Connect with us

Beginnings

New owners weigh in on the hardest part of their business … starting it.

mm

Published

on

They say that starting is the hardest part. If that is true, then these ECPs—whom we asked to share their businesses’ origin stories while they are basically still happening—should have it pretty easy from here on out, right?

Kidding aside, if you’re curious about what happens in that space between idea and execution, we’ve got the perspectives of four new business owners who implemented different models and priorities as they got off the ground. From business plans to securing financing, from what they’d do differently to advice for others looking to branch out on their own, read on for all the fascinating details.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Julia Laval and Anissa Laval
Cutting Edge Optics, Berkeley, CA
Opened: November 2018

We are a mother/daughter optician duo and opened Cutting Edge Optics in November 2018 located in the charming Elmwood community on one of Berkeley’s busiest streets, College Ave.

Julia also owns Montclair Optical in Oakland. Montclair Optical boasts a long history; it has been in business for 42 years and passed down through several generations of opticians in our family for the last 35. Montclair Village has its own lab and Julia has been the technician in charge of cutting all lenses for the last few years.

I have been an optician for the last nine years. I learned my skills from my mother; observing the techniques needed to succeed in the business. If not for having seen first-hand how to correctly understand lenses, prescriptions and frames, my climb into the business would have been much steeper. I’ve worked under enough doctors to understand how not to run a business, enough that I knew I was ready for this adventure.

Advertisement

We opened Cutting Edge Optics because of our passion for opticianry. We are bringing true optical knowledge, new techniques, and unique, fresh brands to Berkeley. As two opticians with genuine love for this profession, excellent service comes naturally to us. We take our time, offering personal attention to every customer, and supplying a broad yet original selection of glasses to guarantee the perfect fit, customized in every way: from color and lens shape, to the glasses-buying experience itself.  

The shop was previously owned by an optician who was ready to move on. The decor was entirely white. Our aesthetic is based on a New York studio loft. When we took over, we painted and put up a gorgeous plant wall as the focal point. It pulls in the green, sustainable and eco-friendly aspect of the neighborhood, fitting these values into our urban aesthetic. The large windows create an airy, inviting feeling. We play music from all over the world, including Africa and Central and South America. We even mix in a little French rap.

This store has an extensive business plan. After more than 30 years of success in Montclair, it was natural to apply those guidelines to Cutting Edge. We are very serious about the buying process and making sure we don’t overspend on frames. Optical businesses fail in one category: how big their eyes get when a rep walks in verses how much they have in their bank account. It should never be a race to rush patients in the door just to cover your costs month to month.

Julia knew from experience what was needed to financially support the business and get it off the ground, and Anissa knew how to deploy social media and advertising to generate a buzz before the doors even opened. Before Day 1 our Instagram had over 700 followers and we gave hour to hour updates and sneak peeks. Business has been busy from the first day.

We constantly push ourselves to keep our patients informed about what we’re doing next. Social media gives us a platform to align brands with specific people. Every brand introduction and major event is published online. Photographer Dione Green (@Dione.Green), who took our photos, is key. We also advertise a lot with the Elmwood community newsletters.

Advertisement

Business, especially starting cold, can be a waiting game. When you revamp an established business, you’re going to deal with customers who are accustomed to the old way, the old prices, and the old frame selection; these loyal customers can take a while to warm up to changes. One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is not swaying to please everyone.

Annisa (l) and Julia Laval have brought true optical knowledge, new techniques and unique, fresh brands to Berkeley, CA, with Cutting Edge.

In terms of advice, make a detailed guideline to how you want to financially run your business and stick to it. Our way is to make a frame board. Our frame board details how many frames can fit into a section and how much money we are willing to spend on that section. You may think more is better but picking the right frames for customers is smarter than having as many as possible. Listen to your gut, not the rep! For example, if I’m buying 60 pieces of Garrett Leight, I need to ask myself how much I’m spending and how far they will get me before I have to repurchase. Then I need to consider what happens if 35 percent of those frames don’t move. I cannot purchase Caroline Abram just for its beauty, I have to consider who is going to buy these frames and is it worth having the same frame in three colors.

