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Company produces new seat of power

With a 20-year Army career behind him, Barry Stouffer thought he was set with a comfortable pension.

But a tragedy six years ago on a New Jersey highway placed the 49-year-old on a different road. Now he watches as his son, Barry Jr., 24, recovers from a crippling head-on automobile collision.

And in so doing, he has taken on a job assembling a device that has given his son _ who some doctors said would never walk again _ more mobility.

Stouffer Sr. works for the Hoveround Corp., a Sarasota-based company that manufactures a new electric wheelchair with a maneuverability the company says is unmatched.

Priced in most stores at around $3,200, it's in line with most electric chairs but costlier than traditional manual chairs, which start at less than $500.

While some say the price isn't affordable, the Stouffers believe it's worth the money.

"The time I got out of my wheelchair and got into the Hoveround was like being in a different world," Stouffer Jr. said. "I go into my bathroom and it turns on a dime. I'm getting around in the kitchen."

With its patented round base, the Hoveround chair can maneuver easily through narrow doorways and passages that are more difficult for some traditional wheelchairs to access.

In addition, the Hoveround can move vertically, allowing operators to reach heights not normally available to them.

A joystick serves as the steering wheel for the chair, which is designed for "light-terrain" use indoors or on smooth surfaces outside.

Stouffer Sr. works in the Hoveround Corp.'s Sarasota assembly shop as its production manager. He and his three co-workers in the shop _ two of whom have disabled children in their families _ say they do it because they believe in the product.

"It's one of those things you like to do when you have someone in that situation," the father said.

It is such feelings that make Hoveround president Thomas Kruse think he has a winning product. A nurse by training, Kruse conceived of the idea in 1991 after operating a medical equipment store in Sarasota for 11 years.

"I saw hospital administrators were not happy with the products that were available," he said.

So with that in mind and $150,000 of "family money," Kruse set about creating a wooden prototype of the Hoveround that he hoped would compete in a market dominated by motor scooters and manual wheelchairs.

Since selling the first chair in August 1992, Kruse has succeeded in contracting with more than 100 dealers, including 26 in Florida, one in Holland, several in Canada and dozens in the western United States. He said he has sold 350 chairs.

One local distributor who doesn't sell the Hoveround said he has gotten numerous calls from customers asking about the new chair. But there are alternatives, he said.

"There are other companies coming out with other products, like four-wheel scooters that allow for greater mobility within a home," said Steve Sichel, owner of ABC Home Medical Equipment in Tampa.

The $3,200 ticket for a Hoveround isn't excessive when compared to other electric wheelchairs, Sichel said. But, because of the high cost, only about 5 percent of his customers buy electric, he added.

Dale Evans, who owns A-Affordable Equipment & Supplies in Clearwater and hasn't heard of the Hoveround, says many customers can't afford a chair of that price. "It's not necessarily that they wouldn't be willing, but that they couldn't."

Kruse says with 16 employees and four assembly workers, Hoveround Corp., located in north Sarasota in the Northgate office park, isn't equipped to handle too many orders at once.

"We're trying to stay ahead, but not doing a good job of it," said Kruse, who spends much of his time on the road attending medical equipment shows nationwide. The company began in June with no chairs in stock.

Kruse hopes that Hoveround soon will introduce an outdoor, all-terrain vehicle with similar capabilities but more durable wheels.

Stouffer Jr. enjoys the Hoveround he acquired in March and continues to dream of walking again. Now his doctors think that, someday, he will. But until that time comes, he has plenty of mobility at home.

"I'm in my regular chair all day," he said. "When I get home, I hop in the Hoveround and get around. I love it."

And his newest set of wheels has, indeed, made the recovery process a little easier to take, he said. "It's been a long road. But I'm hauling it."