20 Apr Field Notes: John and Lorraine Miller
John and Lorraine Miller are co-founders of Foot Mechanics Podiatry, parents to Beau (16), Ivy (15), and Lulu (13), and were participants in Venn’s inaugural Vocational Programme (Auckland, Spring 2017). Here, John and Lorraine talk to Olivia about what work and business means to them in their lives of worship, particularly after losing it all during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and then regaining a sense of meaning through a theology of work.
Tell me about your beginnings. How did you two come together and what were your respective backgrounds?
Lorraine: John and I were born on opposite sides of the track. I was born into a dysfunctional family. My mum, Mary, tried her best, and she came to faith eventually, but it was pretty hard going as a young child. My mum was married three times. She’s still married to her last husband, Paul—thank God—but a lot of parts of my life were just sad. I was lacking self-confidence. When I was seven, my mum and dad met: my dad was a backslidden Christian, and my mother was an ex-Mormon. Shortly after they met, they found God. We ended up at a Brethren church in Te Awamutu. When they found faith, they completely turned their life around—like, 180 degrees. From that, they realised they needed to get married, which they did, and then they really tried to start building a family around us.
I have an older brother and a younger sister. It’s an astounding story really because my brother and I are full blooded to my mum’s first husband, and she had my sister to her second husband. Paul and Mum were unable to have children, so he adopted us. He’s amazing, just how he’s taken us as his own. He was also 18 and she was 26—with three children—when they got together, which is almost my son’s age and absolutely horrifying! How does an 18-year-old support a woman with three children? That was tough. It wasn’t an easy childhood by any stretch of the imagination. But they really trusted in God, and they turned their life around. My brother and my sister and me—we’re all married. It’s amazing what God can do when he steps into your life, right? When my parents turned their lives around, we started going to a Pentecostal church and that’s essentially where I met John. I was 16 and he was 18. We’re like chalk and cheese, but we’re also like two peas in a pod.
What about you John?
John: When I grew up, Dad was a bank manager and Mum was at home looking after us. Mum prioritised working as a home maker, rather than being in paid employment—it was an effort made by mum and dad to achieve that. I’ve got an older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother. Everyone was active. I look back and I don’t know how Dad paid for it all, and I don’t how Mum had time for it all! Our home was very safe, loving, and stable. We grew up in a Presbyterian church but probably missed out on quite a bit of the fundamentals. I didn’t want to be there, and I probably wasn’t listening! We lived in Wellington, Palmerston North, Hamilton, and Te Awamutu up until my teenage years—we moved around a little bit with Dad’s work. My memory of it is not that we were moving often, but I guess four cities is quite a bit.
After school, I studied podiatry. In our final year, we had to do a research paper, and everyone else was studying technical stuff, like what is the correct angle of the subtalar joint during running? It was that kind of research—very scientific. And I chose how to build a successful business through meeting your customer’s needs. To me, it just seemed like the most interesting thing to study. It wasn’t really until afterwards that I looked back and saw what everyone else did and realised mine was the only non-scientific research. That’s a significant moment because for me there’s always been this connection with the customer and serving the customer.
This led to the next significant moment, which was 10 or 15 years later—a big gap—at a church conference. The Scripture was about the talents (Mt 25:14–30). But, in this moment, the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said that there was an increase expected. The point of that was that someone who knows the Father’s heart gets that it’s about increase. I would now describe that increase as making something of God’s good creation.
I had these two experiences as a graduate of podiatry school: realising business is about meeting needs and serving community, and, a decade later, this understanding that it is about increase, not just about holding on to what you’ve got. I had a lot of criticism, even from my family. They’d say, “Oh, you’re just in business to make money.” And when I would share that story about increase, people would assume automatically that I meant money. For me, it never was, but I didn’t have the understanding to explain what I meant. Now, I think I’ve got a very clear understanding of what I mean by increase. I now go right back to God’s instruction in Genesis to fill the earth and make something of God’s good creation.
You two were together six years and then got married just before Lorraine’s 22nd birthday. John was almost 24. Did your business enterprises start prior to marriage?
Lorraine John had already started his business, Foot Mechanics, which was then called Tauranga Sports Podiatry. He’d graduated and started the business and had been in it about six months before we got married. It was a quick turnaround. He decided he’d have a look around New Zealand and see where he thought it would be a cool place to live and bring up a family—I would never have thought that. He moved to Tauranga and started our business here.
