Fred Thompson and the Story Behind Accessibility Services
I graduated high school in 1965 in Dayton Ohio and was accepted to a local college to start the following Fall. I was never a student that actually liked school or applied myself. As the youngest of three boys, I pretty much had some freedoms that my brothers didn’t. Maybe my parents were just worn out from my two older brothers. I wasn’t ready for more continuous school as I thought it would be more of the same. The draft was in play, our country was in a terrible conflict in Viet Nam and I had too many friends already becoming involved there.
It was a turning point in my life, knowing it was time for guidance for me, a time to be involved in something bigger than myself and a time to step up to the plate for my country that had allowed me such a wonderful and free life to this point. So, I and a couple of close friends joined the Army. Based on some testing, we were asked to join the Army Security Agency, so we did and made a four-year commitment.
After two months of having every possible piece of personalization or individualism torn away from me, I was now one of many and no longer one of one. I was now a very small cog in a giant machine, and I loved it. I excelled in the physical parts, gained a grade in basic, and was sent to security school in the northeast for six months. I was thinking I may be placed in linguistics, encryptions or electronics, but instead was put smack dab into “Morse code intercept” operator. It dawned on me that there wasn’t going to be too much potential for a great job when I got out as a Morse code operator. I was right!! God Bless Samuel Morse!
The schooling involved not only learning code, but radio receivers etc., so not all was lost. The instructor at the beginning made a statement that; “whoever graduates first in this class will get the choice of where in the world he wished to go, as long as there was an ASA base there”. That’s all that I needed to be told. I graduated first in my class as a rather fast code taker. I do have to thank my two years of typing class I took in high school though. So, as a result, I chose Germany! A few got some odd countries around the world, but most got Vietnam. I spent my entire time in Germany, 38 months total. Again, fortunate. Married before I went over and was joined by my wife six months later. A year later, my oldest daughter was born in Nuremburg.
It was in the early ‘80s when we made a decision that Florida would be a nice place to eventually move. I had been managing building supply centers since my discharge from the Army Security Agency where I served from 1965 to 1969. It was now 1986 when I decided that career no longer had a very bright future for me.
We had relatives in Florida who owned a very large wheelchair company. My talks with them led me to the idea that with my knowledge of construction materials, there could be an opportunity to perform home modifications, install ramps and do whatever else may be needed for a wheelchair bound person to move in and out of their home. This felt like something I would like to do and was an area where I could make a difference. With my relatives as a source for potential clients needing this service, I embarked on studying accessibility modifications. This was many years before the ADA laws were signed in 1990, but there still was lots of information and studies available for me to learn what the general modification needs would entail.
In 1986, we pulled up stakes in Ohio and moved to Florida. I landed a job as Sales Manager for a large building products supplier outside of Tampa. My wife, who had just completed a three year nursing degree, had no problem finding work. So, to Florida we went! Our oldest was just starting at Ohio State University. Our second daughter was ripped from her high school in rural Ohio and began studies at Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg (she still won’t forgive me for that). Our son, the youngest, 11, was very excited about the move to the Florida beaches. Sadly, in 1996 my wife and their mother passed.
My ultimate goal was to work with our wheelchair relatives in their company and be able to provide the modifications. This came to fruition in a few years. Their company was Custom Mobility, Inc. (CMI) of Largo, FL, one of the largest wheelchair firms in the country, and whose values are beyond reproach.
During my work there, I was given the opportunity to also oversee the automatic door openers, which integrated nicely with the remodeling. Bruce Bayes, owner of CMI, also introduced me to a magician at Bruce’s home. This magician had introduced a product which was being promoted within the local Veterans Administration (VA) called the “Butler in a Box”. Gus Searcy, the magician, was challenged during one of his “on-stage” performances because he asked one of his attendants to please turn down the lighting. Someone in the audience yelled out: “If you are a magician, why can’t you turn down the lights yourself?”, or something to that effect. From that moment on, Gus went on to invent a device that would turn on /off lights, operate a phone, and a few other things. It was voice activated and had a name that most clients used, Alexander.
Although not specifically made for the disabled market, it made its way into the VA system in a few locations, like VA Tampa. Custom Mobility (then called Home Medical) was one of the dealers supplying some of the veterans with this product. Like most products developed for one reason and introduced into the medical market due to our need to help veterans in any way possible, it ended up being very frustrating, and unreliable, thus requiring major servicing to keep it working. I was asked to help them with the servicing.
This is where my experience, education, and expertise of what “environmental controls”, or ECUs started. The concept of electronically helping the disabled market with this life changing technology not only helped the veterans with their self-esteem and quality of life, it helped the caregivers equally.
I became very frustrated with the Butler in a Box product, as frustrated as our customers were. So much so, when Bruce said he had heard from another voice operated environmental control unit, I was more than reluctant to even want to look at it. He convinced me, and it turned out to be the Quartet series of environmental controls. I liked it, we began to offer it and continued to offer to our veterans for the next two or so decades.
At the beginning of selling the Quartets, I made an appointment with the chief of prosthetics at VA Tampa. He was also very frustrated with the Butler in a Box, and similar products that just were not working. So, for me to get him to purchase this new line of Quartets wasn’t going to be easy.
I recall my conversation with him as if it was yesterday. It is really responsible for how I set up my business model when we separated from Custom Mobility and spun off our new Corporation in 1991, called Accessibility Services, Inc. He said to me: “I will purchase this product from you, but only if I never hear complaints from my veterans.” So, from this point forward, service, responsiveness, attempting to have our veteran customers always call us first (to the point where we always stored our phone number first in their units) became our method of operation. Our motto became: “Start with the customer and work backwards.”
Our business model hasn’t changed. Obviously, we make mistakes. But for nearly 30 years of business, all of our customers – large or small, residential or commercial – are treated with this approach.
But, as important as our business model is our staff. Once they see the good that we can do for our veterans and customers, and how rewarding our efforts can be, employees join our common cause open heartedly.
In 2009, I handed the ownership of Accessibility Services, Inc. to Maggie Thompson, my wonderful wife since 2001 (yes, I have been blessed). I thought I could ride off into the sunset and take some time for myself. Then, Memphis VA came about, (another story), and following that, the VA Innovation program, so I have had to stay available where needed, and as I am told, available where I am not needed, to what I hope is helping our growing organization.
Our company has grown substantially, especially since we became known and expanded outside of the state of Florida. Our products have also matured through our own innovation into state-of-the-art technology that does in one product what use to require three or more products. All of our innovations begin and end with our customers and veteran’s needs. We solve problems when we can, and now we are doing it across the nation.
So now, in 2019, I will again attempt to get out of the way and let my very qualified and excellent and knowledgeable employees carry our company’s vision and mission forward another 30 years. As a veteran myself, it has been my honor to be able to serve those veterans that have selflessly given so much to serve and protect our great nation..