Hooked on Helping People

Laurie Sullivan, CPed, jokes that her path to a
pedorthics career began with divine intervention.

An ex-advertising executive, she and her husband, John, own Foot
Solutions franchise stores in Annapolis and Bethesda, Md., and Alexandria, Va.

“We were looking to start a business,” she said. “John
and I had no interest in a franchise. We were just cocky enough to believe we
could come up with our own idea.”

The Sullivans changed their tune when they heard about Foot Solutions
comfort shoe stores.

  Laurie Sullivan, CPed, took precertification courses at Foot Solutions headquarters before opening her own stores in Maryland and Virginia.
  Laurie Sullivan, CPed, took
precertification courses at Foot Solutions headquarters before opening her own
stores in Maryland and Virginia.
  Images: Craig B, O&P Business

“Years ago, my husband’s feet were crushed in an automobile
accident,” she explained. “We had spent thousands of dollars and
hundreds of hours in shoe stores trying to find shoes that made him
comfortable. But it was always a case of finding something less

Foot Solutions, Sullivan added, was indeed the solution to her
spouse’s foot problems, and hers.

“It is such a blessing,” she said. “His feet don’t
hurt anymore. Neither does his back. And I can now wear cute shoes and have
happy feet and healthy knees.”

Sullivan said the high heels she wore in her advertising career made her
foot and knee problems much worse.

“A doctor made orthotics for me, but they didn’t fit in any of
my dressy shoes. Foot Solutions carries shoes that are fashionable and can
accommodate my orthotics.”

No knowledge of pedorthics

She never expected to end up in the comfort footwear business.

“When I got into this, I had no concept of what pedorthics
was,” said Sullivan, who was born in the United States but grew up in
Saudi Arabia and London. Her father was in the oil business.

At age 18 years, her parents sent her stateside to college.

“They decided I needed to know something about my own
country,” she said.

Sullivan graduated from the University of Maryland in 1989, earning a
bachelor’s degree in English and journalism. “Of course, that, too,
was completely unrelated to pedorthics.”

Sullivan migrated to Texas, where she worked in two advertising agencies
before becoming marketing manager for the University of Texas women’s
athletic program.

She met John in Austin. They were married in 1995, headed east and in
2003 became Foot Solutions franchisees.

Sullivan took her precertification courses at Foot Solutions
headquarters in Marietta, Ga. Foot Solutions stores sell footwear, socks, other
shoe accessories and orthotics — over-the-counter or custom-made at the
company lab in Marietta.

Advertising background helpful

Sullivan thinks her advertising background makes her a better

“Advertising is about telling a story in a compelling way. So if I
say, ‘Mrs. Smith you need an arch support’ but don’t explain
why, I’m not engaging Mrs. Smith and getting her to buy in to the

“One of the biggest challenges in this field is patient compliance.
You get better patient compliance when you tell the story in a compelling way
and get the patient to be a participant in the process.”

  Sullivan said some customers — women especially — still balk at “sensible” shoes.
  Sullivan said some customers
— women especially — still balk at “sensible” shoes.

Sullivan said some customers — women especially — still balk
at “sensible” shoes. But she is thankful that many comfort and
therapeutic shoe manufacturers have seen the light and are now making footwear
that is sensible, supportive and more fashionable.

“Still, with shoes you have this conflict between foot and
eyeball.” The eyes sometimes have it, notably with older women, Sullivan

“For example, you have this 80-year-old woman who grew up in an era
when you dressed for everything. She still wants to wear dressy shoes.

“It takes some gentle coaxing. But I make a point of telling her
that if the outfit looks spectacular nobody is going to look at your feet and
that you look prettier standing up than lying in a hospital bed because you
fell and broke your hip.”

Often, she said, middle-aged children bring their elderly parents to her

“I cringe when I see them wearing athletic shoes that their
well-intentioned children bought them.

“A lot of older people don’t have good gaits; they are
shufflers. If you shuffle in athletic shoes and walk on carpet, the shoes will
grab the carpet and increase the likelihood of a fall.”

She said women of all ages — men, too — frequently arrive on
her doorstep in footwear that is too small for their feet. “As we women
age, our dress size increases but we say to ourselves ‘At least I still
wear a size 6 shoe’ and we feel better about ourselves. There is a lot of
emotion tied to that shoe size.”

Function and fashion

All feet are measured before they go into footwear at the
Sullivans’ stores. Even so, some customers consider stepping shoeless on a
Brannock device a close encounter of the worst kind.

Many women buy into the big-feet-aren’t-feminine myth, Sullivan
said. “I usually don’t tell people what I measure them. I tell them
my goal is to fit them in comfortable shoes. When they say the shoes feel good,
I might talk size.”

If a customer is still stressed because the Brannock shows she needs a
larger size, Sullivan crunches some other numbers.

“I tell them a full shoe size is just one-third of an inch. A half
size is just one-sixth of an inch. So what are we really fighting over?”

Psychology 101

Professor Sullivan’s Shoe Psychology 101 short course also includes
a lesson for female customers on functionality and fashion.

She compares shoes to bras.

“They are the only things we wear that are also functional. All
women know there are good bras and bad bras. Well, there are good shoes and bad
shoes, too.

“So I tell them they need to look at shoes in terms of function and
fashion. I will always try to make the fashion work, but without a functional
mean, we are not going to have a win.”

“Win” means more than money in the cash register, Sullivan
said. “Pedorthics is about improving the quality of people’s

Successful pedorthists are good questioners, listeners and explainers,
she said. “You have to be an active listener. I want to know what a
customer’s life looks like. So I say, ‘Tell me all the things you do
in a week.’ Also, when they go the doctor, the doctor speaks in medical
terminology, so I take the time to use plain English to help them understand
what their problems are and how a pedorthist can help them.”

Career validation

Sullivan cited a nurse who convinced her she made the right career move.
The woman had suffered a serious accident that nearly cost her a foot. Multiple
surgeries, orthopedic shoes and orthotics failed to help. Chronic pain forced
the nurse to quit working.

In desperation, she came to Sullivan. “Her feet hurt so much that
she was walking on the lateral sides of them. That was causing her severe knee,
hip and back pain.”

Sullivan fitted her in shoes and orthotics she thought would be more
accommodative. “The woman stood up and said her pain was gone.

“Tears started streaming down her face, and I started crying. She
ended up going back to work. I was hooked on pedorthics. Call it divine
intervention. But I’m glad I started this crazy journey down the road to

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