For the first couple of years, it was very much John who built the business, and I had a job working for a newspaper. I just want to touch on something—we’ve always had this clarity around our roles. For John and I, there’s never been any tension around who’s doing what and who’s the boss. We established that really early on, and I think that’s what’s helped us do what we do now. When John was building the business, my role was to make enough money to pay the rent and feed us. We just knew that’s what we had to do. But, as we moved further on into business … those roles, as I say it, John’s the big boss, and he makes all the decisions.
John: Lorraine and I have an understanding where, on really big decisions, if one of us has to make the call, it’s me. When I’m in that position of being the final decision maker, I know I do so with Lorraine’s prayer and blessing. She trusts me and I treat those moments with the highest sense of responsibility for her and for our family.
Lorraine: At the end of the day, I also don’t want that responsibility, so it’s always really worked. If I disagree—and we disagree on a lot on things, with robust discussions—often, we’ll come around to my way of thinking. But I think for us, that structure served us really well. There’s never been a competition between the two of us about who’s ultimately in charge.
So, the work you individually do is highly valued but it’s not in competition with one another?
John: Yeah. When Lorraine says we’re two peas in a pod, I would say we’re a couple that overlap each other’s weaknesses. We really could not have chosen a better partner. For example, Lorraine is a networker and a gatherer and a motivator of people. I’m none of those things. I’m happy in my own space, thinking, and I’m all about executing the task. If we work well together, we’ve got [our] weaknesses covered. Though Lorraine had been employed in jobs while I was starting our business, they were still strategic—you know, Lorraine would say, “I’m going to get a job in advertising” to figure that out. At one point, she had a job working at a shoe store because we wanted to understand how footwear retail worked. These jobs were still connected to what we were building together. In this one job at the newspaper, the Bay of Plenty Times, Lorraine got a written warning for something which I’ve never heard of before or since. It was beautiful; we should have kept it. It was for “interdepartmental wandering.” In other words, she’d never be at her desk; she’d be up and talking to people.
Lorraine: Interdepartmental wandering. Who gets a warning for interdepartmental wandering? I got in trouble because I was talking too much. It was very strange.
John: Her boss gave her a warning for that, but this is an example of Lorraine’s gifting. And we’ve needed it this year when we’ve launched a men’s and a women’s NBL basketball team (Bay of Plenty Stingrays and Whai) and started a Basketball Academy—you’ve just got to get a whole lot of people; you can’t do it on your own.
Lorraine: I think the magic is: John and I just have this ability to work well together. We slipstream a lot in between what we do, and we change our hats real quick. So, you know, we’re doing this interview right now. And then, in half an hour’s time, John’s going to be taking Ivy to school, so the dad hat comes on, and we’ll have parenting conversations. Then we’ll switch out of that with another business meeting. We’ve just become good at putting all those roles together, and we know when we need to shift in and out of them and how to do that together. If we’re disagreeing on parenting, that’s about parenting; business stuff never comes into it. Early on with our team at Foot Mechanics, John and I would be in our office with an idea on the table, and we would just be thrashing it out. And our team is sitting there thinking, “Oh my gosh, what’s happening?” And then it’s lunchtime; we’d get up, hold hands, chat like nothing’s wrong, and come back. Our team would also always say to us, “I don’t know how you do that.” I think understanding, loving, embracing, and releasing each other’s giftings has been key.
That requires being able to see the strengths each of you bring.
Lorraine: John has never tried to change me. I’ve seen relationships where one person is saying, “That’s not really that cool about you—can you change that?” You know what I mean? John’s never, ever tried to change me. He’s never tried to say, “Can you just calm down; it’s too much.” Or, “Do we have to have people around? It’s just annoying.” He’s always just completely loved the person that I am. And that is incredibly empowering for someone that’s come from a life like mine. I lacked so much self-confidence and self-belief, and I never thought I would amount to anything really. It’s just been incredible to be partnered to someone like John.
You guys really diversified with quite a few different assets in property and in business—with Robert Harris cafes and Rodney Wayne salons—you built up all these assets. Then the GFC hit. Having your marriage as such a strong foundation must have been significant during that season.
John: Yeah, I mean, there was even more going on than that. That was a horrific season. We’d had three kids by then.
Lorraine: In three years.