Also, have a social media advisor. Social media is the new Yelp. Without a visual aid to generate intrigue for customers, you’re doing your business a disservice and damaging its ability to grow and make profit. Social media is a digital lasso for new customers.

QUICK Q & A

What was the first major milestone you celebrated?
We wanted to open as dramatically as we could. Our doors and windows were covered then we did a large reveal online and on the Elmwood community site. We were met with overwhelming support.
Have you already had to break up with a patient/customer or vendor?
We have had to break up with many vendors and bring in new brands.
Has the business made you cry?
Of course! If a business doesn’t make you cry, you’re not working hard enough.
Would you have done anything differently?
No.
What’s been your most empowering moment?
A customer who had been looking for frames for over three years left with six. She later came back with three friends who all purchased.
How long did it take until you felt like were gonna make it?
Instantly. Business grows if you control money flow. Everything else comes easy.
Do you ever feel like you’ve made a terrible mistake?
Never. You have to be confident in your ability to succeed.
What do you do to help overcome doubt?
We sit in the office every time we feel overwhelmed and say: “There’s no way we are going to fail.”

 

Advertisement

GOING HOME AGAIN

Erika E. Mabus, OD 
Muncy and Laporte, PA
Opened: September 2018

I established my corporation on July 26, 2018 and officially signed closing documents on Sept. 6, 2018. I purchased it from an optometrist who had been practicing in the same location for the last 20 odd years. It’s 12 miles north of where I grew up and 25 miles south of where I live now. It was well-established, privately-owned, and one of very few independent offices in my area. I believe in private practice optometry and I am excited to officially be practicing in that capacity. 

I’d been contemplating my own practice since graduating from optometry school in 2013, and the timing just felt right. The optometrist had plans to retire soon, so it’s been a nice way for us to transition patients and give me time to pick his brain on the business aspects. 

I spent months going over the financials with an accountant and business advisor, as well as a lawyer with expertise in accounting and business acquisitions. I was surprised at how long it took for lawyers to go back and forth to on the contract’s terms. The retiring doctor and I began the process in April 2018 and finalized it September.

I secured financing through PNC Healthcare Business Banking and have been extremely happy with the help I received before, during, and after the purchase. I contacted a few smaller local banks, but they asked for high down payments or collateral; PNC made it simple and easy. 

I made a business plan, but just as everything in the world evolves, so has my idea of how my practice should run. I am happy with what I have accomplished in the last seven months of ownership, but I am always striving to do better. Currently, I am considering a consultant for more accountability and to keep myself on track, but also to help me achieve my future goal: comfort with the cost of new technology to set my office apart. 

Part of the appeal of private practice in a rural area is that patients feel at home. My team greets every patient by name and in the exam room I always try to make at least one personal connection. I recently saw an older patient I thought may have patronized my grandfather’s business years ago. We reminisced about the time he and his father spent in my grandfather’s hardware store. 

Taking over from an established OD where she grew up was Dr. Mabus’ way to ownership.

The retiring doctor and I put up a photo in the waiting area with a note welcoming me to the practice. I advertised with local high school sports teams and drama club programs and T-shirts. I also contacted the local newspaper for a “spotlight on business” article which brought a lot of business to my new location without any cost to me. 

The day we signed the agreement there was a full book of patients and it’s been that way ever since. Keeping the same staff with the retiring doctor still seeing patients has been a huge help. Patients are getting used to the idea of another doctor and they get one final visit with their previous optometrist. I opened a second location cold in January and I am just now starting to have a full day of patients there after a few weeks of one to five patients a day. 

I am happy with the quality of medical eyecare I provide, but I’d love to incorporate more advanced dry eye treatments. It is one of my personal passions, since I experience it myself. I also hope to become more skilled at specialty contact lens fittings to differentiate myself and complement my dry eye treatments. I thought I would be ready to jump in and purchase more equipment the first year, but now I hope to do so in year two. 

