Eyes and ears firmly on the future

Posted on: 04 May 2012 by Anthony Page

Specsavers co-founder Dame Mary Perkins talks to 50connect about life, success and why, at 68, she sees no reason to slow down.

Dame Mary PerkinsI had a reasonably good insight (no pun intended!) into the Specsavers success story having observed its growth and success over the years – plus the fact that I'm also a loyal customer having had my last 12 pairs of glasses made at a local branch in South London

Even so, I began this interview with Dame Mary Perkins, Specsaver co-founder, tiptoeing around the issue of wealth. The fact that she and her family have achieved billionaire status is incidental, what really interested me was how they had built and sold one very successful business – before upping sticks to Guernsey and embarking on a second career - creating the brand we now know as Specsavers.

Mary Perkins (68), and her husband Douglas, built this privately owned business (based in Guernsey), which is now the island's largest commercial employer, from scratch into an enterprise reputed to be worth in excess of £1.4 billion. This makes Dame Mary the only self-made, lady billionaire in the Sunday Times 2012 Rich List. No mean feat for someone to achieve in only 28 years, all the while remaining true to their founding business principles.

Humble beginnings

Having both gained degrees in optometry, Doug borrowed money from his grandparents and bought Mary’s father's practice in Bristol. Under the couple's care, the business grew to 23 shops and their roles evolved more into business administrators than opticians. Such had been their success that they were approached by and eventually sold to a large pharmaceutical company. 

Having sold their chain of practices, they were excluded from being involved in running opticians for three years – known in the business world as a ‘lock out period’!

Far from holding them back, the 'lock out ' provided the spark for the family to move to Guernsey to be near Mary’s parents, who had retired to the island years earlier. The move also provided an array of new commitments: Dame Mary took up voluntary work with the local Citizens Advice Bureau on the island, while Douglas began lecturing at a college teaching accountancy. 

The decision to go back into business came as a consequence of Margaret Thatcher's deregulation of the opticians market. This enabled the profession to be opened up to greater competition and, for the first time, advertise to the general public. Therefore, in 1984, juggling the commitments of a young family and ageing parents, the couple seized the opportunity -  plotting their early strategy on a disused table tennis table - and the rest, as they say, is history.

'We knew then we did not want to run a chain of shops with all the issues of staffing and local administration so we set about building a completely new business model for the company,' explains Dame Mary. 'We would have partners in every shop we started who invest their money with us on a real 50/50 basis. If the shop was a success then we would all prosper!’  Later in the interview Mary let slip that with over 1700 branches in the UK, not one has ever failed – an enviable record indeed! 

The first five shops they opened, they ran to prove the business model worked and to give confidence to their new partners – especially those who had to borrow money for their share of the capital.

Specsavers is now massive company with more than 500 employees at the head office on the island and 27,000 worldwide working in 1640 retail outlets.

Dame Mary stresses the fact that they run the business in partnership with each branch owner and the staff share in the success just as they do at John Lewis.

'You can’t have a business serving the general public with something as important as eye care and run it from afar – the owner optometrist has to be in the shop managing treatment standards and the day to day running of the business. We give total support from the island doing all buying, marketing, administration and accounting - right down to doing the VAT return. The HMRC visit the island once a year and stay a week checking our returns. Specsavers shops concentrate on serving the customer with good professional eye and hearing care.’

Mary Perkins talks with such enthusiasm about the business; the teams that support her as well and the individual shop owners and staff, you immediately get the sense that this isn’t just a successful business but a lifetime commitment that will always be a major part of her life.

Shopping and housework

It is clear that while business is important, family always comes first. She is a hugely engaging character – much like talking to a long-time friend – and displays a welcome and refreshing pragmatism to my questioning on how she would deal with her time if you suddenly ended up with a free day in her diary? ‘Easy,’ came her answer. ‘I’d go and catch up on some shopping and get home to do some housework!

Not my idea of the average day for billionaires! Her views on money are similarly grounded when I ask what it means to have so much money available to you: ‘I don’t have to worry about buying a new cooker if the old one breaks down! ‘ It is clear that in spite of her massive business success, Mary Perkins lives without pretence and is a very level-headed woman!

Having met at university 50 years ago, Mary and Douglas recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary with their three children and seven grandchildren. The family is very important to her – Mary’s most enjoyable experience is for the whole family including her children’s in laws to holiday together. ‘We did this at half-term and it was one of the best holidays we've had – it was wonderful and it has given us all so many lovely memories’.

Specsavers is very involved with Guernsey island life! As well as being Patron to the local Age Concern, Dame Mary is a school governor at a girl’s school and immerses herself in academic life. Every year on Liberation Day, the Specsavers offices are decked out for a great party for the older members of the island community.

Specsavers as a group also raise a lot of money for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Dame Mary went on to tell me of a recent visit she made to the Leamington Spa Guide Dogs Breeding Centre. While she was there, she watched 50 guide dogs have their eyes tested! 

'Guide dogs get tested every 12 months – humans get tested every two years – there must be something wrong here!’

Her infectious laugh gives an insight into the personality of this business leader – simple, straightforward and in many ways very ordinary and unspoilt – humour plays a big part in her life. She shares an open plan office with her staff and get involved in the day-to-day decision making of the company – her son is now the Managing Director.  I suspect this has made little difference to her – this business will always be a massive part of her lifelong beyond any ‘notional retirement should that ever be on the cards!

'Most of my friends work in this business, that’s why it is such a joy to come to work. I really can’t imagine anything I prefer doing than coming to work with my team – except spending time with our grandchildren!’

Society disregards older people

One of her biggest concerns is the way our society disregards older people. ‘Living on the island I see the old values of respect and inclusiveness are still part of local life, with grandparents being important members of the family. This has changed on the mainland and in the cities! Older people are disregarded. You hear of so many horror stories about ill treatment of older people, this really has to be stopped. We need local Czars to monitor and represent people, especially those livening in residential and nursing homes. Everybody needs dignity and self respect.’

What of the future? Well, Specsavers is enjoying growth in Australia and moving ‘Fleet of foot!’ as she puts it in the EU. In the UK, they have more than hundred hearing loss centres – some are ‘shops within shops’ but all run on the partnership model. Already they are the largest supplier of hearing aids in the UK next to the NHS - and in certain parts of the country, they are providing this service in partnership with the NHS.

With her three children, working within the business (and another generation in the wings) Specsavers will remain a private family owned business. ‘We have no need to go public or sell – our partners have travelled this far with us and we value that, so we see no reason for change - certainly not for money. We still have a lot of work to do to bring down the cost of eye care and hearing aids before we can say we have truly succeeded!’

Dame Mary Perkins is certainly not what I expected. She’s an open, forthright and very proud of the business her family has built. As far as I can see, she will be working in that office for many years to come!

This month 50connect is focusing on eye health for older people, visit our hub eye health in later life for information on common causes of sight loss, presbyopia (ageing eyes) and driving with an eye condition.

Visit Eye health in Later Life.

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