From a modest beginning less than 20 years ago stairlift maker Meditek now sells its products all over the UK, the US and Australia. Deputy Business Editor Steven Hugill reports

IT was incessant.

Starting slowly, it had built into a crescendo, a perpetual shrill that became just too unbearable to take.

Something had to be done, and it was. The mobile phone was turned off.

The events might appear somewhat trivial, but what triggered them is altogether more fascinating.

The phone belonged to a member of staff from global stairlift maker Meditek, based in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, who, just hours earlier, had placed an advertisement for two new production line staff.

The response was unprecedented, with more than 500 unemployed workers contacting the firm.

Meditek, which now makes and sells stairlifts for thousands of customers every year in the UK, US and Australia, had to halt the search after being simply overwhelmed by the demand.

Not bad for a company founded by Derek Nicholson and Kevin Strafford-Price in 1995, in the hall of an old Hartlepool school.

After moving to Fishburn, near Sedgefield, the firm has now invested £1.1m into a new factory and sits nestled in Newton Aycliffe's business fraternity.

It made the move to develop two new stairlift models, and also has a manufacturing base in North Carolina, in the US, which is overseen by Mr Strafford-Price.

Its headquarters were opened by Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, and the firm hopes to increase its annual turnover to more than £10m.

Committed to its North-East roots, it employs more than 40 people, but hopes to increase that number as it continues to expand and work on its deluxe and budget stairlifts at its 32,000sq ft headquarters.

Sitting in the firm's conference room, just yards from its production line, Phil Rice, Meditek's managing director, is unequivocal.

He wants to bolster its future and that of the plethora of North-East supply companies, which provide circuit boards, wiring, and metal and plastic parts for Meditek's stairlifts.

Mr Rice started his career with the company as a shopfloor worker in 1998, just after it had moved to Fishburn.

Back then, it had the capacity to build about 14 stairlifts every month.

Now it's making more than 400 in the same timescale.

He said: “Things are going very well for us here, we made the move from Fishburn, where our offices were much smaller, and we haven't looked back.

“We could have easily moved everything over to the Far-East, sub-contracted work out, and have the products delivered to us in a box.

“But that is something that I will never do, because it is both nice and important to be part of the community, and people can even come in and see their lift being built if they want.

“I want to keep us in the North-East, and there is an awful lot of talented workers out there.

“Being here will be good for the economy and good for the people living and working in the region, and I expect us to go on expanding over the next two years.”

As the radio plays loud across the factory, the production line factory hums it own gentle tune to the sound of workers assembling Meditek's latest products.

Boxes of circuit boards and displays are stacked neatly alongside huge metal rails, still bound together in their transportation packaging, which will eventually form the running tracks for the stairlifts.

The mood is relaxed, staff are separated into various sections, one line for Meditek's budget stairlift, and the other for its deluxe model.

The Northern Echo: Meditek managing director Phil Rice with one of the company’s products
Meditek managing director Phil Rice with one of the company’s products

Sipping from his glass of orange squash, Mr Rice, is joined by Meditek's commercial manager, Angus Long, who explains the firm's origins and strategy for the future.

Mr Long said: “The company has always had a reputation for being a pioneer in the stairlift industry, without needing to rely on gimmicks.

“Our products have always had things that our rivals haven't, our battery system meant people could still use their stairlifts, even in the event of a power cut, and would charge as it went up and down the rail.

“The UK is the world's biggest stairlift market and by focusing on the budget and deluxe models, we are giving people what they want.

“You do not cash your pension to get a stairlift, you get one because you need one.”

That aim to satisfy customer desire has already reaped rewards and has provided the catalyst for the company to grow, which leads Mr Rice on to his tale about the mobile phone.

He said: “We put the advertisement in the job centre and it was linked up to a colleague's email, and in turn, his phone.

The Northern Echo: The company’s exterior
The company’s exterior

“It just kept going off every couple of minutes, if not less, and in the end he had to turn it off because it wasn't stopping.

“When he came in the next morning, there more than 500 emails sitting in his inbox from people interested in the roles, which was unbelievable.”

A hands-on managing director, Mr Rice helped transform Meditek's new home, which including extending the building to create more office space, and says such commitment and personal approach epitomises the firm's success.

He said: “When the firm started, Derek and Kevin came up with some great ideas, that were proven so when others copied them.

“But at the time, the North-East was like the Detroit of stairlift firms, however, now there is only one.

The Northern Echo: Penny Bell, customer services administrator
Penny Bell, customer services administrator

“David came from another stairlift firm and Kevin worked for a company supplying motors and gearboxes.

“They set up in Hartlepool on a complete shoe-string and made their first lifts in the old school hall.

“A company down in Hertfordshire then supported them, buying their first 10 lifts to get them off the ground.

“We were never really a firm that looked to go head-to-head with the big boys, but we are now in a position where we can stick our heads above the parapets and take them on.”

That determination is reflected in Meditek's presence in the US, where it has a base in Apex, North Carolina.

He said: “We are right in the centre of where the exports are coming in, it's the best place to be and is where the most people live.”

The company is this week exhibiting its latest products at the Naidex show, in Birmingham, which is the UK's largest disability, homecare and rehabilitation event.

The Northern Echo: Paul Leavy, one of the technical support team
Paul Leavy, one of the technical support team

And as I leave, Mr Rice leaves me in no doubt about its intentions.

He said: “We are working on a number of new products at the moment that we want to introduce and are going to have to expand in all areas.

“That could mean more jobs in the future in all areas, including apprenticeships.

“We know our products have taken off and we want it to remain that way.”

The Northern Echo: Steven Walker, one of Meditek’s stairlift engineers
Steven Walker, one of Meditek’s stairlift engineers