Karl Fillauer, CPO, jokes that his dad did not heed child labor laws.
Fillauer said he was in grade school when he started working at the Chattanooga, Tenn., O&P business that sprouted from a drugstore his German immigrant grandfather founded in 1914.
“I started out doing menial things, like rubbing white wax on Browne splints and wiping it off,” said Fillauer, who earned the Titus-Ferguson Award from the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists in 2011. “You did not have to be too smart to do that.”
Maybe not, but Fillauer, like his father, Carlton Fillauer, CPO, became an O&P pioneer.
“I worked on Saturday mornings for a quarter an hour,” Fillauer said. “But I enjoyed it and grew up in the business.”
Growth from need
Today, Fillauer runs the business as chairman of the board of Fillauer Companies Inc. His sons, Michael and David, both certified prosthetists, followed him into the firm. They sit on the board of directors and help with business development.
Fillauer Companies Inc. designs, manufactures and customizes more than 3,200 O&P products. The firm is perhaps best known for its Prosthetic Suspension Lock Systems.
Fillauer Companies Inc. is an international firm comprised of seven subsidiaries: Fillauer Inc., Hosmer, Motion Control, Fillauer Europe, Fillauer North Carolina, Fillauer Composites and Fillauer Orthotic and Prosthetics Patient Care.
In a 2011 Chattanooga Times-Free Press article, Fillauer insisted his life was not about making money. “You hear these clichés like we want to be good, we want to be the best, we want to be the biggest,” he told writer Ellis Smith. “If it happens, that’s fine. But it isn’t the goal.”
Fillauer pointed to a cross above his office door and said his boss is “that guy right there,” according to Smith.
In any event, George Fillauer Sr.’s long-range business goals probably did not include a plan to turn his little Red Cross Pharmacy into a global corporation.
But, if business success is about “location, location, location,” Red Cross was in a good spot. George Fillauer Sr., a native of Heppenheim, Germany, who graduated top of his class at an Ohio pharmacy school, opened across the street from Erlanger Hospital, the Chattanooga-city hospital.
The hospital needed supplies, including orthotic and prosthetic devices and Red Cross was well-positioned to provide them. George designed and patented a hernia brace. His wife Marie became a “corsetteer,” or crafter of medical corsets.
Marie became so busy that she needed help. So Fillauer Surgical Supplies, as the business became known in the 1920s, employed a quartet of seamstresses to help her turn out corsets and back supports, Karl Fillauer said.
The business had opened the year World War I broke out in Europe. In 1917, the United States joined the Allies, mainly, Britain, France, Italy and Russia, against the Central Powers — Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. The war ended in Allied victory in 1918.
A new direction
The fighting during World War I created an enormous demand for artificial limbs. A number of Americans who lost arms and legs in battle were patients at Erlanger Hospital.
Fillauer Surgical Supplies helped meet the demand for prostheses. But the firm was shorthanded and in the 1920s, George Fillauer Sr. brought “orthomeister” Lawrence Porten from Germany to help fashion and fit the devices.
In 1934, George Fillauer Sr. founded an orthopedic clinic, mainly for researching and developing new products. The oldest such clinic in Chattanooga, it ultimately became a facility strictly for patient care.
George Fillauer Sr. also started a family tradition: Fillauers would be practitioners as well as producers of orthotic and prosthetic devices. Since Carlton Failluer, every family member-owner of the business has been a certified professional.
Carlton Fillauer, helped turn the company in a new direction — from patient care more toward making orthopedic and prosthetic devices. In 1972, George Failluer Jr. merged the firm with Durr Drug Co. The new firm was Durr-Fillauer.
Fillauer knew the business and production side of the company. He earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Barnard’s College in Alabama and studied prosthetics at Northwestern University and orthotics at New York University.
But he preferred working with patients and started his own clinics, which he sold to what is now Hanger Inc. Meanwhile, Carlton Fillauer mostly oversaw manufacturing.
After a takeover by what is now Cardinal Health in 1993, Fillauer bought the manufacturing operation, thereby returning the firm to its family roots.
“Under the Fillauer banner, we consolidated into one company with many brands,” Fillauer said. “Our footprint is a little different. But we are the same culture we have always been.”
He said the firm’s biggest challenges are meeting government standards and patient expectations.
“There were almost no regulations when we started,” he said.
Fillauer added that patients expect better results from orthotic or prosthetic devices.
“The Internet gives them access to a lot of information about outcomes. They can read about products on the Internet and know what they are supposed to do. When I started, a patient would come in and not have a clue about what I was going to do meet their expectations.”
He said crafting and fitting orthotic and prosthetic devices is “a blend of mind and hands, and being able to deal with people. One of the most rewarding things is that you can see the outcome. You use your mind and hands and interrelate with the person.”
- Smith E. Fillauer family builds global medical supply business. 2011; Available at www.timesfreepress.com/news/business/aroundregion/story/2011/apr/17/fillauer-family-builds-global-medical-supply-busin/47610/. Accessed Jan. 14, 2016.