John: Yeah, Lulu, our youngest, was born in October 2008 when the GFC hit. We had three under three. Lorraine had postnatal depression. She’d had horrific gestational diabetes during that pregnancy. So, we were in an absolute hurricane where our businesses were failing, Lorraine’s mental health was rugged, and we had three little kids. It was tough. This came up recently because Lorraine and I just had our 25th wedding anniversary and the kids said, “You guys have been in love for 25 years!” And I said to them, “Yep, but sometimes love just looks like commitment.” Sometimes everything gets stripped. Out of those 25 years, there’s periods where you’ve just got to be committed. That’s what love looks like.
Lorraine: And it isn’t pretty! You’re right, though. Our marriage foundations were good. There was a lot going on—everything was falling apart; I was falling apart. Like John was saying with the postnatal depression, a big part of that was posttraumatic stress that had worked its way up from childhood. I’d managed to keep it down for a lot of years, but having my own children brought to light so much of my own fear and insecurity and inadequacy. I hired nannies to raise my kids because I just felt, “What could I offer them? I’m not a good enough mother. I can’t do this. What am I thinking?” It was tough. And, you know, John, to his credit, he grunted it out. There were days when I would say to him, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore.” And he’d be like, “Cool.” And that would be the conversation.
John: But it is part of the story. These interviews are good; they uncover some stuff. I would read things, even in secular books, that would talk about businesspeople who had made it in some way. In all of them, the businesspeople had a battle they had to go through where they’d probably lost everything, and I used to hate reading those stories because we hadn’t, at that point, lost everything. And I was like, “So does that mean—that’s 100% coming at some point?” What we went through is not a journey you’d ever pick for yourself. By going through it, it gives you a humbleness. It’s just like we’ve been reading in [Tim Keller’s] Every Good Endeavour with Esther’s story: it’s God’s grace that we’re here. We look back at that period and we’re like, there is no good reason we made it through that. That is absolutely the kind of thing where marriages fail, businesses tip over, and people lose their faith. There’s every reason why something like that should have happened—all those pressures were there. And yet, somehow, none of that happened. That’s God’s grace. And so, then you live out of that.
Can you describe what happened when the GFC hit in October 2008?
Lorraine: It was brutal. In the space of eight to 10 years, we’d built up a big property portfolio. We owned commercial properties and rental properties and sections. We had a beautiful home on the beach; we were driving BMWs and Audis, and had all the “stuff.” Our businesses were successful. And then the GFC hit. John had already sensed that something was coming, so, in early 2008, John had started to sell some of our assets and put money in the bank.
John: Nobody really knew what was coming.
Lorraine: No. Essentially, when the GFC hit, we had a million dollars cash in the bank. That was our savings account. Within two years, that was completely gone. We used that cash to prop up our one business that we had left, Foot Mechanics. We had to sell a lot of our properties because we were highly geared—we were in an expansion phase of our business. The last things that were standing were Foot Mechanics and our own home.
John: We’d gone from having around 30 clinics and, by the end of it, we had 12—a huge retraction. That’s a lot of meetings with people saying, “Hey, we’re restructuring, and you’ve got four weeks’ notice.” Regardless of how you do that, people hate you for it.
Lorraine: It was brutal on us emotionally, and then, on top of that, we somehow managed to trigger an IRD audit. We had the auditors in our office for a year, going through every single transaction. Then the inevitable happened: we had to sell our home. Our babies were born there and their whenua is there. We moved in with John’s sister in a tiny farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. That was just hard. If we quantify it, we lost millions and millions.
You talk about God’s grace through that. What happened in the years following? How did your faith shift? And, what did you do, business-wise, to get back up on your feet?
John: In 2010, I went to the University of Waikato to study an MBA. I did that to learn more about business. People questioned why I was doing that, but I felt like I had a “Whitcoulls understanding” of how to do business: I’d bought books and had a go, and I had a gut feel of how to do things, but, like a mechanic understands a car, I wanted to understand the mechanics of business. So, I went and studied an MBA. And, honestly, it was just a seven-year grind of gradually reestablishing our business. Because it’s a service-based business, we don’t have assets. It’s not like banks see a machine that can crank out widgets—our assets are people. It was a long, slow grind rebuilding. It wasn’t until five years ago, in 2017, when we did the Vocational Programme with Venn—we were like, “Oh, this is what business is about.”
You encountered this teaching around a theology of work. Tell me about that. What did you learn in that process?