If anyone else is thinking of purchasing or starting their own practice, I would recommend getting an excellent set of advisors: a good lawyer, a competent accountant, and a business advisor. Having people to help is huge. My other advice is to integrate yourself into your community. Patients love to make connections with you, and that’s easier if you go to the same restaurants, know the schools, join the same gym, or shop in the same places.  

QUICK Q & A

What was the first major milestone you celebrated?
I brought in two new independent frame lines that focus on sustainability — TOC lunettes Monkey Glasses and David Green Eyewear
Have you had to break up with a patient/customer or vendor?
Not yet, thankfully. Has the business made you cry? e Not yet! But I have had a few sleepless nights since September
Would you have done anything differently?
I would have set up my website sooner, which is still not complete.
What’s been your most empowering moment?
I still see patients at two other retail locations on evenings and weekends. When I tell them I have two private practices, they tell me that they are excited to see me there next year.   
 
How long did it take until you felt like you had it under control?
About three months, although there are still times when I feel like I’m lost with the business aspects. 
Do you ever feel like you’ve made a terrible mistake?
Not yet. Even when I am working seven days a week because I know in the end all the hard work will directly benefit me, not someone else.
What do you do to overcome doubt?
I breathe. I meditate. I trust that I am enough. I work hard, so I know that I’ve done everything I can. 

 

FROM BIG BOX TO BOUTIQUE

Mitch Peterson and Kelsey Keltgen, OD
SEEK Eyecare / Victoria, MN
Opened: February 2017 (Soft), April 2017 (Grand)

My wife, Dr. Kelsey Keltgen, and I cold-opened our practice in early 2017. We chose a new building in downtown Victoria, MN. We were the first and are still the only practice in Victoria.  

My wife, and high school sweetheart, had been practicing for about six years prior to opening SEEK. She worked as a paid hourly doctor right out of school and filled in at other practices on the side. After that she was a lease-holding doctor at a big box optical. I have a diverse background, from working on my family farm to starting a few successful businesses. I was even a bouncer and drove semi-trucks in college. Our unique backgrounds make us a great team. She is one of the most passionate ODs out there.

We both worked six to seven days a week to pay off our personal debt. So, when we were ready to open our dream store we were financially able to do so. We wanted to open our own practice because no one was doing what we wanted to do: offer a state-of-the-art practice that provided comprehensive exams with an approachable retail space. My wife wanted to be able to take a preventative approach that would be more beneficial to patients.

We did a ton of research. We used our experience to develop a patient experience that picked up where a lot of practices fall short. We had to figure everything out from scratch. None of us knew how or where to purchase frames … What lenses or lab to use.

We developed a very in-depth business plan with multiple options to pivot with if things didn’t pan out. We have adhered to the majority of it. The only major change is that we had to adapt due to how fast we are growing. We are hitting our goals for years four and five in year two.

We secured a build-out loan fairly easily due to our favorable debt-to-income ratio and self-financed the operating side. The most surprising challenge we encountered was that construction was always four months behind schedule due to more than 35 inches of rain the day we broke ground. We had to meet frame reps at a coffee shop.

Insurance credentialing was a huge project that my rock star wife handled. Start working on that the second you can. We are involved in the community, volunteering and sponsoring events. I’ve used unique marketing avenues to get our brand out. Constant logo use and branding is important to my marketing plan. Since we previously leased at a corporate big box practice, the patient base was ours. We posted on social media each step of the build-out.

Business was crazy when we opened. We had so much local support and we both have large families; they were some of our first patients. The support from our friends and family has been amazing.

Over time, we have gotten very precise in how we operate. We have brought in more high-end eyewear than we initially planned. The biggest learning curves have been on the optical side: we’re more particular with our frame purchases; we make sure the product is great and the rep is even better; if they aren’t, we get rid of them.

Our advice is don’t over-extend yourself. If you aren’t financially and mentally prepared to do everything yourself, wait a few years. Write up your dream business model and find the patient base that fits it. Don’t let anyone or anything push you to start cold. You have to be all-in. We have zero regrets and love working as a wife and husband duo.

