Founder of Big Feet: Shirley Z. Shaw

A Journey of A Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step

 

Founded by Shirley Zhang Shaw in GVA (Greater Vancouver Area), the Big Feet Health Group franchise has grown to more than 20 shops and more than 300 employees. This would seem like nothing in mainland China, but to the Chinese community in Canada, it is definitely a large enterprise and a tremendous accomplishment. The success of the company is greatly attributed to the help of its skilled and multicultural staff that has served more than one million customer visits and the clientele which is equally culturally diverse. A moving TV series could be produced based on Shirley’s legendary life – the twists of fate, overcoming of obstacles, and indomitable perseverance that went into the building of this enterprise. While the hardships were many and the road was long, you would never tell by looking at the one who endured it all, as Shirley is as calm and collected as someone who is a stranger to struggle, untouched by the years and their trials. She told me this story, and I am now telling you. In it we see a woman’s unique strength, the power and persistence of which lead and continues to lead to the betterment and wellbeing of so many others.

A Young, Brilliant High Achiever

 

In the prime of her youth, Shaw graduated from Nankai University majoring Mathematics in 1984, a time only a very small percentage of young people were outstanding enough to attend and graduate from a prestigious universities like Nankai. After graduation, she became one of the 27 selected from over 700 applicants to work for Tianjin Development Zone, founded in 1985.

At that time, Tanggu District was almost just a patch of empty land for Shirley and her colleagues to develop. Standing out from the crowd, she became secretary of the Communist Youth League Development Zone Chapter and was soon sent to Italy to study ceramic technology and import equipment. After returning to China, she participated in the founding of Jia Tai Ceramic Co. Thanks to favorable policies from the central government of China for the economic development zones, and the hard working team including Shirley, in just two years, a large-scale Sino-Foreign joint venture was established and began to operate. At the age of just twenty four, she became a mid level manager overseeing the operations of three departments.

In the early years of China’s opening to the outside world, people working at joint ventures had the privilege to learn modern business concepts and management systems from foreign managers. The general manager of Jia Tai at that time is a highly respectable Japanese who told Shirley that be nice to people, smile a lot as being nice and friendly doesn’t cost businessmen anything but brings them lots of profit. Shirley commented that only that Japanese manager showed her and her colleagues that simple but valuable point. “He told the truth”, Shirley added.

Shortly after the commencing of business, Jia Tai’s hybrid management fell apart. A good number of mid level managers resigned from the company and Shirley is one of them. Shirley then joined the gold rush in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. However, life in Shenzhen was not easy at all! She had to start everything from scratch.

After all, gold will shine wherever placed! With the knowledge, experience obtained in Tianjin, plus the industry connections established at that time, Shirley quickly thrived in the ceramic industry in Shenzhen. Several years later, Shirley and her husband successfully built a ceramic enterprise with numerous branches and plants. As a result, she was able to afford a dedicated family driver, a security guard and three domestic helpers at home. Life became nice, easy, and wonderful.

Immigration to Canada, Encountering Big Turbulence

 

Most successful Shenzhen entrepreneurs at that time chose to immigrate to developed countries. Among them was Shirley. On January 25, 1997, Shirley arrived in Vancouver with her two sons, one five and a half years old the other only one and a half. Her husband stayed in Shenzhen looking after their business.

In the first three years as a new immigrant, living in a spacious 3800 square foot luxury home in western Vancouver, she enjoyed a pretty much worry free life as a full time mom focusing on taking care of the boys. However, three years without a trip back to China, Shirley just wanted to become a Canadian citizen as quickly as possible so that she can return to China to resume her life as a businesswoman. As an entrepreneur, she firmly believed that her stage is in China.

However, three and a half years after her departure from Shenzhen, the unfortunate and unexpected happened. The once successful business fell under after lots of painful struggling. She was forced to move back to China, with the boys, to clean up the mess.

