Mobility Matters: Thomas Babacan
A lifelong adherent to a ‘multi-dimensional’ work philosophy, Sunrise Medical President and CEO Thomas Babacan has turned the mobility-focused medtech company into much more than just a wheelchair manufacturer.
The risk of being labeled ‘just a wheelchair company’ is very real for those in that industry. After all, what other areas could such a niche business branch out into?
As it turns out, there’s much more to the manufacture and design of mobility products than meets the eye. Personalization, a factor largely unknown to the general public when it comes to wheelchairs, is a priority.
Working at the forefront of innovation within the industry, Sunrise Medical has made the very special needs of its customers into a purpose. In fact, President and CEO Thomas Babacan says everything the driven and innovative MedTech company does is with the customer in mind.
"We are a heavily purpose-driven company," President and CEO Thomas Babacan tells The CEO Magazine. "Improving people’s lives is not only our headline but our DNA. We are all very passionate about that mission, which is the overriding principle of our culture."
Most products in the Sunrise Medical range aren’t off the shelf but made to order – highly customized to the unique medical requirements, personal body shapes and specific measurements of individual users and their living environment.
In fact, Sunrise’s "typical" manual wheelchair has over 100 options, while its high-end, made-to-measure RGK wheelchair takes over 30 measurements, with the precision to millimeters, and a variety of personal considerations during the design phase.
Babacan explains that the customer is always at the center of all decisions and his leadership philosophy. "My overriding philosophy is very simple," he says. "As long as better is possible, good is not good enough. And I try to apply that day by day."
Clinical solutions and advanced digitalization
Sunrise Medical Group has come a long way since starting as a mobility product manufacturer and distributor in 1983.
Initially, the company was the result of collaboration between three of the industry’s most innovative brands: Quickie, known for its ultra-lightweight wheelchairs; Sopur, the German pioneer of folding wheelchairs and inventor of the first racing wheelchair; and BEC Mobility, which created Professor Stephen Hawking’s earliest surviving powerchair.
Today, Sunrise continues that legacy of innovation across sites in 19 countries, selling to 130 countries, with nearly 2,600 associates worldwide.
We’re looking to really continue this path of advanced digitalization.
Babacan says the company’s aim is to provide clinical solutions – not just wheelchairs – tailored to individuals’ needs. "Our main focus is improving people’s lives on a global basis," he explains.
In order to facilitate this growth sustainably, he says Sunrise Medical is strengthening and enlarging its specifically developed clinical training and service support for users, clinicians and trade partners.
In addition, the company is further developing its digital strategy – which ranges from its SWITCH-IT remote seating app for end users to remote fleet management for dealer customers – to help propel it into the future and safeguard against health emergencies similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We’re looking to really continue this path of advanced digitalization," he says. Along the way, Sunrise Medical is looking to enable smart features and enhance user benefits of its products. At the same time, the process will help streamline operations and processes to increase efficiencies for customers and staff alike.
Going global with focus on innovation
When Babacan first joined Sunrise Medical in 2018, he brought with him a wealth of experience in wide-ranging industries, from textiles and technology to refrigeration. In the five years since taking the reins as CEO and President, he believes his most valuable contribution has been integrating and optimizing the business practices of various parts of the company to improve its efficiency and agility.
"Sunrise was always a global business, but it was not really managed as one business," he says. "After I joined, we created more added value and benefits as a result of behaving as one company and using the expertise and skills we have in all the regions in a more combined, rather than isolated, way."
Utilizing state-of-the-art technology, Sunrise Medical has successfully broadened its product range through new offerings such as the popular Q300 M Mini power wheelchair (featuring the smallest turning radius in the market); the first and only active cooling Seating Technology JAY Cryo; the multi-award winning Nitrum ultra-light active manual wheelchair; and the 2022 Red Dot "Best of the Best Design" winner, the Empulse R90 Power Assist Device.
We have been at the forefront of leading innovation and quality for 40 years.
"We have been at the forefront of leading innovation and quality for 40 years," Babacan says. "We were one of the first companies in the rehab industry, so the spirit of driving for better innovation has been part of our DNA from the beginning.
"As our products are serving people with diverse needs of system mobility, it’s critical to listen to them and understand their needs with many specific details. That’s basically the fundamental thing we are trying to achieve, to put ourselves in our customers’ or the end users’ shoes, and try to support them as much as we can."
A coach mindset and resilient supply chain
In terms of how Sunrise Medical cooperates with suppliers, Babacan sees the relationship as mutually beneficial, and essential to the functioning of the company – as well as being an additional way to road-test ideas and strategies. "For us, having strategic alignments and creating win–win situations is key," he says.
"We are constantly having a strong dialogue with suppliers in terms of how we can further improve the products. What are their experiences? What ideas do they have around further improving products based on what they have seen? And how can we simplify the relationship and the business model in order to do business together? And we also ensure we give clear guidance and expectations from our side – what we expect from them and what they can expect from us."
Our passion is our customers, and we’re dedicated to breaking down barriers.
As a leader, Babacan is a firm believer in a "multi-dimensional" approach, which sees him striving to adopt the "critical behaviors of a leader, the first of which is being a coach".
"So being motivational, being visionary, being progressive, focused and inspirational, laying out the future. And last but not least, being transformational," he says. "Our passion is our customers, and we’re dedicated to breaking down barriers and, to borrow our brand Quickie’s slogan, to enable and encourage everyone to live without limits."