NuStep is stepping into the therapeutic and recovery needs of the boomer generation with new products that build on the proven capability of the Michigan-based manufacturer to provide rehabilitation equipment that addresses the acute and specific requirements of people recovering from heart surgery and other major health events.
The mid-market company employs about 100 people, including 70 production workers, at its headquarters near Ann Arbor, where CEO Eric Sklar has been reorienting NuStep from a one-hit dominator – known as a “recumbent cross trainer” — to a broader outlook on rehab equipment that requires significant product enhancements and opens doors to new customers and new markets.
“We are taking a look at what we think the company is good at,” NuStep’s chief since 2018 told Chief Executive. “Prior management thought of us as a recumbent-stepper company, and I’ve looked at NuStep as an inclusive company – meaning we can address many different modalities, or many physical challenges in many markets. Our strength is how we can make one machine that can accept everyone. It’s like the difference between an escalator and an elevator.”
In taking this approach, Sklar is employing a strategy that can be crucial for CEOs newly coming to a company with the owners’ directive to take things to the next level. He’s first seeking to optimize the company’s core capabilities, affirming and stretching the brand at the same time, and redefining its offerings for new markets while making sure he holds on to its foundational market.
NuStep is the progeny of a brilliant biomedical engineer, Dick Sarns, who designed the renowned Sarns heart-lung machine for cardiac-bypass surgery in 1960. Years later, as research emerged that supported the importance of exercise for cardiac patients, Sarns shifted his focus to rehab equipment and founded NuStep in 1987. Sarns and his wife, Norma Sarns, launched the first recumbent cross-training bike for individuals with limited movement in 1993.
These trainers require sitting and executing “cross-lateral movement,” Sklar explained, “not just working your arms and legs but also involving your torso. Think of the Beatles walking on Abbey Road. Being in the recumbent position, if you happen to get lightheaded or have had a stroke or an ambulatory challenge, you can begin your movement in a seated position.”
NuStep’s unique product got the company sales of more than 90,000 units across 20 countries by 2016, in fitness centers, rehab facilities, senior-living operations and others. By 2018, Sarns was ready to retire, and recruited Sklar from his long history as an executive in the medical-equipment industry.
Sklar quickly saw opportunity to add features such as real-time biofeedback and an ergometer to NuStep’s equipment. Those enhancements can help individuals with the symmetry of physical effort that can be crucial to rehabilitation. “You can tell you’re not using the right arm the same as you’re using the left,” he said.
At the same time, Sarns “had a strong focus on markets as well as on a specific product solution,” Sklar said. “But I thought that his engineering designs could be broadcast over a variety of different products and markets. We had the platform to address a variety of different physical challenges for people.”
So, for instance, NuStep is expanding more proactively in the orthopedics market. “If you have a damaged knee or hip or foot, you’re in a safe position on a recumbent versus a bike,” Sklar explained. “And you don’t have to make the commitment to go a full revolution like on a bike, to go 360 degrees. Not everyone can do that, especially at the beginning of rehab.”