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November 2009
Commited to Mobility
By Jill Purdy

     It began as T. Carey Ilderton Sr.’s observation in 1972 that he could fulfill a need in the marketplace for increased mobility for seniors and handicapped individuals by expanding his High Point Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep dealership to provide conversion vans and accessories for the disabled.

     He had done some research and learned through working with government agencies that there was quite a need to provide modified vehicles to various government-supported organizations for the disabled, elderly and those with special needs to maintain their mobility.

     He enlisted the assistance of family members, daughters Beth and Caroline, to drive the prototype vehicle, modified by a company in the Midwest, from St. Louis to High Point.

     Today, it still takes the help of family to get the job done at Ilderton Conversion. The family makes it their mission to see that elderly, disabled and partially mobile people who come to them for guidance are able to regain their independence easily and affordably.

 

Making Converts

     In 1926, Horace G. Ilderton founded the family’s dealership in High Point, N.C. Father and son Carey Ilderton worked closely, and when Horace reached retirement age, Carey Ilderton carried on his father’s family-oriented approach to selling cars.

     Today, the Ilderton companies have an impressive and unique family presence. Carey Sr., 89 years young, is still an active force in the Ilderton automotive businesses. Carey’s son Tim leads the Ilderton automotive empire with the support and assistance of his brother Steve. And Laura Gellerstedt, Catherine Martin and John Ilderton, Tim’s three children, help their father and uncle make Ilderton Conversion and Ilderton Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep thrive.

     The family affair doesn’t end there, though. Tim’s wife, Linda Ilderton, spent 20 years as the champion of Ilderton’s advertising campaigns, passing her responsibilities on to her daughter Laura five years ago. And T. Carey Ilderton Jr., the eldest of Tim’s siblings, was a driving force in the businesses until his death five years ago.

     The Ildertons provide a strong family foundation for their business and family values have been at the core since 1926, even as the companies have grown to include four locations: three conversion showrooms in Charlotte, Charleston and High Point, and one Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep franchise also located in High Point.

     “We think of each employee as a member of the extended Ilderton family. They become part Ilderton when they come on board. We have something unique in that respect—high expectations and caring—that permeates the business,” says Tim Ilderton, general manager and dealer of Ilderton Conversion and Ilderton Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep. “If you’re a family, those qualities just come naturally.”

     With the expertise of mechanical genius Chuck Willard on board at the company’s inception, Ilderton had the skills required to make any sort of modification to a van that could be imagined. The challenge of finding the right supplier for the conversion mechanisms was another story.

     Ilderton tested out various suppliers before meeting Ralph Braun, who had launched a mobility products business in 1973, just one year after the launch of Ilderton Conversion.

     Winamac, Indiana-based Braun Corp. was founded by Ralph Braun. He had been diagnosed as a child with spinal muscular atrophy which confined him to a wheelchair by age 15. So he built an electric scooter, then a wheelchair lift and eventually products such as the Entervan, a minivan with a lowered floor to help people in wheelchairs get around. Then he lined up dealerships across the country to carry his line of vans.

     Braun’s own mobility challenges enable him to draw from his personal experiences to be an innovator in mobility products. He understands the fears of those with mobility needs, what is required to earn their confidence, and how they need to be served. Carey Ilderton already understood his role as a resource for the mobility-challenged and was thrilled to identify a supplier whose business approach was in sync with his own.

     Meeting Ralph Braun was a breakthrough for Carey Ilderton. By the early ’80s, Ilderton was so confident in Braun’s mechanisms that he began to use them exclusively in his conversions. Referrals from Braun’s extensive marketing efforts gave Ilderton Conversion a steady flow of customers and Ilderton’s expertise earned the company a solid reputation for providing the right products to mobility-challenged customers.

     Over the years, rapid changes in technology and in laws, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, have kept the business on its toes, so much so that Carey Ilderton called on family for additional support. This time it was from his son, Tim.

     In the early ’90s, Tim Ilderton began an active role at Ilderton Conversion. Modernization and expansion had enhanced Ilderton’s reputation for being good business people and good people to do business with. With the encouragement of Ralph Braun, Tim began to explore expansion to Charlotte where the market was underserved in terms of mobility solutions.

     In 2006, Ilderton Conversion of Charlotte opened for business and, immediately finding customers from city organizations to state agencies to special needs individuals. And in 2008, the Ildertons expanded into Charleston, S.C., as well, opening a new facility.

     The proximity of High Point and Charlotte and Charleston mean many of Ilderton’s customers are within fifty miles of one of Ilderton Conversion’s locations. However, the company’s expertise and reputation draws those with mobility needs from hundreds of miles away.

     “We’re incredibly fortunate,” comments Tim Ilderton. “We have customers that live ten minutes away and those who drive from areas like Blacksburg, Virginia, several hours away. We are given the opportunity to see their lives unfold. As they graduate from college, get jobs, get married and have children, we help them meet their mobility needs and carry on active lives.”

