Monday, 29 May 2017

How wheelchair users can find their wings.

Spinal Track

My wife has always dreamed of driving a sports car. Before the spinal tumour struck five years ago, it was something she would occasionally hanker after. But with the arrival of children, that romantic notion of swanning around in some little shiny red convertible was soon brushed aside and superseded not by the need for speed but the need for child seats, and copious space for countless shopping bags and child related paraphernalia. So the dream of the sports coupe gave way to the reality of the ubiquitous and exceptionally dreary family hatchback.

It's perverse in many ways that it's only now as she finds herself in a wheelchair, that she has been able to do rather more than just dream about driving a fast sports car again; she's actually been able to live that dream for an afternoon at the home of British motor racing - Silverstone. And the reason for this extraordinary turn up for the books boils down to a remarkable organisation called Spinal Track. Spinal Track is the brainchild of Nathalie McGloin and Andrew Bayliss.

Nathalie McGloin is in fact the world's only female racing driver with a spinal injury that has left her paralysed from the chest down. She originally sustained the injury in a car accident (as a passenger) when she was just 16. Following eleven months in rehab, she returned to school to sit her A levels and then went on to university in Nottingham to study English. Her strength of character and determination to lead an independent life soon got her into playing wheelchair rugby. The sport proved incredibly beneficial as it helped her build her strength, adopt a positive mindset and conquer her condition. Soon she was training for the GB wheelchair rugby trials and playing at a serious level. But on failing to make the GB team for 2012, her passion for the sport faded, only to be replaced by a passion for motor racing.

She has always fostered a love of sports cars and had managed to drive them despite the fact that they are completely impractical for wheelchair users. But it was only after being introduced to track events by a friend that she finally succumbed to the sport, and made it her next mission in life to obtain her Association of Racing Drivers Schools (ARDS) racing licence. In October 2013, having taken part in several sprint events, undergone a medical and demonstrated her ability to get out of a car in seven seconds, she achieved just that. Now with her licence, she takes part in the Porsche Club Championship where she races able-bodied men in her specially adapted hand-controlled Cayman S.

As for the feeling of getting behind the wheel, Nathalie sums it up beautifully: "When you're on track with able-bodied drivers, you're no longer a wheelchair user - you're another competitor. It's the freedom you strive for after a spinal cord injury. You want to be viewed as a person, not a disabled person."

And it's this sense of freedom she wants others like her with spinal injuries, to get a taste of. So with her partner Andrew Bayliss, they set up Spinal Track - an organisation dedicated to giving wheelchair users the opportunity to drive a specially adapted racing car on the famous Silverstone circuit.

My wife first learnt about Spinal Track from the Spinal Injuries Association for whom Nathalie is an ambassador, and having applied to take part, received a call from Nathalie herself. Currently, Spinal Track only have the one adapted racing car, so can only take on two people per day - one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

As someone with no knowledge of motor racing, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. On arrival, I was gobsmacked by the sheer scale of the site. Having pulled in to a large car park in front of huge complex of steel and glass, I made my way to a large reception area and was informed that we required 'The Wing' from where we would be directed to the Spinal Track space located in the F1 pit stops. To reach said point we would need to go back on the dual carriageway and take the first left turn and continue for a further mile or so. To drive at Silverstone, you don't have to drive a racing car; the network of normal tarmac roads around the site are incredibly extensive. So now I can feel fully justified in claiming to have driven our Citroen Belingo round Silverstone.

The place feels a little bit like an airport - an exceptionally large airport. Interestingly enough, it was actually originally built on a World War II RAF  bomber station in 1943.

Eventually, I arrived at an even larger complex than the first one with signage that proclaimed it to be The Wing's North Entrance. I pulled in to the massive car park and stepped into a vast auditorium that was clearly being prepared for a corporate lunch. I asked a young lad laying wine glasses on a sea of dining tables if I was in the right area and discovered that I had to continue driving to the other side of the building where I'd see the pit garages clearly numbered. I wanted number 16. The Wing actually houses a host of conference and entertaining facilities with spectacular viewing balconies of the track.

We were greeted by Andrew and shown up to the large cafe on the second floor. Here we were introduced to the other wheelchair user who Andrew referred to as the 'morning man' who'd just finished his session on the track, which he had clearly enjoyed. Nathalie joined us shortly afterwards. Andrew explained that after lunch Jennifer my wife would receive a short briefing about the track rules before being let lose on the track. Being  totally ignorant about motor racing I asked Andrew how one goes about driving at Silverstone and was surprised to learn that anyone can turn up and have a go on a track day once they've paid  their fee of around £400 to do so. "So can you bring an ice-cream van here and drive that round the track?" I asked mischievously. Andrew smiled broadly. Apparently, your vehicle has to meet certain basic requirements. And I was left with the distinct impression that an ice-cream van wouldn't make the grade.