Shirley was so involved in dealing with the mess that she hardly had any time to visit the boys’ board schools. Being used to the happy childhood, Canadian style, the boys became so frustrated and upset about not being able to see their mom on a regular basis and Shirley’s visits were too short for them.

The separation from the kids is hard, bitter, even heart breaking for Shirley. All of a sudden, Shirley felt obligated to bringing the boys back to Canada as the boys and Shirley herself had already become Canadian citizens after all. Easier said than done though, at that time, she already sold her house and car in Vancouver and worse even the family lost their fortune in China also. To raise the kids in Canada became such a challenge for Shirley.

One day, Shirley was attracted to an ad in the newspaper advertising foot massage therapist as a financially rewarding profession. She quickly decided to go Yangzhou, the most well known place for learning foot massage therapy. She went in October, 2001.

To her surprise, most students were young boys from poor countryside and the accommodation was terrible. Only two girls, one of them being Shirley, in the class and the boys were actually quite amazed by having a tall and graceful lady studying foot massage therapy with them. Fortunately, the instructors are professors from Yangzhou Chinese Medicine Institute, high profile gurus and highly experienced managers from the industry. Thanks to the dedication from both the instructors and the students, including Shirley, the learning became such a valuable experience! Upon graduation, Professor Qian Shi Jin, Life Honorary President of Yangzhou Acupuncture Hospital, took the initiative to recruit Shirley to be his last apprentice and study his own unique Qian style, vertical & horizontal acupuncture skills.  Professor Qian expressed a lot of expectations for Shirley. She was grateful to this exemplary professor who cared more for his clients than himself. However, with her Canadian passport in hand, Shirley had to turn down the professor’s offer, telling him that she had to go back to Canada with her children.

Around this same time, because of her reputation as a highly capable businesswoman, she inadvertently received an offer to work as the Regional General Manager, Southern China for Beida Qing Niao, a well known technology company at that time. The owner of the company offered her, among other benefits, ¥ 30,000 a month as housing allowance alone. But, Shirley was so determined to go back to Canada with her most loved sons and she politely declined the attractive offer.  All, in Shirley’s eyes, the Canadian style education for the boys is way more important than money. So, the mom and the sons happily went back to Canada!

On March 5th, 2002, Shirley’s husband said good-bye to his loved ones at the airport, heart breaking. At that time, Shirley already ran out of tears, complaints. Nothing but a firm belief left in Shirley heart. She believed that hard work will be rewarded eventually. As long as she is able to be with the boys, she’ll be pleased.

A Road Full of Thorns

 

Back in Canada, with the help of her brother to look after her two young sons, Shirley found a job but only after less than a month she decided to become her own boss practicing reflexology in a small rental space. But things did evolve as smoothly as expected and she ran into some obstacles when applying for her business licence. The difficulty in the upstart stemmed from the fact that, at that time, there was no reflexology industry in Vancouver, and consequently, no regulatory department to which she could refer. No one knew the category under which her licence should be issued. After much ado and one and a half years, Shirley got the appropriate licence she needed, and it was the first of its kind.

With the license in her hand at last, dawn was ushered in. Unfortunately, in April

2003, a sudden SARS outbreak dealt a catastrophic blow to many local industries, reflexology being one of them. Reflexology involves physical contact between practitioners and clients. The clientele Shirley worked so hard to establish and grow almost disappeared over night, due to SARS related concerns. Shirley still had to pay her bills like rent. Fortunately, the SARS outbreak didn’t last long and gone by summer 2003.

Breaking through a proverbial gate of hell, business gradually began to pick up. Everything was going well again, until one day, someone came to the store to measure the room, saying that it would be used to open a hair salon. Upon further investigation, she learned that the landlord had sold the house to someone. Shocked and unsettled, she wanted to dispute the rental contract, but she knew that her legal knowledge was not enough, and the brief contract was not sufficient to win the lawsuit. Late at night, Shirley walked out into the street, full of reproach and perplexity. Her small business just started to improve but was again met by a barrier! How was she to overcome this obstacle? It’s not easy to relocate, and the transition would cost money!

