April 21, 2004
Travis E. Poling
San Antonio Express-News
Maria Hernandez's mother suffered a stroke in August and a heart attack in October, binding her to a wheelchair. She had difficulties with the stairs leading into her house.
Hernandez began looking for an answer and found it on the side of a van travelling on Loop 410.
She called the toll-free phone number she saw on the American Ramp Systems minivan and was referred to Mary Hartman Hime, the first American Ramp franchisee in Texas.
Hime made the measurements, and Elvira Hernandez soon was able to roll out of her North Side home down a metal ramp.
Paraplegic actor Christopher Reeve has rented the custom metal ramps for his public appearances. They've been installed at New York's city hall in Manhattan.
Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in conjunction with the rapidly growing elderly population has created a market for the ramps invented and patented by Boston businessman Julian Gordon. Plus, pressure-treated lumber used in wooden ramps contains arsenic and is being taken off the market.
Hime, well known in San Antonio business circles for her 16 years at Ultramar Diamond Shamrock and Valero Energy Corp, is finding rewards in the franchise after only a few months.
"I was looking for flexibility in my life, which is something corporate America couldn't give me," she said.
Hime, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis six years ago, chose American Ramp because of the freedom it offered her while she still earns a living.
She had looked at pizza, dry cleaners, home health and even home pet food delivery. When she realized she would have to depend on high sales volume and reliability of staff to pull it off, she kept looking until a friend showed her an August New York Times article about Gordon and his Boston company.
A few months later, she was in business with a $27,500 franchise fee, a logo-wrapped van and a tape measure. Hime does the measurements, and a subcontractor does the installation.
Since launching the business, Hime has contacted hospital caseworkers, home health agencies and is a preferred provider of services through the Alamo Area Council of Governments.
Eight ramp installations a month will provide a comfortable living, and rentals will mean another monthly stream of income. But Hime said she thinks the demand is much more.
Greg Harness, president of the Case Managers Society of South Texas, said the metal ramps can improve the patients' lives, whether they're coming out of rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries or have temporary situations like broken legs.
"Metal doesn't sag, drag or rot," Harness said. "They're not cheap, but they're really good. There is a big need."
He said the product also will help get around the problem of four or five steep steps on mobile homes so prevalent in South Texas.
The ramps cost about $106 per foot, including handrails. For public buildings and government-reimbursed ramp installations, there is a requirement of one foot of ramp length for every inch of rise. That means even dealing with a couple of six-inch-high steps can mean a price tag of about $1,300.
But Hime said rentals can control costs. The company also advises clients on possible payment sources.
Hime is one of 10 franchisees of the 6-year-old firm, but American Ramp founder and CEO Gordon said he's adding two franchises a month. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is expected to have a franchise late this month.
"Texas is especially attractive," Gordon said. "It is a medically intensive area" with a large elderly population and many mobile homes.
As the company grows, Gordon anticipates franchisees will have more opportunities to buy back ramps no longer needed and use them as rentals.
The firm also keeps a list of people that can't afford the price of a new ramp and tries to connect them with people who are selling.
For Maria Hernandez, the ramp is worth the cost because it's attractive,
is portable and isn't "a big humongous one," she said. And most of all,
it means her mother can enjoy getting out of the house and stay out of
the nursing home.
Copyright © 2004, San Antonio Express-News