The Brazdils, one of the Czech Republic’s leading business families, are innovators at the forefront of the mobility space. Not only have they grown their award-winning engineering company, ZLKL, to a position of preeminence over the last three decades, but they have also proven that established family businesses can incubate revolutionary new ideas and produce disruptive products.
Second-generation family member Ladislav Brazdil leads a group of engineers and designers at Elbee Mobility, which makes highly-specialised vehicles for wheelchair users. Their unique concept has the potential to radically improve the day-to-day lives of Elbee’s consumers.
Elbee vehicles, legally classified as quadricycles, are designed with a remotely controlled front opening door and an access ramp that allows wheelchair users to roll in, anchor their wheelchair, close the door and drive away. To add yet another level of convenience, the vehicle’s compactness allows for perpendicular parking facing the sidewalk, which means disembarking is both safe and comfortable.
Recently, Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Ladislav Brazdil to discuss ZLKL’s and Elbee’s origins, the art of design and the future of mobility.
Perhaps we could start with the Elbee origins story. How did this unique product come about?
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the history of the Czech Republic. In 1989, we were under the Russian government, so it was not possible to have a private enterprise at that time. Very soon after, the Velvet Revolution came to our country, and as a result, many new companies emerged, and we were trying to recapture the manufacturing glory of the former Czechoslovakia. My father founded his engineering company “ZLKL” in 1993. I was eleven years old at the time, so I didn’t know a lot about what was going on. My father thought the best move would be to manufacture parts for other businesses but eventually, he wanted to design a product of our own, so he began to look for a new idea. In 2003, he met with the engineer who had the idea for Elbee, a wheelchair-assisted vehicle. He immediately fell in love with it; he said, ‘That’s it, that’s the idea!’
From that Eureka moment, how long did it take you to get the finished product ready for market?
The first prototype was completed in 2007. It was during this process that we discovered that the engineer was just not skilled enough to get this product ready for the market so we bought the project from him and it became ours as of 2008. The development of the vehicle would not have been possible without the financial support of ZLKL. It was very expensive to get Elbee ready for market. Finally, in 2016 we separated Elbee from ZLKL, and we renamed the new company Elbee Mobility.
What makes Elbee unique and different from other wheelchair assisted vehicles on the market today?
Elbee is one-of-a-kind, you won’t find a vehicle like it anywhere else in the world. First, it’s completely built for the wheelchair users from scratch. That means it’s not a vehicle that has been retrofitted for the wheelchair user. It is in fact, a 100% pure product. That led us to create the front entry feature which again is unique and designed specifically to make access more manageable for the wheelchair user. They can see where they park, they see where they place the ramp, and they see where they will exit on the sidewalk. And the key is they never have to exit onto the road, they can exit the vehicle directly on the sidewalk, and so that makes it safe and also comfortable for the driver. The dimensions of the vehicle are another benefit for wheelchair users because very often when you see solutions like a large van, it’s very difficult to operate a vehicle that size. That’s what makes Elbee the perfect vehicle for wheelchair users. It’s a small vehicle that you can park almost anywhere. And it’s fun to drive. There’s space for a passenger seat so it can be used either as a space to store some shopping bags or fold it up for a passenger. It’s a lifestyle product that is different from anything else you see on the road because it’s really an individual solution for the customer, so it’s designed with his or her needs and wishes in mind.
Where did the idea of doing this for the disabled come from? Was it something that your father was always sensitive to, people getting marginalised from lack of access?
I’m often asked if we have a disabled member of our family and that’s not the case. But my father is the kind of manager who is truly loved by his employees. He’s the one who always listens to the people and, even in ZLKL where we have some 200 employees, it’s still possible to know each person. So we see ourselves as a flat organisation where my father is also the partner and friend of all of those employees. As an engineering company, how we do things is different from the norm. We were named the socially responsible company of the year in the Czech Republic. We were named innovator of the year and we belong among 100 top companies in the Czech Republic as well. We were also listed by Forbes magazine as one of the top 100 Czech Republic family companies so that is something that indicates we are not the typical engineering company. We make things differently, and this project just fits with what we do and why we do it.
You are going from an engineering firm that had a B2B model to a product manufacturing company where you are now a B2C model. How did your family handle that business transition?
How did we do it? By working 12 hours a day. It’s a very complicated and labour-intensive process. Elbee Mobility is entirely different from everything else we did before. We see Elbee as still a B2B business because it’s virtually impossible for us to have our entire complement of sales representatives around the globe. We are always looking for partners who have been in the business for many years. Especially if they have been making car adaptations because then they know the customers, they know their needs, they have their salespeople, their service people etc. So at the moment, we’re looking for that type of partners because right now it’s not possible for us to take an order from a customer and send an Elbee to Germany for example.
While you’re looking for partners, it sounds like you are also continuing with the R&D. How do you go about that?
That’s right; the R&D continues forever. It’s our focus for the company to not only offer an innovative product now but also five and ten years down the road. Even with Elbee, we’re working on something that will be totally revolutionary. And we always believed that the sales will come easy with a product like Elbee. At this stage, we’re buried in paperwork because even though we are part of the European Union, each country has its own regulations and approval requirements. So it’s complicated, in Switzerland for example, it took us 18 months to get Elbee approved.
It’s clear your family’s business is driven by the desire to innovate. Where does that come from? Have you been able to pinpoint exactly why your family has this particular passion?
I think it’s my family’s personality, we’re very stubborn, so once we set our minds on something, we will work ourselves to death until we get it. We couldn’t even fathom stopping even though there were plenty of problems that arose during this process. And as for creativity and innovation, which comes from within the team. It’s not something that one single person can take credit for. It’s always about teamwork. You need to have the vision and persistence to overcome the obstacles that are presented in front of you. So that’s who we are – we’re not the smartest guys in the world, but we are persistent and hard workers. We feel like we’ve done something right because Elbee is something that everybody wants to be a part of. I feel like we have elite team and that’s really what it’s about. I feel like we made a product that is good for society and it’s something that we can be proud of.
How is it running the business as a family-owned business? How have you found in working with your brother and your father?
We were always a close family, we love each other and like to spend time with each other which I think is very, very crucial for success in running a company together. In 2003, my father asked us if we wanted to continue with the company and we said yes. But then once we were running around the company, it became very hard to persuade him to agree with us. Because for 15 years he was the only one running the show. Then we started getting proven results, that’s always the best way to get somebody to agree with you. The way it works is my Dad is the general manager, and so he makes the final decisions. He’s also the face of the company to the outside community. My brother is really into finances, and I can tell you that he’s a genius. When he was 18, he made his first stock market investments. At the age of 20, he was trading currencies which helped us already a year after during the worldwide financial crisis in 2009. We didn’t need to fire any employees, and we continued to concentrate on new projects. That’s probably the main reason why we were stronger after the crisis than we were before it. He is a managing director nowadays. I’m a project manager, and my wife runs the company’s kindergarten and is responsible for HR in our company. We know we’re all strong individuals who share a vision and that’s how we do it.
Looking into the future, what is the biggest wish that you have for your family business?
That’s a tricky question. At the moment we’re focussed on growth for all the divisions in our company, and it’s time-consuming, so I guess my wish would be to have more time for ourselves. For me, I have three young children, and I don’t have much time with them, unfortunately, so that’s something I would like to change in the near future. In the end, family is what matters most.