Shirley had to do a two option multiple choices:

(a) close the business

(b) strive to carry on. Courageous Shirley picked.

In order to retain her clientele, Shirley bought a relevant business nearby in a rush. With an address change, Shirley had to re-apply for a business license. She immediately ran into a difficulty to obtain a new license because the residents in that neighborhood were against having a massage shop there! At such a difficult time, Mr. Yip, an architect, encouraged Shirley to apply for a court hearing. During the hearing Mr. Yip pointed out that Shirley, a single mom with two young children who attend a school in that neighborhood, has no choice but continue her business in that area as she has to take care of the kids and the business at the same time. Six out of the seven jurors supported Shirley! Shirley was so pleased to have such an outcome and she tasted the fruit of democracy. She also understood that the government official is actually sympathetic to her but he was just doing his job.

Shirley’s warm hospitality and skilled expertise attracted more and more loyal clients, most of whom were polite, but there were a few individual male clients who had come to her with misguided intentions. To protect herself against possible harassment and the brand reputation, she decided to serve only female clients. She said: ‘Although the female clients are relatively more demanding, they are loyal, so I can have peace of mind”. She ran her business in such a manner for five years! After that, Big Feet became more and more popular. Clients of all ages came to enjoy the services. At the peak, clients had to wait for three month for an appointment!

During that time, she and her two children lived in a rented basement suite. She still clearly remembers her 24/7/365 daily schedule: getting up at 7:00 am, taking the children to school after breakfast, returning home to get herself ready, sending towels to the Laundromat. At 10 o’clock, after all the preparatory tasks were completed, it was time to open the shop. At 3 o’clock, she would take 15 minutes to get to the boys’ school on time, at 3:15 send children to attend taekwondo, swimming and other classes. At night she didn’t have time to cook dinner at home so she had to buy food for her children to eat inside the car. At 7pm she was back at the shop to work until 11:00 pm. What a day!! Shirley is so grateful for one of her university classmates who stayed with them helping taking care of the kids at night. Shirley said “I was always positive and not discouraged by the difficulties at all. I enjoyed the compliments from my satisfied clients. However, I did feel bad about not being able to cook meals for the kids like a normal mom. On the flip side of the same token, the two boys, now grown up, became independent and considerate and caring early. Now the older son has already graduated from university majoring arts and started his career. The younger son graduated from UBC majoring engineering physics and proceeded to graduate level studies majoring mathematics, like his mom!”

From 1 to 20, Big Feet Became an Industry Leader in GVA

 

After 18 years of hard work, Big Feet had become well known brand throughout the

Greater Vancouver Area. Now that the brand had been established, the next thing for Shirley to consider is how to further grow the business. The earlier stage of Big Feet with only two shops in Richmond and east Vancouver was indeed full of challenges.

In January 2008, she purchased a commercial space in Richmond that was more than 3,000 square feet, ordered a full container of furniture from China, and rolled up her sleeves to get everything ready for business. However, because wrong people were used for the job, a few wooden parts were not fumigated and as a result the whole container full of furniture was rejected by Canadian customs. This had not only incurred a major loss of money but also derailed Shirley’s entire business plan. In order to prevent any further delays, she bought two temporary massage tables and started business in haste. What a waste of space due to practitioner shortage. In a hope to address that issue, Shirley offered free training to the interested. Unfortunately, some of the trainees simply walked away (even with some of Shirley’s clients) and became Shirley’s competitors, reflecting an old saying that “the master might starve after they transfer all knowledge and skills to their apprentices”. But this did not deter Shirley. She continued to provide free training to new masseurs, ignoring old traditions and potential risks. Despite the common concerns, her care about her fellow Chinese prevailed. She has since formulated the operating mottos of ”Promoting National Quintessence”, “Perfecting Skills and Techniques”, “Creating An Elite Team of Multicultural Professionals”, and “Being an Ongoing Contributor to Society”. In her view, learning massage techniques does not only benefit clients, but also the masseur’s families, as their incomes will increase with the development of their skills. It’s a viable way to get rid of poverty.

