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Making lives better by lifting others

By Jeanette Gardner Littleton

As printed in The Marketplace - May/June 2018

HARRISONVILLE, MO — “My nicknames were ‘golden boy’ and ‘lucky,’” Mike Vogt says of his early vocational journey. He’d just left college in the 1980s when he landed his first job as a draftsman for a firm that manufactures stair lifts and wheelchair lifts. He learned, grew, was promoted in the small company, and was content.

Natalie and Mike Vogt with a chairlift that can be used inside or outside.Natalie and Mike Vogt with a chairlift that can be used inside or outside.

“I had no inclinations of entrepreneurship. I was fine just doing my drawings, living ‘normal’ life. My wife, Natalie, and I were active in the Mennonite church, where we served as youth leaders, led small groups, taught Sunday school, and served on boards.”

Then the company was sold. Soon, Vogt and his co-workers started their own manufacturing company. They still focused on stair lifts, affordable, simplified ones homeowners could install.

“God’s hand was evident with the new company,” he recalls. “Before long, we were growing at a rate of 60 percent annually.”

Their business was so successful that in 2008, an equity firm made a purchase offer Vogt’s partners could not refuse.  Vogt remained with the firm as chief operating officer for four years, but began to realize the company’s goals were different than his. He and Natalie had begun to enjoy anonymously helping others—such as families with medical bills, those struggling to make ends meet, and Christian charities. The firm that purchased their business focused on profits to the detriment of employees. This conflicted with Vogt’s longing to help others achieve better lives.

“My wife agreed to a second attempt at starting a company,” he says. Only this time, the business was set up so employees would eventually own the company and have a source of retirement income.

Investors bought into the dream. Staying Home Corporation was born. The company serves elderly and disabled people, creating products to help them overcome physical challenges in their homes.

But it looked like his third time with a company wouldn’t be a charm; that the golden boy’s record would be tarnished.

“While I was certain God had led me to this point of starting another company, I didn’t realize how prideful I had become. I believed I was being blessed because of my right- eousness. God humbled me dramatically. Few decisions I made were correct, the products weren’t selling, and everything was crashing. I found the verse ‘pride goes before a fall’ is more like ‘pride goes before a body slam to the canvas!’”

Fortunately, Vogt responded to what he felt was God’s discipline and met other Christian businessmen who helped him weather the storms and grow in his faith. “My key verse now is Isaiah 26:12 (NIV), ‘Lord, You establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished You have done for us.’

“We continued to design products, and God sent us just enough work to keep the doors open,” he says.

Those products are truly fascinating. Stair lifts are still in the mix—with new innovations, including an outdoor model. The company created a small, affordable, battery-powered elevator that can be easily installed in existing home structures. And this spring, they will release a new solar-powered vertical wheelchair lift.

Mike and Natalie, the firm’s office manager, base their business on creating niche items to enhance their customers’ lives. Sometimes an idea comes from potential customers, such as when their engineer’s elderly mother said, “I need a tornado shelter.”

The Staying Home staff of 37 began creating a storm shelter that could double as a safe room for home invasions while costing less than a new furnace.

“The first prototype we sent for testing at the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech came back in little pieces,” he recalls with a grin.

As they continued to work, the dream grew. What if they made a shelter that could fold against a wall and then easily deploy within three seconds to hold a whole classroom of children?

In December 2012, a shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Conn. led to the deaths of 20 young children and six adult staff members. That led the company to investigate making a shelter that could protect against automatic weapons.

Finally, they found steel that would withstand F5 tornado winds and was rated to protect against bullets. They created the Hide-Away Tornado Shelter/Safe Room to be configured in custom shapes and sizes. Kansas School for the Blind purchased one large enough for their whole student body. A classroom-sized, foldable Hide-Away shelter can hold 30 students for a cost of around $500 per child—and will last for years to protect hundreds of children.

Vogt tells all employees that his personal priorities are his faith in Christ, his relationship with his wife, his children, his health, and the business. “I explain this so they know we will be open to them dealing with their own personal issues, even when it means they may have to miss work.”

The Vogts also think outside the box with hiring. Whether it’s people who have made mistakes and need a fresh start, are overcoming addiction issues, or face other struggles, “We like to give them a chance,” he says. “They still have to work as hard as everyone else. But it’s amazing how well people do and how much they appreciate it when you just give them the opportunity to prove themselves.”

The Vogts also use another underemployed segment of society: 20 percent of their current staff is over 60. “We like to pair the young people with the older ones to mentor them,” Vogt says. He adds, “It’s great to pair a cocky 24-year-old with an older employee and give him a hard time, ‘Look, this 60-year-old grandma is outworking you!’ It becomes a fun challenge for them to become as productive as the older workers.”

Not surprisingly, he notes, “Though our company is only in its fifth full year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of our associates for 20 years.” Mike and Natalie’s leadership style keeps employees hanging around.

“Our hope is to be able to provide jobs to those in need, donate to causes as the Lord directs, and create a company that can continue on with these goals long after we are gone,” he summarizes. “We are attempting to create a company in a manner that we believe is biblical.” ◆

 

Jeanette Gardner Littleton is a Kansas City-based writer and editor who works in communications for the Church of the Nazarene.