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.