Lorraine: We learned that we didn’t really know anything, to be honest.
John: It all started with wisdom on the Vocational Programme. Learning about wisdom seemed like a good idea as it’s applicable to everything we do.
Lorraine: We just knew that teaching on wisdom was going to unlock something in our lives and in our faith that we didn’t quite understand. We just kept pushing into it. It was heavy going. We were having to drive up and down in one night to Auckland for the programme, but we just knew it was important.
We learned more about how you can’t separate faith and work. We started to understand why our lives had so much dissatisfaction and disillusionment, because we’d unknowingly been operating out of a false separation. It just never worked. We didn’t want to be pastors, but we felt like that was the pinnacle of Christianity. If we’re not going to be working for the church and we know we can build things and we’ve got leadership skills, what do we do with that? We felt not Christian in some respects because we didn’t fit into this Christianity leadership model. But we had no concept of how to make our faith and work until we started going through the Vocational Programme and being connected to Hepara [a teaching network for businesspeople].
John: For me, the learning can be broken down into some content arcs. The first was learning about wisdom on the Vocational Programme. The second one was Venn’s short course with Paul Williams. Our prereading for that was Why Business Matters to God by Jeff van Duzer. It spoke directly to God’s intended purpose for businesses and institutions. At the short course, Paul encouraged us to think about strategy from the biblical narrative. “There was creation and then there was a fall: if you were to take your industry and put it back prefall, what did God intend for it? And what was distorted or broken? What, therefore, should be redeemed in your industry and, further, reimagined towards New Jerusalem?” I’d done an MBA; I understood environment analysis and market analysis, but I’d never encountered a theology that would help me think about strategy. For Lorraine and me, that has come all the way through and has become part of our rebrand for Foot Mechanics around restoring joy. That was our answer to the question of fall and redemption: when you lose your ability to move because of foot pain, your life becomes smaller. It’s harder to connect with God’s creation; it’s harder to connect with people because of a lack of mobility. And, on the flip side, God could have given us wings to fly around; he could have given us gills and fins to swim around the ocean. But what he gave us to explore his creation and to connect with other people is feet. The Paul Williams teaching was helpful.
Lorraine: We’ve found this teaching so incredibly life-giving. We’ve leaned into it and love what it’s brought to our lives and our business. Our tagline used to be “Leading Podiatry” and it’s now “Restoring Joy.” How beautiful is that? Our purpose is clear, and every decision we make is now put through the purpose lens. It’s changed our language; it’s changed how we talk to our customers; it’s changed how we talk to our staff.
John: It’s changed a lot.
Lorraine: We’re excited about business like we’ve never been excited before. You just know that you’re doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. It’s like Esther who was called to the palace for a time such as this (Est 4:14). It’s a broken world and it’s not always going to work, but we’re here giving it our best go and loving the process.
John: There is something that underpins all these content arcs. When it comes to good decision-making in the light of uncertainty and turbulence, spiritual practices are vital. For Lorraine and me, we’ve learned to pray. We’ve learned that prayer is not so much what you say but what God is doing in you while you’re praying. God’s not always giving you the audible voice or the sign of what you’re to do. He also often speaks through that natural part of being human, what we might call our gut feel. But you do have to be reading Scripture, and spending time in prayer, silence, and solitude—you’ve got to be doing all those things. In turbulent times, it’s been the spiritual practices that have been the anchor. They’ve meant we can, with all confidence, act.
Lorraine: For me, I started down this track a few years ago. I decided I was going to get up five minutes earlier than usual and pray. Over time, it ended up being an hour and a half—and it always felt like five minutes. I don’t do that every day now; now, my routine is to start early and sit in my office space. I’ll listen to some worship music and reflect on the word of God. I struggle with silence and solitude because I’m a people person. I’ve put that practice in my life because it’s a real discipline, and I get so much out of it. So, I try and have some silence and solitude daily where I’m just sitting in God’s presence and just being—it might be for 15 minutes, sometimes it’s for a lot longer.
And then there’s lots of prayer, just praying throughout the day. John and I try to have conversations about what God’s talking to us about in our own separate times. I try and make a point to say, “Hey, look, I’ve been praying for you today, and I really feel like God’s telling me this.” And he’ll do the same to me.
