Dame Mary Perkins: Britain's Top Optician
The Specsavers Corporation is Britain's largest and most successful chain of optical businesses.
Dame Mary Perkins is the founder of this unparalleled business venture.
A reporter was quoted as saying, "You know what you are, mate? ...Glasses for the masses." She replied that his rhyme wouldn't agree with her style. She would prefer to say that her immense success is due to, "Affordable eye care for everyone."
Perkins, now age 65, was one of the few women of her generation who trained as an optometrist. After her graduation she took over her father's practice, which was located in one room over a bakery shop in Bristol, England. Her father was originally a chemist. In response to post war changes the government offered him an optician training program. He was a solo practitioner. However, his daughter, Mary would often help when she had time off from college studies. After her father retired, he moved to Guernsey, a small island located in the English Channel. She trained as an optometrist at Cardiff University where she met her future husband, Doug. She and her husband built the business into a chain of 23 shops and subsequently sold it to a conglomerate for 2 million pounds ($3.4m).
In 1984 they started up Specsavers, which has surpassed their original company by a huge margin. The decision to start over again was caused by government deregulations of professional practitioners. However, a new angle was added. The Perkins’ planned to open shops as joint ventures with partnered owners who would operate their own business and receive a stake in their particular store. Specsavers receives a management fee for handling such duties as: marketing, fixtures, auditing, training and other connected matters.
Today they are the largest chain in Great Britain with 1,318 locations including sites in Ireland, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. They have captured 39% of the UK market. The company owns manufacturing plants in the UK, Hungary, the Far East and Australia. This has given it a competitive advantage, as they are able to move quicker with new products and control costs. At one point Dame Mary and her husband visited the US to learn how the franchise model for optical outlets operated. However she was not keen on the results, as she remarked, “The franchisor was charging the franchisee a fee, but not doing much for them. We wanted to keep a ‘hands on’ philosophy to make sure that success would be guaranteed.” The same model is being used by them to gain a major position in the hearing aid market. The company’s current estimated worth is around 500 million pounds.
Dame Mary recalls, "It was a great temptation to venture into the field of opticianry. Before, opticians had been banned from advertising products and services and now they were permitted to do so. We were the first to advertise, have showrooms and let people know what our prices were. Buying eye glasses, at that time, was quite expensive. People were not visiting opticians. We wanted to get people into the stores on a regular basis and provide more affordable glasses for everyone."
Her main competitors are supermarkets since they are able to drop their prices to a ridiculously low level. There is contention between Specsavers and the smaller independent opticians who are unable to compete on price. Observers have noted that a solo independent practice in a small town is in jeopardy if Specsavers moves into the area.
Our readers ought to know that many people in the UK, as in the US, do not know the difference between the “Three O’s”. In the UK, there are about 12,000 registered optometrists. They may work as solo practitioners or with an optician or at a hospital. A four year course is required as well as approval by the General Optical Council (GOC). However, a doctorate is not awarded. To be called “doctor” requires a medical or philosophy degree. Sometimes, qualified dispensing opticians are accepted for optometry degree courses. Membership in the GOC is compulsory for all optometrists.
In the UK the term "optician" is used to include optometrists and dispensing opticians. However, they are not the same. Dispensing opticians do not perform eye tests and cannot prescribe glasses and contact lenses. Their primary function, as in the US, is to fit glasses and dispense contact lenses. No experience or background is required to become a dispensing optician. If one is working as a dispensing optician but is not a member of the G.O.C. then they are not permitted to dispense to patients under the age of sixteen, or to the partially sighted, or prescribe specs for contact lenses.
Dame Mary was able to work with the new modifications of the profession. She changed the model of how opticians worked. Previously, the patient would enter a large showroom where different styles of frames were available. One wandered around and finally saw a receptionist who seated and introduced the person to the optician for the eye tests and frame selection. It was often an unhappy experience. Perkins enabled the patient to select from a larger assortment of frames and presented the experience as a fashion purchase rather than a medical necessity. As a rule, opticians were seeing only a few patients per day. Specsavers aimed for a large volume business, bringing the prices down and giving an image of affordability to everyone. During depressed economic times the business widened its low end frames and increased marketing activity and promotions. As a result their revenues have continued to grow. They note that business is more competitive as they face the problems of supermarkets and mergers.
Dame Mary didn't always aim to be an optometrist. "I would have loved to be a librarian. I adore books,” she explained. “Or else I would have been a maternity nurse. If my father hadn't been an optometrist I would possibly never have thought of it, since it was a male dominated profession years ago and that would not have suited me and who I am."
The uniformity among businesses in the market place is highly criticized. But she calmly accepts the fact that this is the way the world is going. Dame Mary personally carries out an undercover shopping activity to ensure quality of service. In order to keep an eye on things she has been known to resort to disguises involving different wigs and eyeglasses, a warm-up suit and a backpack. She thinks they are catching on to her but believe that people just don't pay attention to anyone over the age of sixty. "We're invisible,” she concludes.
Dame Mary feels that the success of the business is due to "differentiation" and staying one step ahead of the competition. She feels it is essential to know your customer and know the needs of the masses. She feels that a retailer can't run a business behind a desk in an office, the successful ones realize that service and value are also important. She adds, “If you try to lead on price alone, that's a recipe for disaster." She enjoys working and has a strenuous fitness regimen.
Dame Mary was asked to comment about her wildly successful business and whether it has changed her behavior. She points out that she has not really changed. Observers say that she is the most unassuming multimillionaire that one is likely to meet. As a matter of fact she has resisted suggestions to take the company public. She states, "I was poor a long time ago, but not now. I have the advantage of being able to replace my washing machine if it breaks or purchase a new car in case my twelve year old car wears out. Those are the things that matter to me. After all, you can spend just so much money."
She has no plans to retire. Four years ago, she required knee replacement surgery. The most profound side effect that she complained about was that the incident interfered with her cycling and yoga. Dame Mary Perkins remarks, "If the optical industry changes, we will change with it. You never finish a job because the goal posts always move. But, it's fun." She tells her interviewers (they are frequent and many) that she will not just sit at home. She loves coming to work. With such an attitude, is it any wonder that she has achieved the notoriety and success that she now enjoys? Mary Lesley Perkins was made a Dame Commander of the order of the British Empire in 2007.