Lunch over, it was time for my wife's briefing. A large, burly chap with a jovial air about him led us into a side room and outlined the driving rules. You could only overtake in the left lane and were obliged to move over into the right lane if someone behind was looking to overtake you. You were only allowed to overtake on the straights and not the bends. And the appearance of certain flags denoted hazards or incidents of varying importance; the red flag being the most significant.

Minutes later my wife was pulling on a special kind of balaclava followed by a serious looking crash helmet with a built in microphone. Andrew was going to drive first to show her the ropes. Then it would be her turn. There are, I might add, no dual controls.

Following two laps, Andrew pulled into the pits, and Jennifer transferred into her wheelchair (quite how Nathalie manages this in seven seconds, is mystifying).

"How fast did Andrew go?" I asked Jennifer. "140 on the straight," she said smiling, and made her way over to the driver's seat. Now it was her turn.

Spinal Track is still in its infancy, but already its work is having a wonderfully liberating effect on those wheelchair users fortunate enough to get behind the wheel of its specially adapted VW GTI. This is the only organisation in the UK that can provide such an opportunity, and it does so completely free of charge. (A £200 deposit is returned after the event.) Andrew explained later that several ex-servicemen have had the chance to drive here at Silverstone with Spinal Track. If the smile on their faces was anything like that of Jennifer's when she finally pulled into the pit stops after four laps, the efforts of Nathalie and Andrew will have been well and truly worth it.

Spinal Track is now seeking charitable status. If you'd like to learn more, simply contact Spinal Track here.

Sportability


I first encountered the affable David Heard when looking for the entrance to Finmere aerodrome in Buckinghamshire. I was driving my wife to this airstrip not to fly a plane but to sail a blokart. A blokart, I should explain, is essentially a go-kart with a sail.

David, sporting a bright red baseball cap, stood at the side of the road directing the day's participants through a large metal farm gate. The aerodrome lay beyond the farm buildings owned by Noble Foods.

David is the Chief Executive of Sportability, a charity he originally set up 28 years ago, following a car accident involving a very good friend. In fact, it was the transformative effect of sport on David's friend that was to sow the seeds of Sportability.

Today Sportability provides a host of sports and pursuits for people with paralysis; very often those with a spinal injury or other debilitating conditions like MS or the after effects of a stroke.

David has the perfect background to understand the psychological importance of such activities when it comes to building confidence; he holds a Masters in Physiology and Physical Therapy, and his area of interest at university revolved around the role of exercise in promoting wellbeing among people with spinal injuries.

Aside from blokarting, Sportability arranges archery, sailing canoeing, falconry, fishing, gliding, motorsports, quadbiking, scuba diving, shooting, skydiving, water skiing and tennis. And all these events, which are held across the country are suitable for complete novices as well as those who are dab-hands. They are also all completely free of charge - so as the Sportability website so aptly puts it, 'you have nothing to lose but your inhibitions.' In 2016 alone, Sportability organised 71 events across 13 regions. The ultimate aim of the charity is to bring these events within one hour's drive of the main areas of population of the UK. "Our ambition," says David, "is to build our presence in South Wales, the North East, and Northern Ireland."

While sipping my coffee, I watched Jennifer set off down the runway in her blokart. It's a skillful business, and was clearly something the sailors among the day's recruits had a real knack for. After all, catching the wind in your sail is no different, whether you're on water or dry land. I got chatting to a lady who was a very keen blokart competitor and had taken part in events in California where the sport is pretty big. I asked her how fast you could go in one of these things. She said that with the right conditions you could do 60mph, which she had achieved on a beach in California. From the look on Jennifer's face, I get the distinct impression that we'll be back.

For further details about Sportabilty, simply contact the charity here.

Aerobility

I had never been in an aeroplane as small as a six seater before. But now, all that was about to change. Jennifer had booked a flying session with the charity Aerobility. We'd learnt about the organisation while visiting an exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham, and now as we parked at Blackbushe airfield in Hampshire, my heart began to race ever so slightly. I'm a nervous flyer at the best of times but going up in one of these tiddlers didn't exactly fill me with joy. Our 18-year-old son who loves nothing more than riding roller coasters was up for it, as was my wife.

Aerobility was established in 1993 and regularly operates from three airfields in the UK: Blackbushe, Tatenhill in the Midlands and Prestwick in Scotland. Its sole purpose in life is to allow anyone with a disability try their hand at flying for a fraction of the usual cost.