 

Finding Solutions

     Ilderton specializes in offering end-to-end products and services that have been carefully planned to meet the mobility needs of its customers. From the simplest modification to the most complex conversion, Ilderton works with customers to fit the best product and vehicle to their needs and goals.

     “We sit down with our customers in their homes and talk to them about their families and their challenges. We discuss safety and security, ease of use and durability,” says Catherine Martin, conversion specialist at the Charlotte conversion location.

     “We include caregivers in this conversation because our services and vehicles can save them time and make it much safer for them to transport their clients. Only after we know the details of their situation, can we look at a solution from their perspective and accurately identify the mobility solution for them. We make sure that what they purchase meets their goals, supports their lifestyle and accommodates their budget,” continues Martin.

     Lisa Shelley, Ilderton customer, is so pleased with her relationship with the Ilderton team that she participated in a television commercial for a recent Ilderton Conversion advertising campaign. “Ilderton Conversion made sure I got the van that met my needs. I can go places and do things. I’m not afraid for my safety as I’m driving,” says Shelley. “Ilderton Conversion is the best thing that has happened to me.”

     Ilderton has expanded their product line to provide all ranges of conversions, basic to high-end, on multiple makes of vans as well as modifications to any make and model car. Dodge and Chrysler are the most popular vans for conversion, but there is growing popularity in conversions for Toyota vans. Ilderton also offers full-size vans and Champion Buses with lifts which are heavily utilized by governmental organizations and group residence providers.

     Another unique product offering of Ilderton Conversion is the GEM (Global Electric Motorcars), popular with a broad range of organizations. [They look like enhanced golf carts.] SouthPark Mall and UNC Charlotte use GEM cars to monitor and manage their facilities and grounds.

     Ilderton’s insight into the family situations of its customers has also inspired the offering of rental services for mobility vehicles so that sons and daughters can visit parents and transport them in safety and comfort.

     In addition, Ilderton provides parts and repair services for its vehicles, and a complete line of accessories including hard-to-find items such as seat belts for converted and modified vehicles.

     All sales consultants and service technicians are factory-trained and certified by Chrysler and Braun for adaptive equipment up-fits for both private and commercial vehicles.

     The Ilderton team holds multiple certifications for providing vehicle modifications for mobility needs and routinely works with public resources in both the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

     On top of it all, the company even goes the extra mile. “We provide pick-up services that help coordinate logistical challenges for our customers, their caregivers and their family members. We make sure that our showrooms are accommodating and comfortable for those who may have driven for several hours to get here,” explains Martin. “We treat them like family because they are our family of customers.”

     The family attitude is interwoven throughout the Ilderton enterprises. “We have respect for our customers and high expectations of our employees. Those concepts ensure that each customer has the best possible experience with us and reaches their mobility goals,” says Tim Ilderton.

 

Unique Challenges

     The mobility equipment industry is quite unique. Even among competitors there is a unified effort to enable the mobility-challenged. Ilderton often consults his peers and works together with other dealers to find particular vehicles for customers.

     “We don’t hesitate to reach out to one another. The services we provide create a common bond between us and we work in partnership to fill the mobility needs of the region,” comments Tim Ilderton. “It is a very tight-knit community.”

     The Ilderton companies are quite unique, as well. Regardless of which location you visit or which team member with which you speak, a genuine desire to help draws you into the family like an automatic response. With a four-generation Ilderton history and six Ildertons actively involved in the business, the caring, attentive and genuine family undertone prevails.

     During today’s economic challenges, the need for mobility vehicles and vehicle modifications is steady for Ilderton Conversion. Ilderton regularly searches for used vehicles to use in conversions. This is partially driven by customer budgetary requirements but is also the result of reduced manufacturing output from automakers.

     “We’re beginning to feel a shortage of new vehicles. Manufacturing output is down for our major brands and there are fewer options in new vehicle lines,” says Tim Ilderton. “If we can provide a customer with a used option that eases the financial stress of obtaining transportation, we’ve still reached our goal.”

     Economics has encouraged a tightening of the belts across all Ilderton locations, but the need for mobility conversions is only growing, as evidenced by Ilderton’s expansion into the Charleston area during the 2008-2009 downturn. Tim Ilderton continues to watch for additional opportunities for expansion.

     Through its partnership with Braun, Ilderton Conversion will be able to maintain a controlled growth. The aging baby boomer population demands mobility. As the region’s exclusive Braun dealer, and winner of the Braun President’s Club for 23 consecutive years, Ilderton can respond to rising mobility needs in cities across the Southeast with its unique formula for meeting family-style challenges with family-style service.

     “My father expanded into the conversion business because he saw a way that he could build a business to help others,” comments Tim Ilderton. “Today, Ilderton Conversion has the same goal: We’re here to improve the quality of life through the mobility products and services we offer.”

Jill Purdy is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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