Education key to keep family business going

Kale Hinnant grew up around his family's business, Hinnant Prosthetics, founded in 1931 by his grandfather, an amputee. A few years after graduating from UNC Charlotte with accounting and business degrees in 1978, Kale began working there, too. He's now a certified prosthetist and the business' sole owner.

The first specialized prosthetic center in Charlotte, Hinnant Prosthetics employs about 10 people and makes and fits artificial limbs. Hinnant is guiding the company as it deals with increased competition and technological change: While limbs were once made of wood and metal, today's devices cost tens of thousands of dollars and feature space-age carbon fibers and microprocessors. Advances in medicine mean the company now has fewer trauma patients and more older diabetics, though Hinnant expects to see Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in the years to come.

He spoke with the Observer at the company's office, located in the same South End building since 1949. Remarks are edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Is there a job here you haven't done at this point?

No, I think I've done most of them. And the key, I think, in any good business is that you don't delegate everything. You still have to show people that you're capable of doing a lot of the jobs. If you don't, then you can lose some degree of control over the quality of the product. When you lose the quality control, then you lose your basic ability to have a good finished product.

Q. How do you keep up with changing technology?

There's new stuff coming out all the time in our field. So we're always going to courses and seminars. Sometimes you go to find out what you're going to do, and sometimes you do it to find out what not to do. Unless you're educated, you can't do that.

Q. As a small business, what would you say are some of the challenges you face, and how do you deal with them?

Years ago, you just went in and did your job. Now, you're having to be politically active. You have to work on the state level to make sure they don't pull Medicaid funding. You have to work on a federal level to make sure people are aware of what we do. Then, you have to stay up with your education, you have to run your daily operations. That's why I have other people in my practice, because I don't always have the time.

Q. How would you say your business has grown over time?

Our sales are greater, but it's because (we offer) a higher level of technology and service. As far as quantity, back in the '50s and '60s, we were doing 50 legs a month, because there weren't that many (prosthetic) facilities. Now we're one of many.

Q. How do you differentiate yourselves?

We go at it two ways. One is that we specialize in prosthetics. So when somebody comes in here and has a prosthetic need, we have the ability to spend time on them. I'm strictly here working on prosthetics or going to people's homes to help them with their prosthetic needs. That's the other way we distinguish ourselves, in the fact that we travel to people's homes. (We try to) provide a service that a lot of people don't, which is in-house service.

Q. Is the price of goods something you've increasingly paid attention to?

We have to. You've got to remember, one of the things we do is travel to people's homes. Half of what we get has some degree of petroleum-based product in it. Metal prices have doubled. We're having to be more cost-effective. Otherwise, you're going to be out of business.

Q. In an ideal world, there wouldn't be a need for your business. Yet there is. How do you balance that?

You've got to make the patient feel at ease. That's one of the things that's very important. We live in the perfect world, and then all of a sudden people are amputees and they're no longer what people like to consider perfect. You have to let them know that this is just a stage of rehabilitation and we're here to get you back to be as functional as possible. And hopefully get you back to where you were, so you can do the things you were capable of doing.

Q. It sounds like you can really derive satisfaction from your work.

Very much so. When you have an outcome that's positive, it makes you go on. (And) if we aren't successful the first time, we'll keep trying until we find that success. The bottom line is, the patient is what counts. Hopefully, their word of mouth will spread my abilities to others. I do more through word of mouth than I do anything else, and from years of service. They know we're here. They know the door is open on certain days. They know I will be here when they need me.

Q. What does success look like to you?

To me, success is longevity and also being constant. This isn't the kind of business you're going to get rich in. You're here to provide a service. You're going to have a need, and your need is going to be paid a certain value. When you think money is your whole key to survival, then you're not going to do your job very well. You've got to find some happiness in what you do.