John Jakes builds Acorn Stairlifts from scratch

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Acorn Stairlifts company secretary Dave Belmont with one of the latest products off the assembly line.

Most successful entrepreneurs have a vision, a feel for their market and a bit of luck. John Jakes is among them.

From small beginnings, he is now sole owner and chairman of one of the world’s largest stairlift manufacturers.

These days, he jets in for board meetings in Steeton from his home in Monaco. He also has homes in Bradford, the Isle of Man and the United States.

It’s a far cry from the cramped premises in Sackville Street, Bradford, where he started Acorn Mobility Services Ltd in 1992 doing up used stairlifts, only turning to making them in 1994 when used ones became difficult to source.

Today, Acorn Stairlifts is the world’s largest supplier of products direct to the customer and also supplies trade distributors.

Acorn now has a turnover of around £80m and employs 1,100 people globally. Finance director Ed Putnam confirmed that the latest quarterly sales had reached record levels.

He said: “We’ve seen things picking up in 2010 and the second quarter was a record. Acorn’s turnover in every territory in which we do business increased in 2009 and will do so again in 2010. We’re a debt-free company with a business model that generates cash.”

A former call centre on Steeton’s Millennium Business Park is Acorn’s base, from which it has expanded internationally. Since launching in the United States in 1998, the firm has moved into Australia, Canada and Germany. This year, new subsidiaries were opened in Italy and France.

Acorn has grown both organically and through acquisition, including taking over Brooks Stairlifts, the company which created the original stairlift in the UK, in 2001. This deal strengthened Acorn’s position in the local authority market and among dealers and distributors across the UK.

More than £1m has been invested in its 45,000 sq ft Steeton factory over the past 18 months. This has created more than 80 jobs, including CAD technicians, skilled machine operators and production workers Acorn is the largest private sector employer based in the Keighley area, with 420 people at Steeton and another 60 in Shipley. It also has more than 50 surveyors and service engineers throughout the UK.

Stairlift production involves some intricate engineering – especially for equipment that has to go round corners where each curved rail has to be tailor-made.

Acorn manufacturers rails at Steeton and Shipley, with the carriages being made near Edinburgh.

Acorn’s expertise in manufacturing curved and non-standard stairlifts was boosted by the acquisition in 2008 of Bison Bede Stairlifts. Its operations have been integrated into an expanded Steeton factory, including a new production line and a fully-automated custom-built powder-coating plant.

Direct marketing on TV, in the press and online is the backbone of Acorn’s business, and speed of response to enquiries is key to its success in a competitive field.

Company secretary David Belmont said: “If we receive an enquiry in a morning, we can usually send a surveyor to look at the staircase the same day.

“Our stairlift for a standard straight staircase only takes 30 minutes to fit. We usually fit a standard stairlift within three days of it being ordered, but can install one the next day in an emergency.

“One of our main selling points is that we can undertake the survey and install the stairlift quickly, often before our competitors can even send a surveyor.”

Acorn has more than 50 service engineers in the UK, who can respond to a breakdown call within 24 hours.

To ensure customer satisfaction, a team from the sales, installation, customer services and quality teams, along with operations director Bob Matthews and David Belmont, reviews any complaints every week.

David said the market was reaching the stage where the stigma of having a stairlift installed was no longer a major barrier to sales.

He added: “As people live longer and mobility becomes a key issue, attitudes are definitely changing. Increasingly, owning a stairlift is seen, not as something to be ashamed of, but as a sensible way of maintaining a good lifestyle.”

That confirms John Jakes’s instinct that a stairlift would come to be regarded as a domestic appliance like the washing machine, and bodes well for Acorn’s continued growth prospects.

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