John: Every Monday morning, I start my week in prayer. That’s from 8:30am until about 10:30am. I’ve booked it in my calendar, and I consider it part of my work. It’s not like I can bump it out because something more important turns up. So, that’s always the start of my week. And then, I’ve tried a number of different things: silence and solitude are practices that work well for me. I’ve used the devotional book Seeking God’s Face, which Nathan [McLellan] recommended. My mum has always read The Word for Today but, for me, it’s too random. I like the liturgical calendar and, specifically, what you’re doing there: syncing your life with the life of Christ. The other one for me is a real focus on the Lord’s Prayer. As I’m going through my day, using the format of the Lord’s Prayer helps me pray about something. Rather than just asking God to give me a favour in a meeting, it might be more like: “I don’t want to go through this trial, Lord, and I know that you can change things, but if I have to go through this trial, then help me.” It’s made prayer very practical. I’m still not big on fasting; it’s an occasional thing, not a regular practice … [Then there’s] the daily examen: I don’t do it daily, but if I don’t stop and reflect on where God has been in my life, it’s not obvious he’s there. When you stop and force yourself to look back over, say, a month, and ask the Holy Spirit to bring things to light, you can very quickly fill a page and a half. It’s encouraging—you do see how God is active in your life.
I want to come back to this theme of faith in uncertain times. After the GFC, you built up your businesses again over seven or eight years and grew in your understanding of God’s vision for business and for work. And then the COVID-19 lockdowns hit. You were facing the potential to lose your work all over again. What was different this time?
Lorraine: In a nutshell, we understood our purpose going into this. The conversation was: how do we live out our purpose, in this moment, even if it meant losing it all again? I remember this conversation: we were standing in the garage, and John said, “Look, this is going to be bad. Everything’s going to be shut down. We’re going to zero income overnight. We’ve got 40 staff, plus a whole lot of other stuff going on. What are we going to do in this moment?” But we knew our purpose. We knew what our business was. We understood the “why”. I was scared going into COVID. We had just bought our new house and the kids were getting settled, but, we just looked at each other and we were just like, well, we know the purpose of our business—if that means losing it all again, well, it’s not ours to start with. We had this deep understanding that it’s all God’s anyway. We worked out of that premise.
John: We didn’t have a feeling that this is going to cost us everything. We certainly thought it was possible because we had no income, but it didn’t feel like that was what God was requiring of us. It was a feeling of purpose. We were committed to not losing anybody. We built a budget that said, “If we’re to lose nobody, and keep everybody fully employed through this, what was that going to cost?” Then we looked at the budget; we knew the business wouldn’t be profitable for about two or three years. There must be enough profit to keep going, but if the reason you’re there is to provide products and services for our community to flourish and opportunities for meaningful employment, this is an easy decision. All we’re doing is switching out two years of profit to keep these two main things going. Done.
It sounds like there was a clarity to it.
John: Yeah, not easy—but clear. I remember at the time I was listening to a worship song a lot. It’s based on Numbers 6. I’ve still got it on my wall: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” This is where all these things come together for us: the Wisdom literature [emphasis on] getting right alignment, and how time is part of that, and then that Scripture from Numbers 6. Looking at these lockdowns, we asked: what if the time horizon was 100 years? The decision is about sacrificing two or three years of profit now—we needed to consider a different time horizon. Everything was very changeable. We’d be making plans in the morning and then there’d be an announcement from the government, and everything we’d planned was out because the rules had changed. Everything was in three- or four-hour increments. It was a big shift to make decisions for what things could look like years from now.
A final question: what would be your encouragement to other men and women in business?
Lorraine: Mine would be: do the work of knowing your “Why” because that informs the What, the How, the When, and the Who. I wish someone had told us this 20 years ago: get that purpose piece, and understand the institution of business and the role you play in that. For me, that’s been pivotal.
The other thing I would say is: have close friends who get you. By that, I mean people who get not just your successes and all the good times but understand who you are as people. And make sure you keep them close because you’ll need that encouragement. We’ve got friends from when we were 14; they’ve been with us through ups and downs.
Practice daily spiritual disciplines and do the work. And, lastly, from me, have fun. Just enjoy it. In Tim Keller’s book [Every Good Endeavour], he talks about the world’s brokenness, about fruitlessness and pointlessness. Understanding this and being OK with the fact that work isn’t always going to be awesome is really liberating. You just give it your best shot.
(Images: Supplied by John and Lorraine Miller, 2022)