Bruno’s lifts provide mobility

Bruno Independent Living Aids Inc.’s brand name is unknown to most people living in metropolitan Milwaukee and around the United States, but almost everyone has seen the systems and products designed and built by the market-leading company based in Oconomowoc.

Bruno designs and builds lifts and related products for people who have difficulty walking or are not able to walk. The company’s product lines are divided into two categories: automotive products that help get people and mobility devices into cars, trucks and vans; and residential stair and vertical platform lifts.

Bruno’s vehicle lifts and specialized auto seats make up about 60 percent of its sales, said Michael Bruno II, president and chief executive officer of the company. While it has only been selling the products for eight years, Bruno is the largest seller of vehicle lifts and specialized auto seating in North America and Europe.

Bruno makes 12 different styles of vehicle lifts, which help move wheelchairs and other mobility devices into or onto cars, trucks and vans.

Bruno Independent Living Aids’ first product was in its vehicle lift line, created when the company was founded 25 years ago.

“It all started with the minivan,” Bruno said. “My dad worked in the industry and saw a niche with the minivan. The scooter (style of mobility device) was getting popular at the time. It was the right vehicle and the right device to touch a lot of people.”

Today, Bruno’s line of vehicle lifts can handle a wide range of mobility devices – from a relatively light scooter-style device to heavy-duty wheelchairs that can weigh more than 300 pounds. Some of the lifts are miniature platform lifts, while others look like small cranes – and different models are made specifically for minivans, trucks, full size vans, sedans and crossover vehicles.

“We have the widest range of vehicle lifts in the marketplace,” Bruno said.

Bruno also makes several vehicle lifts that, paired with its turning automotive seating (TAS) system, can allow a disabled person to get into their vehicle by themselves, put their wheelchair or other device into the vehicle, and drive away without assistance.

“Our mission is to be the leading solutions provider for the independent lifestyle,” Bruno said. “We want to help people live independently.”

Most of Bruno’s seating products are in its TAS line. These seats are mounted to specially designed sway bars and brackets inside the car, and help disabled persons easily slide in and out of a car.

Most of Bruno’s TAS seats are a replacement for the car’s stock seat. However, the company has a partnership with Toyota, where it builds specially designed components for the Toyota Sienna minivan that use the car company’s own seat. The seat in the Sienna turns and slides like most of Bruno’s other TAS seat but uses a stock Toyota seat.

“We purchase their seat and work with their OEM suppliers to put the seat into the Sienna,” Bruno said. “We’ve developed all of the movement and safety mechanisms to install it.”

Later this month, Bruno and Toyota will launch a new line of seats for the RAV4 and Highlander vehicles that will be similar to the seats in the Sienna, Bruno said.

“This is exciting for us because Bruno’s been built on creating markets and growing markets, and this is a good representation of that,” he said.

Bruno has 385 employees now, about 300 of whom work in its three facilities in Oconomowoc, and the rest are in its Swedish subsidiary. The company occupies a total of 220,000 square feet between its three facilities in Oconomowoc, Bruno said.

Bruno expects about $80 million in revenue this year, up approximately 10 percent from 2007.

However, Bruno’s outlook wasn’t always so bright.

“Four and a half years ago, we were dealing with some tough competition, and our sales weren’t growing,” Bruno said. “We weren’t making much money. Profits were down.”

The company turned to the Business Excellence Consortium (BEC) at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), an outreach arm of the school that helps companies connect with industry expects to achieve better output, innovation and profitability.

“We’ve changed our structure. We’re more customer-focused, and we’re especially more focused on product development,” said Tom Jacobson, vice president of operations. “Lean (manufacturing) was a big part of it. They trained our people in lean through MSOE and started our whole (continuous improvement) initiatives.”

In 2007, Bruno held 25 process improvement events. This year, the company expects to hold about 50.

The result of going through the MSOE BEC program has changed the way Bruno designs and builds its product, ships to its customers and receieves materials from key suppliers, Jacobson said.

“It’s not necessarily an initiative any more,” he said. “It’s just the way we’ve chosen to do business. We’re constantly evaluating our whole value stream. It’s a long process that doesn’t happen overnight. But we’ve seen results over time.”

Bruno expects to grow its sales and market share by introducing its products to new markets.

Later this year, it will introduce its stair lifts to the European market. The lifts are now only sold in the United States and Canada. The stair lifts will be sold under the Home Adapt brand name in the U.K. and Europe, Bruno said.

The company also is exploring potential uses for its vehicle lifts in taxi cabs.

Bruno Independent Living Aids Inc.

Headquarters: Oconomowoc
Industry: Vehicle, stair and vertical lifts and specialized automotive seating for people with mobility issues.
Employees: 385
Revenues:
About $80 million for 2008
Web site: www.bruno.com

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