Joint forces: 100 years in optometry

Specsavers’ founders Doug and Dame Mary Perkins are celebrating a combined 100 years in optometry.

Having met during their optometry studies at Cardiff University, Doug and Dame Mary Perkins have committed their lives to making affordable and expert eyecare (and now also hearcare) available to all, and as a result Specsavers is now the largest privately owned optical company in the world. They’ve come a long way together, and this year, the pair are celebrating a joint 100 years of working in optics.

Mary and Doug remain very actively involved in what has always been a family business, with their three children all working at Specsavers.

Doug (74) is the chairman and joint CEO alongside his son John. He is an entrepreneur pur sang and in the United Kingdom, Specsavers’ country of origin, Doug is regarded as a leading figure in optometry and audiology. Doug is firmly focused on the advancement of professionalism and healthcare to fully address the eyecare and hearing needs of an ageing population and the associated healthcare issues.

Meanwhile, Mary (73) is committed to driving customer service standards, promoting values and building on corporate responsibility. She is passionately involved with a number of British charities, including the British blind organisation. Mary also spends a lot of time speaking with students, encouraging the next generation of opticians.

The couple met during the first year of their study ophthalmic optics in the Applied Optics Department of Cardiff College of Advanced Technology, Wales. Mary was then one of the very few women to pursue such a profession in those days – keen as she was to follow in the optician father’s footsteps.

Mary and Doug met while studying at University in Cardiff

Starting out in business

In 1967, having both qualified, they wasted no time in setting up business together and getting married. When Mary’s parents retired to Guernsey, a place where they had often holidayed, they bought her father’s practice in Bristol.

The couple soon built up a group of 23 practices in South-West England and Wales, which went by the name of “Bebbington and Perkins”. As the business expanded, they found it harder as sole owners to maintain the personal contact that was necessary to run all the practices. In 1980, Doug and Mary decided to sell the group, move to Guernsey to be near her parents and take a break from optics for a while to consider the changing environment.

They used this time to travel to the United States to see how the Americans ran their optical businesses and attended numerous business refresher courses – something which had been difficult to fit in before.

Bristol store exterior, early 80s and late 80s advertisements from the UK

The birth of Specsavers

In the early 1980s, the UK Government deregulated professionals, including opticians, allowing them to advertise their products and services for the first time.

From a table-tennis table in their spare room, Doug and Mary pioneered a joint-venture partnership model, which has become the cornerstone of their new business success. It enables opticians and audiologists to own their practices and focus on their strengths in testing eyes and hearing, while being provided with a range of additional and back-office services, including IT, marketing, legal and accounting, from various support offices.

The first Specsavers Opticians opened in February 1984 in Bond Street, Bristol. This was the first time customers could walk into an optical ‘shop’ with hundreds of frames on display, all clearly priced. Customers were encouraged to try on glasses and to have a good look before committing themselves to an eye examination. It truly revolutionised the industry.

The first Specsavers opened in 1984 on Bond Street, Bristol

Household name

Doug and Mary have since used their knowledge of optics and management to enable more than 2,700 joint-venture partners to run successful Specsavers businesses. Key achievements over the years have included introducing complete and clear pricing for glasses, the two for one offer and the start-up of the hearcare service in stores. In the United Kingdom, Specsavers is a household name, as it has become in the other 12 countries in which the company is active. And the company continues to expand and has now more than 34,000 employees worldwide.

This article first appeared in the UK Specsavers magazine. It has been amended slightly for the Green Club website.

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