores," he says. "I don't have enough time to talk to my mobility customers."