Keystone Mobility Inc. started out like a lot of small businesses: by accident.
Incorporated in 1999, the Dauphin County-based mobility services provider began years earlier as the Rev. David Sterling’s traveling hobby shop.
Sterling, a former mechanic and maintenance instructor for United Airlines, was a minister of a small church in Indiana when his wife, Judy, was diagnosed in 1985 with multiple sclerosis and needed a scooter.
At the time, scooters were fairly new, and repair services were few and far between. So Sterling contacted the manufacturer and offered his services.
When his own health began deteriorating, Sterling retired from active church ministry, and the couple moved to Pennsylvania in 1990. He continued to lend a helping hand to those in need, purchasing an old nursing home shuttle bus and converting it into a mobile repair shop.
“In this kind of environment, you deal a lot with depression, frustration and the loss of loved ones,” said Andrew Sterling, the company’s CEO. “Dad was not only fixing scooters, but also developing relationships with people that they valued him as a friend.”
David Sterling was a full-time hobbyist, not a businessman, his son said. He charged people only for gas to cover his travels and the cost of parts to fix their mobility devices.
With service at the forefront, the one-man operation was known as the Central Pennsylvania Electric Mobility Repair Service until Andrew came on board to help his father as demand grew.
The two-person business quickly became three as the younger Sterling’s wife, Cindy, came on as office manager in 2000.
“There was no money, only belief,” Andrew said. “It was definitely a leap of faith.”
As the territory expanded beyond Central Pennsylvania, the 1,500-square-foot rented space in Elizabethtown became too small for the company’s needs. Service had led to increased product lines in the showroom.
By 2004, Keystone Mobility moved into a 4,000-square-foot space in Lower Paxton Township. In August, the company again expanded, into a 9,000-square-foot building in Swatara Township.
The Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. provided $245,000 in financing through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 504 loan program. The Adams Street facility was purchased for $567,000, according to Dauphin County property records.
The family-owned and -operated business, which now employs nine, could double the space, Sterling said.
The company has gone from selling and installing scooters from a single manufacturer to about five. Keystone provides service for dozens of manufacturers, and its territory extends into New York, Philadelphia and Maryland.
“We’re trying to be as much of a single source for (people),” Sterling said, adding that referrals also are a big part of the service-oriented business.
Along with the tight margins in an industry that is compressing, the biggest challenges continue to be educating the community about the products and services available to them in the later stages of life or in the case of medical complications or an accident, he said.
“There are so many people that go through an end stage of life and feel like they have to do it alone,” Sterling said. “People tend to resist the fact that they need help.”
Keystone has a good working relationship with the Center for Independent Living of Central Pennsylvania, a nonprofit service organization in East Pennsboro Township that strives to help people with disabilities maintain their independence.
“We strongly believe we need our local vendors to supply our needs,” said Katrina Bradley, the center’s development and events coordinator. “(Keystone) is timely, and they care for their customers. They support us at a local level and have deep community ties.”
The Center for Independent Living of Central Pennsylvania also has an office in Newport, which opened in August. Its core service territory includes Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties.
“It’s all about, ‘What can we do to get the person what they need to stay independent?’” Sterling said. “We did not start this business, and we will not be in this business, to make a million dollars.”
Keystone has been averaging about 3 percent to 5 percent annual net sales growth, he said. He did not disclose revenue figures.
Slow growth and maintaining a personal connection to customers will continue to be the focus, Sterling said. Enhancing relationships with service agencies and partners in the medical field, as well as expanding product lines, also will be top priorities for this niche business.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s often a slow process,” Sterling said. “We are not the oldest company; we’re one of the younger ones in this industry.”