QUICK Q & A

What was the first major milestone you celebrated?
The night before we turned the OPEN sign on, we sat and had a beer in the front office after a month of 100 hour work weeks.
Have you already had to break up with a patient/customer or vendor?
We are break-up free on the patient side. We have had to let a vendor or two go.
Has the business made you cry?
It has been an emotional rollercoaster but I think the only tears have been tears of joy.
Would you have done anything differently?
e Nope.
What’s been your most empowering moment?
When publications like INVISION contact us to share our story. It reassures us that we must be doing something right.
 
 
How long did it take until you felt like you were gonna make it?
Once the first patient came in the door I knew we had created something special.
Do you ever feel like you’ve made a terrible mistake?
e No success comes without mistakes. It is how you move forward and learn from them.
What do you do to help overcome doubt?
We work through everything as a team. If there is any doubt we talk it through between the doctor, Rachel and myself. Keeping each other in check keeps confidence high.

 

CROWDSOURCING SUCCESS

Jason M. Klepfisz, OD
Urban Eyecare, Phoenix, AZ
Opened: August 2017

We opened Urban Eyecare in August of 2017 to bring comprehensive care and independent eyewear and specialty contacts to an underserved area, and also hoping that bringing these services would springboard future growth.

I spent the better part of three years jotting down notes on all the little aspects of private practice and optical that resonated with myself. I wish I could say it was all fun and games, but there was a lot of monotony: Which slit lamp has the best optics? Manual vs. automated phoropter? White-gray flooring or gray-white? Pricing out the optical. The best advice came from those that have gone down this road before, those that are currently practicing, and those looking to hang up their own shingle.

I come from an Indian Health Services background, having completed residency in a rural community. This continued in a geriatric setting for years when I returned to Phoenix before deciding to open my own office. The biggest challenge we faced when opening, and one that changed our overall goal, was getting credentialed on medical insurance panels. We pivoted to focus on our retail experience, seeking harmony between a medically and optically oriented office. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the materials and craftsmanship as much as I have.

To make ourselves stand out, we push brand-awareness social media campaigns and provide adjustments and free cleaner to anybody who walks in. We exhibit local artists in our office.

We got the word out through trial and error. We started with our online presence. I also hand delivered letters to about 250 local businesses on a 100-degree spring day. We called local businesses and found ones who allowed us to deliver gift bags to their employees. We took every health fair opportunity available. Every bulletin board, coffee shop and college building we could leave flyers, we did, even handed them out on the street.

Business was great when we opened. The problem was we lost our optician just a few days before opening. I had no previous experience with optical and my staff were untrained in the area. In our first week, we slowly built up a pile of lab orders ready to be placed but nobody to place them. Fortunately, by the end of that week we found a wonderful replacement who has been our rock star ever since!

The main lessons we’ve learned are, firstly, to check out eyewear in person before buying. With our limited window to purchase frames while opening, we carried some brands we were less than thrilled with over the course of the year. We shed about half of the brands we started with and are much more careful in our choices now.

Lastly, my advice is to follow your dream! Don’t feel the need to take over somebody else’s problem office because starting cold is too difficult. Create something unique, a place that patients want to go, rather than a place they reluctantly need to go. Create an experience that makes people want to come back.

QUICK Q & A

What was the first major milestone you celebrated?
Adding a fourth doctor day per week. It was wonderful to spend another day in my practice rather than working for somebody else. 
Have you already had to break up with a patient/customer or vendor?
We have unfortunately had to drop a few vendors. The beauty of ownership is we can choose to work with brands that complement us and our mission, to grow together.
Would you have done anything differently?
I would make design changes for our next office. A doctor who owns a large chain once told me that you always like your first office the least, but each one after gets a little better.
How long did it take until you felt like you were gonna make it?
It’s still day by day, even though we are turning a profit. The days with 16 patients make me feel like the king of the world, while slow days make me feel like tomorrow is never going to come. I don’t think I’ll feel like it’s completely under control for a couple more years.
Do you ever feel like you’ve made a terrible mistake?
Never!
What do you do to help overcome doubt?
Wake up happy every day and excited to go do my dream job at my dream office!

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 23 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at editor@invisionmag.com.