Only one student, a single mom, from the 1st class in Richmond stayed with Big Feet! Unfortunately, the loyal student was diagnosed of deadly breast cancer. The day when the medical examination results were delivered, the single mother, her daughter, and all the co-workers at site burst into tears. Shirley refrained from succumbing to sadness and stayed calm. She said to the single mother, “Does your child have any relatives? If not, and the worst occurs, I will be her family. I will take care of your child so that you can just focus on your fight with cancer.” She continued, giving this metaphor: “You are now just like a person struggling to survive at the edge of a cliff. For your daughter, you have to recover and live a better life!”

The single mother did not let Shirley down. After a tenacious struggle with

the disease, just at the end of her chemotherapy, Shirley opened a branch in East Vancouver and made the single mother the manager. The single mother became very successful with the business and more and more healthy in the meantime.

Shirley classified the massage therapy market as four segments:

(a) traditional Chinese medicine treatment

(b) low cost massage delivering health benefits

(c) fancy and expensive spas like commonly seen in China

(d) special services

Shirley put Big Feet under category (b), offering low cost services of qualities people would normally expect from licensed traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. Shirley regards Big Feet as a food stand offering highly affordable delicious to ordinary people. Big Feet employees sweat and earn their respect from the clients. For them, every day is a good sunny day!

In 2009, Shirley made another big decision. As the scope of services expanded to fire cupping, acupuncture, etc, she encountered some difficulties with managing Chinese medicine contractors/consultants. She decided to become a Chinese medicine practitioner herself. We all know that medicine is one of the most difficult to learn. Nevertheless, Shirley managed to pass the extremely stringent examinations, obtain the diploma and become a registered Chinese medicine practitioner in BC (acupuncture + herbs).

In 2018, Shirley became the only bilingual (Chinese/English) examiner for Canadian Reflexology Association.

At the same time, she abandoned the industry norm in GVA by hiring male masseurs. From its early stage, Big Feet invested a significant amount of resources training male masseurs, and now the ratio of female to male masseurs has reached 6-4.

During this period, Big Feet rapidly built momentum. By 2013, the company employed more than 70 people. As Big Feet expanded, it became necessary to manage the business as a whole rather than letting the branches individually managed. Managing a bigger business is not easy and Shirley learned it the hard way in the past. She hesitated and almost gave up the plan to grow the business further. She was concerned about possible dilution of the brand equity when the company expands.

However, Shirley cared about her employees so much and she does want to see them fail. After much consideration, she designed a unique franchising mechanism allowing selected Big Feet employees to become franchisees. That concept was so well received by the work force.  In just slightly more than a year, seven franchise shops were opened across GVA. Yet, Shirley realized at that point that she was moving too fast. She put the expansion on pause and focused on enhancing the foundations by developing SOPs, employee manuals, training materials, in-depth understanding of industry related rules and regulations, plus market management, employment management, talent reserve, etc.

“2015 is an important year of restructuring for Big Feet, a year of intended slow down aimed to fuel further growth”, said Shirley. In 2016, Big Feet geared up again opening 5 more branches! As Big Feet continues to grow, Shirley is determined to focus more on the development of corporate culture, utilizing various channels especially social media to promote traditional Chinese medicine and health care culture to all from different cultural backgrounds. As of now, percentage of non-Chinese clients exceeds 90%!

By 2017-2018, Big Feet expended to 20 shops enabling a number of senior Big Feet employees to become business owners. All shops are enjoying good business and the franchisees being grateful and full of hope.

As the most livable city, Vancouver on the other hand is not an easy place to find employment and run business. So many outstanding immigrants from different countries choose to return to where they came from due to unemployment and failure to start businesses in Vancouver. They complained and gave up. Shirley is different. She didn’t complain, didn’t give up because she believes no pain no gain, all hard work will get paid off in the end!