Furniture veterans grow mobile carts business
Altus co-founders invented a lifting technology for standing desks that gained traction in health care.
The co-founders of Altus were in the right place at the right time when electronic medical records (EMRs) became the industry standard.
Craig Vanderheide, CEO, and Eric Kahkonen, chief revenue officer, in 2001 founded the Walker-based company. The pair had just sold their previous business, Idea Industries, an office accessories supplier, in 1999 and were looking for their next big challenge.
They began Altus thinking their mobile sit-to-stand workstations would mostly be used in office settings.
But then, in the early 2000s, insurance companies and the government began to push hospitals to make the transition from paper medical recordkeeping to EMRs, which require providers to be connected to desktop or laptop equipment everywhere they go for charting purposes.
Spectrum Health through one of its resellers approached the duo and said the health system was looking to incorporate mobile workstations in its new Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center facility, which opened in 2004.
Altus won the contract and got busy customizing its workstations for a hospital setting.
“We configured the product in a way that provides security for the laptop and also then gives the ergonomics for their caregivers,” Vanderheide said.
Kahkonen said the carts ultimately became the standard at Spectrum, and Altus just went through and replaced all of the carts last year.
“They did a complete system-wide, facility-wide refresh with new carts, and Altus was fortunate to earn the business to be the standard,” he said.
“Every single facility, over 2,700 carts, are utilized — mostly inside a room, but there’s a small fleet that also (are) rounding or moving carts.”
The company’s contract with Spectrum goes for another seven years.
After the experience of winning such a large health care client, Vanderheide and Kahkonen decided to restructure their business to focus mostly on that industry, although it still is a supplier to the office furniture market and others on a smaller scale.
Altus now offers motorized and nonmotorized workstations; a mobile medication delivery cart that features locked compartments; wall-mounted workstations; and accessories that can attach to the other products, including USB-powered lights, charging bases, IV poles, additional drawers and cables, and more.
Its 30 employees design, assemble and sell the products to be “ergonomic, durable and intuitive” for the user. The first batch of Spectrum carts lasted 13 years, compared to the industry average lifespan of five to six years for mobile carts, Vanderheide said.
Vanderheide and Kahkonen said the company has about 20 primary manufacturing partners that make the parts and about 100 suppliers overall, about 80% of which are in the U.S.
Altus’ distribution footprint now stretches across the nation.
“We’ve earned the standard at places like MD Anderson in Houston or Kaiser on the West Coast and Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City,” Kahkonen said. “So, we’ve got a pretty good footprint around the country, and people understand our total value proposition.”
Altus also is in the process of breaking into new markets, such as Canada and the Middle East via the United Arab Emirates.
In January, Kahkonen and Sarah Leitz, director of product marketing, traveled to Dubai, UAE — with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and a life science manufacturing contingent — to connect with potential customers and resellers at the Arab Health trade show.
May 13-17, Altus again traveled with the MEDC, this time as one of six Michigan companies participating in the Canada Trade Mission, making stops in Montreal and Toronto. Kahkonen attended and interviewed potential resellers and to learn about how Altus needs to adjust its products to account for the differences in the Canadian health care system.
Leitz also is planning a trip to Europe to meet with distributors.
The company’s slogan on its website is “Roll with it,” touting its flexibility and constant evolution of the wheeled vehicles.
Altus is working on increasing its ability to configure its carts for uses such as phlebotomy, children’s health care and telemedicine.
“Consistent product developments have been the key to our success over the last 10 to 15 years. We’ve got our core product modules that are really successful, but as the industry grows, there is new opportunity, new niches that develop,” Kahkonen said.
“Craig and his team on the engineering side have to stay current on fitting those needs for workload, even if it’s small units within the hospital. Within that, we also do a fair amount of custom work for facilities where our product is pretty much what they want, but they might have unique workflow requirements that are just really important to that facility.”
Vanderheide said Altus is grateful to be part of a manufacturing city like Grand Rapids.
“We’re thankful to West Michigan. Our suppliers, many of them took us in as a customer when we were a startup and supported us over many years on a customer basis,” he said.
“All of the local hospitals have supported us significantly, and they continue to support us by helping us with research and collaboration on ideas.”