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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2023


ricon/fastrak/mike1st/mark2nd By WADE DANIELS Contributing Reporter Ricon Corp. recently received what its management considers the seal of approval from the State of California. The Pacoima-based company already lays claim as the largest maker of wheelchair lifts for automotive vehicles. But the new state contract is especially sweet, coming after over a year of bids and negotiations. It calls for Ricon to supply the California Department of Transportation at least 175 Activans Ford and Chrysler minivans that are modified so that a wheelchair lift can be installed. Ricon President Andrew Loduha Jr. said the contract means as much as $3 million in new business for Pacoima-based Ricon. The privately held company doesn’t disclose financial numbers, but Loduha says that 1996 sales were “significantly more than $50 million a year.” “The reason (Ricon) is so much better than anybody else is their consistent quality control, where they are far ahead of their competition,” said Wendell Sampson, owner of El Dorado Bus Sales in San Francisco, a dealer for Ricon and its competitors. El Dorado has been contracted by Caltrans to purchase the Activans. “Their closest competition is making lifts from designs that are 10 years old, while Ricon consistently comes up with new lift designs,” he said. Most of Ricon’s sales come from its lifts, though Loduha estimates that the company will sell 800 to 1,000 Activans annually within a few years. The Activan was developed in response to declining sales of full-size vans and an accompanying drop in lift sales. For the Activan, Ricon buys minivan chassis from dealers for about $22,000, lowers their cargo-area beds by 10 inches and installs a ramp. It sells them through their dealer network, either ready-made or customized, for between $38,000 and $42,000 retail. Ricon was founded in 1971 by two unemployed aircraft engineers Leonard Rice and William Deacon who designed a lift device to help one of Deacon’s family members load and unload a wheelchair to and from a van. The two grew the company in Sun Valley and sold it in 1982 to a legal advisor named Marlin Freel, who sold it in 1986 to a Canadian holding company, Mediquip Healthcare. At about the same time, Mediquip bought a lift-maker in Montreal called Jure Ltd. and three years later consolidated both their manufacturing facilities into the company’s current site in Pacoima. In 1991, Mediquip ran into financial troubles and had to sell off some of its assets, whereupon Loduha, along with CEO Jules Tremblay and Senior Vice President Douglas Aziz, acquired Ricon Corp. and its various subsidiaries. In 1987, the company was producing about 1,500 wheelchair lifts per year, and in 1996 it produced more than 15,000 lifts. This includes nine lines of lifts and ramps that address various needs, such as the type of vehicle (van, bus, train) and price. In addition, Ricon’s wholly owned Canadian subsidiary, Concord Elevator Inc. in Brampton, Ontario, manufactures roughly 6,000 home and office wheelchair lifts and elevators for buildings from two to eight stories tall. Ricon, which has about 625 employees worldwide, bought Concord in 1993. The company has outgrown its 105,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and production facility in Pacoima and is looking to move to a new Valley space of between 130,000 and 150,000 square feet. It is working with the Valley Economic Development Center Inc. to arrange a loan necessary to expand its headquarters. Loduha pointed to a design staff of more than 25 engineers that works on new products better than the three times as many as its closest two competitors combined, he said. “If there has been one frustration for us, it’s been that there are a lot of companies out there who have tried to copy our products,” Loduha said. “We’ve been doing a lot of engineering for other companies (by default), but that has absolutely stopped within the past five years, as we have put patent protection on our products and we’re defending them.” Among Ricon’s protected designs is its “Mirage” model a ramp which stows entirely under the floor of a minivan or stepwell of a bus or train. While other companies sell similar ramps, Ricon has received patents on various components of its Mirage model. Another patented Ricon product is its Clearway model lift, which when not in use folds inside the van door and opens in half, like Old West saloon doors, to let other passengers in or out. Also contributing to Ricon’s growth has been the 1990 passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that public buildings and transportation vehicles accessible to the disabled. This meant thousands of lifts had to be installed across the nation, significantly contributing to Ricon’s quadrupling of sales so far this decade, Aziz said. Ricon owns distribution companies in Quebec, Norway, Japan and England. Aziz said Ricon is now considering building a facility in England to convert Chrysler’s newly introduced right-hand-drive edition of its minivan. “The ADA meant a great deal for the market, but the international market is our fastest growing market segment,” Aziz said. “Europe, Australia, the Far East those places are where our growth is really going to be in the coming years.” To conform with U.S. safety codes and maintain its own quality standards for the domestic Activan, Loduha said, Ricon has spent more than $2 million in research and development over the past three to four years. To ease the blow of that outlay and continue paying for additional R & D; for other products, the company recently took out a $695,000 City of Los Angeles loan facilitated by the VEDC. The VEDC helped Ricon with the loan on condition that the company not move away from the Valley. (The company had been considering a move to Valencia.) Domestically, Loduha said the aging of the country’s baby boomers bodes well for sales, as even those who are not disabled sometimes use geriatric scooters or walkers that they need to transport. “The demographics are all in our favor; the population is getting older,” Loduha said. “Whereas 10 years ago or more, wheelchairs were sold mainly for disabled occupants, you have a lot more people who are elderly and not disabled, who don’t want to change their lifestyles.”

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