Advertisement

SPONSORED VIDEO

SPONSORED BY SAFILO

Get Ready for Back to School With Kids by Safilo

The 2019 Kids by Safilo collection is enriched with new, playful color stories featuring fun and original graphics and translucent fronts which are combined with solid temples and enlivened by bright, colorful patterns. The collection is designed with a medical-scientific approach to better meet the needs of children up to eight years of age. The collection was developed in collaboration with SIOP (Italian Society of Pediatric Ophthalmology) and is in compliance with the design guidelines of WSPOS (World Society of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus).

Promoted Headlines

Cover Stories

How To Do Everything

mm

Published

on

We recently consulted members of the eyecare community and a handful of business experts, asking them to tell us about some aspect of the business they’ve got down really well, and to boil that activity or practice down to its key components. What started out as a list of standout skills soon blossomed into an ECP’s guide to … pretty much, everything! Well … to a whole lot of really cool stuff, anyway. We’re pretty confident that reading this you’ll learn a few new tricks, and see at least a few of your current methods in a new light. We challenge you to implement one or two of these 23 practices — at least in some form — before the year is out.

HOW TO ENGAGE AUTHENTICALLY WITH YOUR COMMUNITY

Julie Kubsch, Specs Around Town, Bloomington, IL

Julie Kubsch, owner of Specs Around Town in Bloomington, IL, believes that if you engage with as many people as possible you’ll find someone who needs or wants your services — or who will know someone that does. Among the groups and events she has found most rewarding are: Bloomington-Normal Sunrise Rotary (“‘Service above self’ is the motto of Rotary and if you live it, it’s amazing what you can accomplish,” she says.); McLean County Chamber of Commerce (networking events); local radio station WGLT/NPR (“a perfect avenue for reaching clients that are fun, unique and love supporting local businesses”); and the downtown Bloomington business owners group’s monthly happy hour, hosted by a different business each time (“Nice resource to discuss downtown concerns, learn of other businesses in our area and creates a sense of family in regard to small, independent businesses.”) While financial benefits are the ultimate goal, Kubsch says, “hearing a comment like ‘Every time I ask someone where they got their glasses they say Specs Around Town!’ is good for the heart and soul.”

HOW TO MAKE THE BEST SANDWICH BOARDS

Heather Harrington, Elevated Eyecare, Denver, CO

By her own estimation, Heather Harrington at Elevated Eyecare in Denver, CO, makes the best sandwich boards in the business. We took her at her word and asked her to break down her approach — and the feedback.

  • INSPIRATION: Harrington gets hers from patients, the time of year, “and our office’s love for the overall health of the eye and clarity in vision.”
  • KEEP IT FRESH: She changes hers up twice a month or so.
  • MATERIALS: Harrington prefers chalk, with everything drawn in freehand.
  • LOCATION: In addition to placing them outside the business, she always posts all boards to her socials. “Of course!” she says. “Lots of hard work and thought goes into the boards for the month.”
  • RESPONSE: “Nothing but great things!”

HOW TO MAKE YOUR WEBSITE SERVE YOUR BRAND AND YOUR BOTTOM LINE

Selina McGee, OD, Precision Vision, Edmond, OK

Dr. Selina McGee at Precision Vision in Edmond, OK, has an eye for design but not the skills to translate that into a website. For that, she relied on marketing partner Gunnar Hood at WSI-Summit. (See what you think here www.pvedmond.com). She focuses her advice thus:

  • Find a web designer who can translate your ideas into reality.
  • Choose an appropriate platform: Precision Vision’s site is hosted on an SaaS platform called Duda, selected by Hood. “We like it because it is hassle free, supports SEO really well and accommodates all of our design needs.”
  • Use web analytics tools. Google Analytics, Google Search Console, heat mapping and other tools help monitor site performance, search engine optimization and social media reach.
  • Set goals. McGee’s were for the site to function as an extension of the office experience; to be phone-friendly; and to educate.
  • Include educational content. This captures views from beyond your area. “An article about bumps on eyelids is ranking well nationally.”
  • Don’t tinker constantly, McGee says, but consider a change if your site no longer reflects your brand and message, or isn’t meeting patients’ needs.

