Van-Action rolls to the next level
Entrepreneur gambles by hiring professional manager to lead expansion

As chairman and majority shareholder of Van-Action, a company that retrofits minivans for use in transporting disabled people, Marcel Tremblay is accustomed to wielding power.

The business employs almost 100 people, and like most entrepreneurs, Tremblay has generally pretty much been able to hire and fire at will, distribute incentives, give raises and select suppliers. But one of Tremblay's most innovative recent uses of power, was to let go of it.

"I have always been a good inventor and product developer. I never liked administration," Tremblay said. "So I decided to find someone else to take care of it, and to concentrate on what I do best."

Last year, Tremblay took the unusual step of giving up much of his executive authority to Robert Brousseau, a professional manager, whom he hired as company president.

Brousseau cut his teeth running explosives manufacturer Expro Chemicals Inc. He brings to the table extensive international sales experience, which will come in handy in fulfilling his mandate to expand Van-Action's presence in the U.S. and European markets.

Turning over authority was a risky move for Tremblay, who started his business in the back of his Pierrefonds garage more than 20 years ago, after retrofitting a car for his brother who lost use of one arm and one leg in an accident.

During the past two decades, Tremblay turned Van-Action into one of Canada's most respected suppliers of transportation equipment for disabled people. This year the company will generate about $12 million in sales retrofitting about 400 mini-vans, double the total of just three years ago.

Van-Action overhauls can range from lowering the floor of a minivan and installing a ramp, so the owner can transport a passenger in his wheelchair, or in other cases the work can be more extensive.

For example, Van-Action re-fitted Guy Déry's, Dodge Caravan by taking out the driver's seat, and installing specialized controls, so Déry, a quadriplegic with only 50 per cent use of his arms, can actually drive the vehicle himself. Déry logs about 65,000 kilometers a year doing volunteer work for Kéroul, a group that lobbies for the rights of the province's 800,000 persons with disabilities, about a quarter of which have mobility challenges.

"I've been using (Van-Action) products for 15 years, and have changed vans several times," said Dery. "That should tell you all you need to know. If I didn't like their work I would have had gone to one of their competitors."

A minivan overhaul can cost between $20,000 and $40,000 depending on the work involved, in addition to the cost of the van itself.

It's not cheap, but in Déry's case, the CSST picks up the tab, because his disability resulted from a work accident. Most Van-Action customers in Quebec rely on a provincial government program that subsidizes only part of the cost.

According to Isaballe Duchesnay, a Kéroul spokesperson, people like Déry who can afford a retro-fitted minivan are lucky, because the public transportation services that are provided to disabled people by the SCTUM leave a lot to be desired.

"It's very hard for them to get around," Duchenay said. "They have to call two days in advance. They spend a long time on hold, and the driver often does a "milk run," instead of dropping them of directly where you want to go."

If Brousseau felt any nervousness about working under the close watch of the company founder when he took over as president last year, he showed no sign of it. He quickly made his mark, dismissing non-producing employees, and changing several department heads.

In addition, he hired an outside consulting firm to put together a $3.7 million cash injection package, which was supplied by RoyNat Capital and the Mouvement Desjardins. The money, consisting of loans and equity financing, will be used to help pay for the company's future growth.

"(Van-Action) was run as a family business," Brousseau said. "But to grow, we had to become more professional, more focused on results."

Although Tremblay and Brousseau seem to be working well together, power transitions are by no means a slam-dunk.

One of the hardest challenges that successful entrepreneurs like Tremblay face, is learning how to delegate authority once their company has grown to a certain level. The reasons are understandable.

Many entrepreneurs have built their companies from the ground up. They have detailed knowledge off all aspects of the business and the industry they operate in. They are on a first name basis with their most important clients and suppliers and have had a direct hand in hiring the bulk of the their employees.

With that combination of direct authority, financial stake in the businesses they own and information power, it's no wonder that entrepreneurs are reluctant to delegate.

The question of whether Tremblay and Brousseau can continue to work together will remain open for some time. But according to one observer, the Van-Action has several advantages that will make their jobs easier.

"Their products are very highly regarded," said Jean-Pierre Boissonneault, president of Groupe Elite Capital, who put together the Van-Action financing deal. "And they have tremendous potential to export. You could say that they have the wind in their backs."

 

Photo caption: According to Marcel Tremblay and Robert Brousseau, modifying mini-vans for disabled passengers gives them with a more way to travel.

Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Marcel Tremblay got into the business of converting vehicles for disabled people, when he refitting a car in the back of his garage so his brother, who had temporarily lost use of an arm and a leg could drive.
o During the next few years, he began re-fitting more vehicles, but his big break came in 1992, when he began overhauling minivans so users could push a wheelchair into the back.
o During 2003, Van-Action's 100 employees are expected to overhaul 400 vehicles, generating $12 million in sales.
o As a result of the company's rapid growth, last year, Tremblay decided to turn over much of his executive authority to Robert Brousseau, a professional manager.
o The two operate as a team, with Tremblay focusing on product development, and Brousseau leading day-to-day operations.

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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