December 14, 2012 | By Barbara Lago
UM alumnus turns his Charleston pharmacy into a multimillion-dollar business
OXFORD, Miss. – Robert Salmon opened a drugstore, Southern Discount Drugs, across the street from a clinic in Charlestonin 1980. Fifteen years later, he and his pharmacy technician began packaging diabetic testing supplies in a back room of the drugstore and mailing them to patients.
Since then, the University of Mississippi alumnus has moved that once-small diabetic supply business three times to accommodate ever-expanding services, inventory and employees and grown that back-room operation into Tallahatchie County’s third-largest employer. The Diabetic Shoppe has an economic impact of $13 million annually.
“Our business has expanded to five other states, and we employ 75 people, including half of Mississippi’s pedorthists,” Salmon said. Pedorthists provide corrective footwear – including custom-fit shoes, shoe modifications and inserts – to prevent or improve painful and/or disabling conditions of the foot and ankle, such as those caused by diabetes.
“We make all our own inserts,” Salmon said. “If they are prescribed by a physician, sometimes they are covered by Medicare and other insurance plans.”
The business, which also provides such things as insulin pumps, is truly a family affair. Salmon is president and CEO, and his wife, Sharon, is administrative assistant. His twin daughters, Peyton Salmon Boone and Leslie Salmon Heafner, are the company’s vice presidents. Peyton oversees purchasing and shipping, while Leslie oversees customer service.
Robert Salmon displays a mold cast by one of The Diabetic Shoppe's pedorthists. A technician will use the mold to customize footwear for a diabetic patient.
The Diabetic Shoppe employs seven salespeople to cover its service area, which includes portions ofAlabama,Arkansas,Louisiana,Mississippi,TennesseeandTexas. While the salespeople call on physicians, nurse practitioners and others to acquaint them with the business’ goods and services, the pedorthists visit patients to obtain the casts for the 15,000 pairs of inserts and 5,000 pairs of shoes they provide each year. They visit those same patients again to deliver the specialty footwear.
The Diabetic Shoppe also employs a nutritionist and other health care professionals to counsel diabetic patients about managing the disease, educate members of the local community about diabetes risk factors and provide free screening clinics.
The business has earned several awards. The most recent is the second-quarter Health Champion award from the Regional Health Council, which serves the eight counties (Coahoma, DeSoto, Marshall, Panola, Quitman,Tallahatchie, Tate and Tunica) in the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi’s service area.
“We are honored to have been chosen for this award,” Salmon said. “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to help diabetics manage their disease and promote wellness in our community to live up to this honor.”
Alfio Rausa, district health officer for the Mississippi State Department of Health, attended the June award presentation. It was his first visit to The Diabetic Shoppe.
“This was a discovery,” Rausa told Sun-Sentinel reporter Clay McFerrin. “I didn’t know that we had a pearl sitting here on the edge ofTallahatchieCounty. Now that I’ve gotten to see the plant and meet Mr. Robert, I can’t imagine anybody else deserving this award more. He’s a walking educator for diabetes prevention.”
He is also a walking educator for small businesses and is willing to talk to anyone who will listen about what needs to be done to improve the climate for such businesses across the country. To obtain the ammunition needed for such discussions, Salmon invited twoMississippiStateUniversitygraduate students to conduct an economic impact study of his business.
The study found that for every dollar The Diabetic Shoppe generates, it adds an additional 27 cents, or $2.1 million annually, to the local economy. It also generates local and state tax revenues of more than $575,000.
The study also found that The Diabetic Shoppe isTallahatchieCounty’s third largest employer, and that another 85 jobs are dependent upon it because they provide its supplies or supply its suppliers.
Others have also taken notice of Salmon’s and his employees’ efforts. A Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Workplace was presented to Salmon during the 2010 grand opening of the new Diabetic Shoppe, and the Mississippi Pharmacists Association, for which he served as 2008-09 president, presented its Innovative Pharmacy Practice Award to him during its 2005 convention.
A registered pharmacist for 45 years, Salmon is nationally certified to manage diabetes, asthma and lipid disease states. Upon graduating from the UM School of Pharmacy in 1967, he went to work for Charleston Drug Store, then spent seven years as the first full-time pharmacist at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
His life took a different turn in 1980, when he opened Southern Discount Drugs, and the rest is history.
Salmon chairs the Delta Coalition for Health Care and serves on several boards, including the Northwest Mississippi Community College School of Nursing, Tutwiler Clinic, Delta Strategic Compact andMississippi’s Independent Pharmacists Association. He has been a consultant toTallahatchieGeneralHospitaland Extended Care Facility, and he and his employees have partnered with the Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort, Delta Dawn and the Ole Miss School of Pharmacy to hold several diabetes screenings and workshops.
He is a preceptor for Ole Miss pharmacy students and has talked about proper nutrition and diabetes management to local ministers and schools.
Right now, though, he is interested in partnering with anyone who can help him and the Delta Coalition address the health, socioeconomic and cultural problems that plague his region. Among these problems are some of the nation’s highest numbers for teen pregnancy, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, infant mortality, poverty, illiteracy and more.
After making a personal monetary donation to the earthquake relief effort in Haiti, business owner Robert Salmon, along with other company executives at The Diabetic Shoppe in Charleston, brainstormed for ways they could do more to help.
“The day that the earthquake struck, we were trying to think what we could
do,” Salmon said Friday.
Then it hit them: As part of the company’s diabetic supply business, The Diabetic Shoppe sells shoes with custom- fit insoles for diabetic patients.
Why not donate shoes, minus, of course, the customization.
“We thought this was appropriate since we deal in shoes,” noted Salmon.
“This was something we could do.”
Michael Boone, who serves as director of Outside Operations for The Diabetic Shoppe, and Martha Heffner, who is administrative assistant, began investigating the feasibility of a shoe donation.
The process proved to be something of a challenge, explained Heffner. “There was a bit of work involvedmwith donating these shoes,” she noted.
“The Red Cross, the Salvation Army and even the Presbyterian Church national office just wanted money. Those organizations did not have a way to get shoes from Charleston to the people who needed them, so money was all they could take.”
Eventually, Heffner added, the director of the Oxford-based Presbytery of St. Andrew passed along some inside contact information for the United Nations in New York City.
“I talked to somebody at the United Nations who arranged for the shipping
of the shoes to Soles4Souls [a Nashville-based shoe charity],” she explained. “That organization will then get the shoes to Haiti and distribute them to individuals there.”
Salmon said The Diabetic Shoppe is donating 116 new pairs of shoes valued at about $15,000. Included in the shipment are some 20 different styles in sizes ranging from 5-14. The Diabetic Shoppe is paying for shipping the shoes to Soles4Souls.
“This donation goes in the pool of rebuilding the Haitian people’s lives,”
Wayne Elsey, founder and CEO of Soles4Souls, said Tuesday. Elsey said his organization has committed to sending 1.3 million pairs of shoes to Haiti by the end of 2010.
Soles4Souls — giveshoes.org — accepts new and previously worn shoes, which it gives to people in need both in theUnited States and abroad.