Al Thieme is a man with a heart the world doesn’t deserve.
Over the last half century, he has been a hero to millions of people worldwide — most of whom have never met him and wouldn’t even know his name. While most manufacturers hope their products make a positive change to the world, Thieme never has to wonder if his has — he has scrapbooks full of thank you letters and walls decorated with images of the people he has helped.
Amigo means “friend” and Thieme’s product, the first three-wheeled mobility vehicle, has been a friend, a life-changer and a miracle for so many people facing a disability, stricken with illness or struggling with advancing age.
“I had a sister who grew up having great trouble walking and another family member who struggled with multiple sclerosis and had tremendous fatigue. One day we had to rent a wheelchair and it was just a horrible experience. She didn’t like being pushed around— I just thought that there had to be a better way,” recalled Al Thieme. “I couldn’t find something better so I just started to sketch some ideas. I found an electrical engineer to help and out of that came the first Amigo, though it didn’t have a name yet.”
Looking back, that first design was pretty crude but it did what it needed. The Amigo improved lives and Thieme knew that there were others unable to do things most take for granted. He’d found his calling.
“I think of the impact he has had and it’s almost overwhelming; the way in which Al and Amigo Mobility are able to touch the lives of others,” said Beth Thieme, Al’s wife and vice president for Amigo Mobility. “It’s amazing to meet the people who come in to visit us and write to us and see how mobile and active they are. That’s all because of him and who he is as a person.”
Thieme never sought recognition; he simply wanted to help people. That doesn’t mean recognition didn’t find him. He was awarded the U.S. Small Businessman of the Year Award in 1981 and the John G. Thodis Michigan Manufacturer of the Year Award in 2012. Along the way, the letters poured in, thankful for what he had given to the world — his invention, their friend, their Amigo.
“I know it can be difficult to understand when you don’t live with it, but the Amigo can help a person with a disability feel non-disabled,” said Ronnie Bachman, a motivational speaker and an Amigo customer for nearly 40 years. “I grew up with wheelchairs and artificial legs. I grew up with the looks people would give you, the way they’d talk differently to you and the words they would use to try and define you as this thing. It is so refreshing to use something that puts you up high, at eye level; something that is maneuverable. On an Amigo, you don’t feel like you’re lacking something the same way you would without it.”
Despite the accolades, the love, the thanks, there’s one person who is never satisfied and that’s Thieme himself.
“He’s so persistent and honest about what he’s built — he still to this day believes there’s got to be a better way,” Beth Thieme said. “Whether it’s with the product, the processes or ourselves as people, there’s always room for improvement and I think that’s why to this day he works so hard. He knows there’s more he can do.”
Upon hearing this, Al Thieme will simply smile and shrug, saying that “I can’t help it. I like to work and I like to change things. I like to find ways to improve whatever I do.”
Consider his story and accomplishments. With no background in engineering or manufacturing, he started the entire mobility industry. When medical insurance did not recognize the Amigo as a mobility aid, Thieme changed social security in 1977 so that it was covered — eliminating countless costs and financial burdens for so many people. Walk into almost any grocery store in America and you’ll find motorized carts to assist those with disabilities; something only possible because Al Thieme dared to dream that there must be a better way.
And, along the way, Thieme did become a manufacturing leader as well.
He is an active member of the MMA, the Great Lakes Bay Manufacturing Association, Stevens Center for Family Business and the Saginaw Chamber of Commerce. He has chaired the Saginaw Valley Branch of the MS Society, been a board member for the Michigan State Chapter of the National MS Society, the Northwest Airlines Disability Awareness Advisory Board and served as president of numerous community organizations including the Chamber of Commerce and Lions Club.
His influence is so far-reaching, yet he remains humble and always encouraging to the next generation. Again, evidence of that heart the world doesn’t deserve.
“I’ve been so very fortunate and I encourage anyone out there with a dream to pursue it,” Thieme shared. “Read books. Take chances. Fail but get back up. Find your passion and work so very hard to make it real.”
The MFG Lifetime Achievement honors an individual who has excelled in the industry and inspires their peers, emerging leaders, lawmakers and educators to strive to make significant contributions to their company, industry and community. The award is presented at the annual MFG Excellence Awards in November.