With a strong professional background in bookkeeping, accounting and office management, Erin Lewis knew there were any number of businesses that could use her skills. But she wanted to find work in an industry that felt meaningful to her.
“I floated around for a while, trying everything from yacht interiors to craft stores,” Lewis recalled. “But none of them felt like just the right fit.”
It turned out that “the right fit” would be more than just a figure of speech. Lewis knew she’d made a match when she found work through a friend at KeepingPace, a Massachusetts-based footwear sales and manufacturing company devoted to producing shoes for children with disabilities who wear braces, inserts or other corrective orthopedic equipment.
At the time Lewis came aboard, KeepingPace was run by its founder, Lori Watson, who launched the company in 2004 because she was not able to find a well-fitting shoe for her son, who has cerebral palsy. Lewis joined the company as an order processor in 2006 while earning her accounting degree, then took over the bookkeeping in 2009.
She worked with Watson for the next six years, and in that time, despite having little previous exposure to the needs of children with disabilities, “Fell in love with the industry,” she said. “Lori taught me everything I know. She instructed me about shoe manufacturing, about braces, and about the specific needs of the kids who make up our clientele.”
KeepingPace serves the orthopedic footwear needs of children with many chronic conditions, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and spina bifida, as well as temporary conditions like club foot and toe walking.
After establishing herself at KeepingPace in bookkeeping, Lewis branched out under Watson’s tutelage into production and materials purchasing. “The more I got involved, the more I enjoyed learning about the industry,” she said.
So when Watson expressed the urge to sell the company, Lewis knew she was ready for the big step of taking it over. Lewis and her mother together bought KeepingPace, closing on ownership at the end of 2015.
The first challenge for the new owners was a significant one: finding a new production factory. Transitioning operations to the new manufacturer took 90 days longer than originally planned, but the delay demonstrated to Lewis just how devoted KeepingPace’s clients were to their product.
“We have such loyal customers that they were willing to wait for their shoes,” Lewis said, giving Watson credit for establishing such a committed clientele. “Customer loyalty is our greatest asset.”
The new factory also allows KeepingPace to work with upgraded materials and styles.
“It’s a premium factory that produces a better-looking and better-performing product,” Lewis said. This is essential, since a key to meeting the needs of their clients is understanding that fashion is important to young people with disabilities.
“They like the fact that we have shoes that look just like the shoes any other kid is wearing, not like they came from a doctor’s office,” she said.
Lewis is committed to updating styles regularly as well, since many children buy all their shoes from KeepingPace and don’t want the same shoe year after year.
Watson, meanwhile, stayed on after selling the company to focus on the research and development side of the business. She now works with Lewis to find ways for the business to expand into new products for their clientele.
KeepingPace has expanded in another direction, as well, with a corporate social responsibility mission. The company has recently sent employees to Jamaica, where they set up mobile clinics so that local children with disabilities may be matched with appropriate footwear. Industry peers have helped out by donating braces and walkers.
As Lewis establishes herself as new owner of the company, her next challenge is to get the word out to a wider audience.
“We’re primarily word of mouth,” she said. “There are still orthotists and podiatrists who don’t fully recognize the potential of properly fitted footwear for children who wear braces. They instruct parents to simply buy a shoe two sizes bigger than their child’s foot size. That’s finally starting to change, and testimonials from our customers show how much it means to them to be able to come to us to find a shoe that actually helps their brace work better, rather than just adequately fitting over it.”
Article sponsored by KeepingPace