For Melissa Mulholland, founder of Lexington-based McCauley Shoes, 2009 was an astounding year. She experienced the shock of a life-threatening illness and at the same time, unbelievable joy.
Early that year she and her husband, John, found out that they were expecting a baby girl. But two months before Mulholland was to give birth, she discovered a tiny lump in her right breast. It was stage 2 breast cancer.
In the following weeks the lump was removed, Mulholland started chemotherapy, and she gave birth to her baby girl one month early.
"I delivered McCauley, then I went through radiation and the rest of the chemo when she was newborn. So I was exhausted." said Mulholland, who is now cancer free.
She got on with her life, including accompanying her husband, who is in the horse business, to business-related parties and Keeneland. And when exhaustion would set in, off would come her shoes.
In February 2012, an idea came to Mulholland: What if a single pair of shoes could be converted from a high wedge to a lower heel, something that could be comfortable and stylish?
"The whole idea was born from comfort, needing to be dressed up but at the same time not wanting to pull on flip-flops at the end of the day," Mulholland said.
A graduate of the University of Kentucky and The Lorenzo de Medici School in Florence, Italy, Mulholland, 33, had no experience in design — just sore feet and the drive to create a better shoe.
She took her idea to a patent lawyer and turned to her family for the money to start the business. And in May 2012, she and her parents, Ron and Marilyn Smedley, and her grandfather, Charles Price, formed McCauley LLC, named for Mulholland's daughter.
The former art teacher and art director at Gallery B knew nothing about starting a shoe business, but she did her research. She discovered what it took to build a shoe by looking at it from the inside out.
"I literally went and bought a shoe at Macy's, and we cut it open because I had to figure out what was in there," she said.
The Internet was a gold mine of information, she said. That's where she discovered Anza, an industrial design company based in Cincinnati. The company worked closely with Mulholland to develop her vision from a sketch to a three-dimensional model.
Studying other shoe companies led Mulholland to China, where she found factories with the technology that could produce her shoes. And that's where she finally perfected the slope of her design.
She now has two patents pending, one for the design of the shoes, and another for the special hook-and-loop material that allows the wearer to switch out soles and uppers.
"May of last year was our first shipment to the warehouse, and that was really exciting," Mulholland said. "We had shoes in our hands. And we could put shoes on that were something other than samples."
The shoes, which retail for $139, are produced at factories in China and Japan. In addition to the corporate offices, there is a showroom in Varberg, Sweden, and an office in Tokyo.
Styles for women include wedges and sandals, with stilettos planned for the fall, in a variety of colors, from size 5 to 11. And Mulholland says that there is more to come, including a collection for children.
"Any tread can be pulled off of any shoe," she said. "So I'm going to do children's too. The roller skate will go on or the playground shoe will go on the bottom. So that's kind of the next phase after women's."
For men, she's thinking maybe a wingtip that can be switched from golf to office treads.
Family is an important part of the business, Mulholland said. Her father and grandfather, former owners of the insurance business W.E. Kingsley Co., offer their business experience.
Her mother, sister Megan and grandfather also work out of the Lexington office. And she travels around the world for the company, but everyone pitches in to care for 4-year-old McCauley.
"All of the family members are now in shoes," Mulholland said with a laugh. "But we wouldn't have it any other way."
For anyone trying to start their own business, Mulholland says to do research and go for it.
"I tell them to go to the Internet, Google the products and do whatever you want to do," she said. "And just start."
McCauley Shoes are available at Mccauleyshoes.com and boutiques throughout the United States. In Lexington, you can find them at Lexington Podiatry in Hamburg. You also can visit the company headquarters in Lexington. Call to make an appointment at 1-888-229-8612.
Harriett Hendren: (859) 231-3324.