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Competitive Advantage in Action

John M. Bruening
Geauga Vision
Middlefield, Ohio

Our subject this month is clearly an example of someone with vision. From his vast experiences in many facets of Opticianry, to his continuing demand for excellence, John Bruening is someone we can learn from. 

The following are Mr. Bruening’s responses:

Provide the reader with a bit of your personal background, including your education, training and professional history.

I was born in Ohio, and was one of 7 children. My parents enjoyed taking the family on long car trips, which instilled in me the desire to travel. Upon graduating from high school, I joined the Air Force, and upon completion of my military commitment, I enrolled in the Ophthalmic Dispensing program at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida. The head of the program at the time was Dr. Norman Ross, whom I found to be a great educator, as well as a mentor to many students, including myself. Upon completion of the program, and passing the Florida Optical Dispensers boards, I returned to my home in Ohio.

Back in Ohio, I began my career working for chain stores such as Pearle Vision and Sears, as well as a local chain named Vision World. Working at chain stores left me disenfranchised with the optical field, so I applied for, and was hired as a sales representative for Marchon/Marcolin Eyewear.

This was a great opportunity to see the optical field from a different vantage point, and gave me invaluable insight into some of the differences between practices that were successful, and those that were not. Selling frames not only allowed me to be a part of my clients’ buying process, but also made clear to me the consequences of improper purchasing.

After 3 years as an independent sales representative, the frame companies, including the one I was with, began to break their sales forces into separate divisions to compete against each other. I decided at that point to take what I had learned on the road and apply it to my own optical practice. So I opened in a small town, and as business was slow the first year, I also started a small frame distributorship that I named Encore Eyewear. I would sell frames on the phone, as well as through independent reps, and ship them from the back office of my optical. I made many contacts with factories that I still maintain and use to this day.

All went well and soon I moved to a larger retail location. In the new location, retail sales quickly outpaced the wholesale, so I decided to sell Encore Eyewear to a local lab. As I realized the discounts that could be obtained by buying high volume, I soon found that in order to lower my cost of goods, I would have to open another store to have an outlet for the large quantity of frames I was purchasing. I added a store every other year, to where I now own 6 retail locations. Each of the stores has a unique look, and with the help of local Amish craftsmen, I was able to do all the build-outs myself.

The offices/stores go by the name “Geauga Vision,” named after the county in which most of them are located. We have independent optometrists at each location that work on a “fee only” basis. We provide all the examination equipment, as well as the support staff, and marketing, and they in turn, attract much of our clientele. I like this arrangement, and let the patients know that the doctors are independent of our optical, so it is obvious that the doctor has nothing to gain by what is or isn’t prescribed. Of the prescriptions that are written, more than 98% choose to purchase eyewear from out optical.

Describe your practice, and the services provided.

Our optical offices are full service dispensaries that offer frames, contact lenses, eye examinations, repairs, and consulting services. Our main office, where the central lab is located, is in an area that has the 4th largest Amish population in the world. We offer a shuttle service, as well as free delivery to their home, schools, and their workplaces. We also offer a two year, unconditional warranty on all frames, and a one year unconditional warranty on the lenses. These policies have become some of our best marketing tools.

Will you please describe your organizational philosophy, including any mission statement, vision, goals, etc.?

My organizational philosophy is very basic: Hire good people, and let them do what they do best. Although I own 6 stores, I spend most of my time at the main office. Because the employees have been empowered to make decisions, and they usually make good ones, I visit some of the offices only a few times throughout the year. Our mission statement is also very basic: “Serve all. Have fun. Make money.” It doesn’t get any simpler than that, but when it comes down to it, business doesn’t have to be complicated. Find something that you like to do, do it well, and charge a fair price for it. Everything else seems to fall into place.

Do you have a Strategic Plan for your practice?

I don’t have a set strategic plan, other than I try to stay ahead of the latest trends, without getting too caught up in them. I have made it a point to study and know my markets to the point that if the opportunity presents itself to make a large frame purchase, I’ll have minimized the risk of getting stuck with a lot of product that won’t sell.

What do you see as your biggest strengths and weaknesses?

My practice’s biggest strength is to attract and retain patients/customers in difficult markets. I believe our service is legendary, and our ability to make volume purchases has allowed us to keep fair prices, while still offering the warranty, which has become our trademark.

My practice’s biggest weakness is the same weakness of most relationships -poor communication. While we have made great strides this past year, there is always room for improvement when it comes to communication

Are there specific opportunities and threats in your local marketplace? If so, how do you effectively deal with them?

Although I don’t think that there is such thing as a “local” market these days, I do see many threats to the market place, and in particular the field of Opticianry. Living in an age of internet commerce, big box retailers, and new surgical procedures, I don’t have to look far for something that could pose a threat to my business. I deal with any new threat as an opportunity to educate. I lay out the facts, show the options, and let the consumer make the decision. I don’t lose sleep over losing a customer, so long as I know I presented them with all the facts.

Where do you see your organization in the next 10 years? The optical industry?

I think that the next 5 years will bring monumental changes to our organization, as well as the field of Opticianry. I feel that the largest threat to our industry is the increase of third party vision plans, and the continued decrease in the rate of compensation they are willing to pay. Consumers are being directed by these plans to utilize providers that are willing to address the patients’ vision needs with only the practices’ financial gain in mind. Lower reimbursements by third party carriers often don’t allow for the best available products to be utilized. Because of these changing policies, my organization will most likely step even further away from such plans that limit our ability to serve our customers to the best of our ability.

Can you describe your competitive advantage? What do you think makes patients come to you, and remain in the practice?

When considering any competitive advantage my company might have, I would have to say it is our ability to make volume purchases, which allows us to offer the best warranties in the business. In the area of the country where our offices are located, it is very rare for an optical to offer any warranty, let alone one that is in effect for two years. This has really allowed us to stand apart from any of our competition.

Are there tidbits of advice you might share with the readers?

Many optical offices don’t like to refer to themselves as stores, but I am not embarrassed to refer to myself as a retailer. After all, how many people go to their podiatrist office to browse for shoes? I am in the business of educating, but ultimately, I want to sell eyewear that will be so pleasing to the customer. When I see other businesses struggling, I often notice that they spend much of their resources reacting to what their competition is doing, or plans to do. I would offer the advice that rather than looking over your shoulders at the competition, look ahead and focus on what you do best as a company. Focus on your strengths and what you are really good at, and highlight those positive aspects of your business to your customers.

I want to thank Mr. Bruening for his excellent responses. Please review them, and learn from his experience. He is surely a benchmark upon which others may measure themselves and their organizations.

References on request

Warren G. McDonald, PhD
Professor of Health Administration
Reeves School of Business / Methodist University

Warren G. McDonald, PhD

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User Name:
Posted: 2/25/2009 11:08:49 AM

Hey....I think that I know that guy! Thanks for sharing with us Mr. Bruening! This is another great article in this series! Keep them coming Warren!
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