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Tierra Verde man finds his niche with high-end wheelchairs for athletes

Chris Peterson, 48, stands with some of his creations at the Top End store in Pinellas Park. The company designs and manufactures sports wheelchairs and handcycles for clients around the world.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Chris Peterson, 48, stands with some of his creations at the Top End store in Pinellas Park. The company designs and manufactures sports wheelchairs and handcycles for clients around the world.

Pinellas Park isn't widely famous for high-performance wheelchairs the way Louisville is for baseball bats. But for nearly 25 years Top End has designed, manufactured and distributed a leading line of sports-specific wheelchairs and handcycles at a small industrial park here.

About 28 people, including company founder and director Chris Peterson, work at the 15,000-square-foot plant on 63rd Circle N. Highly trained athletes demand the equipment for Paralympics events around the world, while recreational users climb aboard to tour around the block.

About 35 percent of the approximately 3,000 chairs and handcycles produced each year are sold outside the United States, Peterson said. Most of the chairs are sold through medical supply dealers, but Peterson said many customers fly here to get measured at the home office.

"Almost everything we make is customized," he said. The company's products retail from about $2,300 for an everyday wheelchair or basic model for basketball, up to around $12,000 for a handcycle with carbon wheels and devices such as GPS and power meters. (Handcycles have a drivetrain similar to a traditional bicycle that is powered with the hands and arms, not the legs.)

Peterson said Top End has annual sales of $5 million to $10 million. In 1993, Top End was acquired by Invacare Corp. of Elyria, Ohio, which has approximately $1.5 billion annual net sales, according to the company's Web site.

Peterson, 48, who is able-bodied, recently spoke with the Times.

You began your career in the medical supply business. How did you get into doing wheelchairs for sports?

I met some guys in wheelchairs, including George Murray, who became my partner. The sports end was more attractive than making commodes and walkers. I was more of a tinkerer than I thought. Twenty-five years ago I could make something better every day than the day before. First it was racing chairs, then basketball, then everyday chairs, and finally tennis and handcycles. People said, "Can you make this?" and I said, "Yes."

How has the business changed over the years?

It's been an evolution. Everything I make is driven by good wheelchair athletes. I think a lot of it is just being willing to try new things. And a lot of it is the custom fitting. Racing wheelchairs used to be four wheels, just modified everyday chairs. About 1989 it went to three wheels. Racing chairs now are kind of stagnant as far as design; it's all about fit and quality. In the early '90s the chairs became more sport specific, and now there's a model of chair for each sport. When we first started, everything was made of steel. Now, pretty much everything is aluminum or titanium.

What is the state of business today?

It's not growing a huge amount. Racing wheelchairs are on the decline partly because of the rise in handcycles; more and more racers are gravitating to the handcycles.

Wheelchairs for basketball are solid, growing slowly. Wheelchairs for tennis are flat. Handcycling is the growth area. Every disabled person, if they are able to, probably should have a handcycle. I ride them for fitness and for product development.

How do people pay for this equipment?

Most of what we sell is out of pocket. Insurance companies don't always pay for sports chairs. It is not always deemed a medical necessity. But it keeps people physically fit and helps them live a healthy lifestyle. There are a lot of good foundations out there helping people. We have a contract with the Veterans Administration. Unfortunately, a lot of guys are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees.

What do you do for marketing?

We used to advertise a lot in the wheelchair magazines, but not as much now (that we use) our Web site, www.topendwheelchair.com.

Our marketing now tends to be at trade shows and sporting events. We sponsor about 20 athletes. We've got domestic and international athletes in a mix of sports.

Freelance writer Mark Holan can be reached at newsmark@hotmail.com.

Tierra Verde man finds his niche with high-end wheelchairs for athletes 10/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2009 10:18pm]
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