We checked into reception and were eventually introduced to our pilot - a very young, fresh faced lad who looked no older than our son. We were lead to the hangar and were shown to the blue and white Cherokee we were to board. Jennifer was winched into the cockpit by a sophisticated, hydraulic hoist, and Jonathan and I were invited to clamber onto the wing and into the rear of the cockpit. Once we were all firmly planted in our seats and strapped in, the pilot started the engine and the whole plane began to reverberate, which became more pronounced as it began taxying down the runway. At this point in the proceedings, I nervously pointed out to the pilot that his door was still open. This apparently was not a problem, and Jennifer told me not to panic, so I bit my lip. As the plane built up speed, the pilot nonchalantly shut his door and seconds later we were thrown into the air and began to climb. In no time at all, we were looking down on a patchwork of fields. Jennifer and Jonathan were in their element. I, on the other hand, was well out of my comfort zone and found it difficult to get too excited as this ridiculously flimsy piece of engineering bumped around in the clouds. I was feeling decidedly queasy, which wasn't helped when Jennifer was invited by the pilot to take over the controls. But in fairness to Jennifer, the experience was no bumpier under her control.

The views were undeniably spectacular, but I have to say that I was hugely relieved when we finally came down and landed very smoothly on firm ground.

Needless to say, Jennifer enjoyed every second, and can't wait to have another go.

For more details about Aerobility, simply contact the charity at info@aerobility.com

Alex Pearl is a freelance writer and author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The art of building a brand in financial services

My wife and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours the other day at the Royal Academy's excellent After the Fall exhibition of 1930s American art. This was followed by a spot of lunch at Cafe Concerto and excellent coffee, biscuits and fresh fruit over at Sir Richard Branson's gaffe on Haymarket. The gaffe in question being the Virgin Money Lounge where customers can check in, take the weight off their weary feet, and help themselves to refreshments and newspapers - all free of charge.

Few people know more about the art of building brands than Sir Richard. Despite coming late to the financial services sector, Virgin Money has in a relatively short space of time, run rings round its competitors. In the area of investments, Branson saw the gap in the market for a simple investment for the novice investor by launching its tracker fund (managed by computers rather than costly fund managers) as a retail investment as early as 1995 - well before anyone else. Not only was he able to grasp the power of its simplicity and appeal to the masses, but also succeeded in implementing a management charge of 1% - a fee 12 times that of Legal & General's identical product. Despite this remarkable discrepancy, the fund has been so well pitched in marketing terms and supported by the company's legendary customer services that it has been hugely successful at tapping into the massive market of investment newbies. In one fell swoop Branson had managed to do what conventional investment houses had grappled unsuccessfully with for decades. Indeed, in the wake of Virgin's success, even the mighty Hargreaves Lansdown has in recent years included tracker funds on its roster, having pooh poohed them for years. Though ironically, Virgin's fund isn't among them as its management fee is far too high.

Then in 1997, Virgin saw the potential of shaking up the mortgage market by creating with RBS its One Account with which customers were given the freedom to consolidate the balances of their mortgages, current accounts, savings accounts and loans into one account. By offsetting the net total of all these accounts against the capital sum borrowed for the mortgage, customers were able to reduce the interest payments on their mortgages. It was a brilliantly simple idea. But nobody else had thought of it until then. Needless to say, the product was an instant success and helped this relatively new kid on the block further bolster its position in this otherwise conservative and staid market.

It has to be said that Sir Richard isn't just good at spotting opportunities to win over clients. He's also brilliant at retaining them through customer services, and understands its inseparable link with brand building, better than most. In fact, customer services has been something of an obsession throughout his career. There is, of course, the famous story about him disguising his own voice and calling one of his companies as a disgruntled customer, and demanding to be put in touch with Richard Branson. No one tells the story better than the man himself: "I am so pathetically bad at imitating someone else's voice that Penni, my trusted assistant for many years, sat there and let me make a complete fool of myself with some trumped-up complaint before saying, 'Well, thank you so much for sharing all that with me, sir. Let me see if Mr. Branson is available to take your call.' She then kept me hanging on for what seemed like an eternity - it was probably a couple of minutes - before coming back on the line to say, 'Sorry, Richard, but you appear to be out of the office at the moment, can someone else help you?' before dissolving into howls of laughter."

It's a funny story, but it makes an important point that most entrepreneurs fail to grasp. Namely that you should never get so caught up in management and strategy that you forget that you're providing a product or service for the benefit of customers.

Virgin Money has from the outset tried harder than most of its competitors to score brownie points in this department, and has by and large succeeded pretty well. In 2011, it took the decision once again to do something no other financial services provider had so much as contemplated. It launched its Virgin Money Lounges - essentially VIP lounges on the high street for its customers. Besides free refreshments and newspapers, Virgin Money lounges also provide iPads and in some cases, a bookable room for meetings. According to the young lad who greeted us at the Haymarket lounge, they get around 200 customers using it every day. The one in Glasgow gets as many as 1,000 through its doors on some days. That's an awful lot of customers in a year. Yes, they may be paying too high a price for their tracker funds. But they are happy customers, and they wouldn't dream of going anywhere else. That's the genius and staying power of the Branson brand.

Alex Pearl is the owner of Alex Pearl Ltd and author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds