Shore business puts best foot forward

November 06, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Sun Staff Correspondent

PITTSVILLE -- Jack Kaeufer can work wonders with feet.

As owner of Foot Management Inc., he presides over an Eastern Shore company that custom makes orthotics -- shoe inserts to make feet feel better.

It is not, Mr. Kaeufer is quick to point out, just a business, although the shelves of size 13 orthotics testify to happy customers on dozens of National Football League and National Basketball Association teams.

But to this genial man, the painstaking work done in the small factory in Pittsville, just east of Salisbury, is a profession, one with an underlying philosophy.

"You want to remember that everything we make is for somebody's child, somebody's grandmother. You're not just making an object; it's going to a person, and it has to be exactly right," he said during an interview at his plant.

In several white-walled rooms, white-coated workers make plaster casts of customers' feet, then sand them and correct them to fit a doctor's prescription.

Thermoplastics, plastics that become hard when heated, then are baked in microwave ovens to make impressions of the casts. The small plastic pieces that emerge are ground to fit into the shoe to correct problems associated with heel spurs, arch pain, swollen knees, lower-back pain and legs of uneven length. They retail for $125 to $300 a pair.

The company also makes feltlike corrective pads to fit into everything from sneakers to dress shoes.

Dangling from the ceiling is a skeleton of a leg and foot. "Everybody who works here learns all 28 bones in the foot and what they do," Mr. Kaeufer explained. A new computer can be programmed to make alterations in the molds, but human skills are still critical, he said.

"Only a person can see something's not right," said. Mr. Kaeufer, adding that some of the best workers among his 18 employees are deaf people who do "beautiful, exacting work."

In addition to hiring handicapped people, Mr. Kaeufer, 50, serves on the President's Committee for Employment of the Handicapped and has campaigned for a national law to protect the legal rights of the physically disabled.

Mr. Kaeufer acquired his sensitivity to the disabled first-hand, after an injury changed his life two decades ago.

A serious back injury resulted in two disc operations and cost Mr. Kaeufer his livelihood as a charter-boat captain in Ocean City and his greatest pleasure.

"I lost just about everything I owned," he recalled. "It was rough, but it makes you turn an open eye to other people who have problems."

While at Johns Hopkins Hospital for back surgery, Mr. Kaeufer befriended a physical therapist who persuaded him to learn the orthotics business. Joe Reed, a doctor at the National Institutes of Health, became his personal saint, Mr. Kaeufer said.

While recuperating in Washington, Mr. Kaeufer worked in a small shoe store where he learned to make orthotics. Then work started coming in from the Redskins, the Bullets and teams from the University of Maryland. Business was good enough to allow him to move back to the Eastern Shore and set up shop 17 years ago.

"I was just tickled to death to have a little one-man shop in a 12-by-14 room behind a drugstore," he said. "Every morning, I didn't know if the business would work."

Mr. Kaeufer said his original partner, Len Winkelman, was the businessman. "He told me if you're going to have a business, you need a good accountant, a good lawyer and work as hard as you possibly can," Mr. Kaeufer recalled.

He took that advice, and it has paid off. Although Mr. Kaeufer was reluctant to provide figures, he said his business gets the bulk of the orthotics business from professional football and basketball teams.

He counts himself "very, very lucky" to make orthotics for the Redskins, the Indianapolis Colts, the Houston Oilers, the Dallas Cowboys, and for colleges such as Loyola, Bucknell and the University of Virginia.

The shelves of casts of athletes' feet represent lacrosse players from the Johns Hopkins University and several teams from the University of Maryland.

But John Lally, the Bullets' trainer, said the credit for the company's success goes not to luck but to Mr. Kaeufer, who, he noted, will personally make orthotics in emergencies and ship them overnight.

Not long ago, Jeff Ruland of the Bullets left his shoes, containing his orthotics, in a hotel room in Dallas. Mr. Lally called Jack Kaeufer. The next morning, when the team checked into a hotel in Portland, Ore., the orthotics were waiting.

"I asked at the desk, and there was the Federal Express ticket clipped to my registration slip," Mr. Lally said.

Ninety percent of the players need orthotics, because there's no such thing as a perfect foot, Mr. Lally said.

Mr. Kaeufer never adopted the trappings of big business. He still goes to work in sneakers, and he still gets his mail in a bin taped to the side of his desk. It reads simply "JACK'S MAIL" in red marking pen.

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