HOW TO KEEP YOUR WINDOW DISPLAYS FRESH

Jenni Leuzzi, Mill Creek Optical, Dansville, NY

At various times, the display windows at Mill Creek Optical in Dansville, NY have been graced by stuffed cows wearing shades; chickens eggs hatching kids’ glasses; a tipped-over picnic basket full of suns; and a vintage Fisher Price display. Here’s what owner Jenni Leuzzi focuses on:

  • For inspiration, in addition to holidays and seasons, Dansville has a full calendar of festivals and events. Check your town for something similar. She combs magazines and Pinterest, while some occasions suggest themselves: On Harry Potter-related dates: round frames in the window.
  • She stores a lot of props for re-use. Among these are old wooden boxes and crates, which can be draped in material. Items are found everywhere: “Garage sales, antique shops, Home Goods, Amazon, my basement…” Always be looking for something that can be used… or re-used.
  • The goal is to draw attention to your shop; don’t let your display become part of the unchanging scenery of the street. Leuzzi redoes her windows every three or four weeks.

HOW TO DEMO PRODUCTS & SERVICES ON FACEBOOK LIVE

Nancy Rausman, managing editor at EyeCarePro (eyecarepro.net), a consultant for the optical industry, says Facebook live is a great way for practices to build relationships, share expertise and products, and show the personal side of their business.

DO:

  • Provide value. Keep the focus on demonstrating services or displaying eyewear.
  • Write a compelling description. Before your audience decides whether to join you, they will read this.
  • Test lighting, sound and picture by selecting the privacy setting “only me” (in the “share with” section select “more” and scroll down).
  • Interact with your audience. Tag friends and patients to let them know the talk is happening; respond to chat; welcome people by name.

DON’T:

  • Forget to publicize your talk in advance.
  • Be overly promotional. This isn’t a commercial. No one wants to listen to 10 minutes of self-praise.

 

HOW TO EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE CHANGES TO CUSTOMERS

Marc Ullman, OD, Academy Vision in Pine Beach, NJ

During summer, Academy Vision in Pine Beach, NJ, takes off every other Friday. Here’s what Dr. Marc Ullman and the team do to keep people from driving all the way there only to find them closed.

  • Two or three weeks in advance, a message is posted alerting customers on Facebook, Google, the front door and website, and the phone message is updated.
  • The message itself is typically worded along the lines of: “Hello our amazing patients, the staff at Academy Vision will be taking time to enjoy our families this week.”
  • Messages are pinned along with all events to the top of social pages.
  • The door signage is professionally done. “It’s important to show we care about how you view our office, and the importance of spending time with family.”
  • Ullman reminds ECPs that “not everyone is on social media” — be prepared to field a few complaints.

HOW TO HIRE RIGHT EVERY TIME

Diana Canto Sims, OD, Buena Vista Optical, Chicago, IL

“Bringing new staff on board is pricey and time consuming; we have found our system works wonders funneling in the best candidates,” says Diana Canto Sims, co-owner of Buena Vista Optical in Chicago, IL. Here’s her rundown of the process:

  • A link is posted to an application with an invitation to schedule a phone interview at a day and time chosen by the candidate from a number of pre-determined slots. The slots are chosen ahead of time with a program called Acuity Scheduling. The application functions as the candidate’s resume.
  • For those who pass the phone interview, a face-to-face interview with a tour of the facilities. When they are also given a “logic and reasoning written test.”
  • Paid working interview. Conducted after they have passed the face-to-face. “We see their work ethic, reliability, team-playing ability and how they treat patients.”
  • Lastly, a candidate is selected from those funneled to the top. Some final advice, allow for trial and error, says Canto Sims. “It took us 11 years to perfect.

HOW TO START AN ABO TRAINING PROGRAM IN YOUR AREA

James Armstrong, Alberta Eye Care, Portland, OR

“Since opening our optical almost seven years ago, the most obvious challenge has been finding and retaining staff, particularly qualified opticians, and our office was not alone,” explains James Armstrong of Alberta and Cathedral Eye Care in Portland, OR. The shortage in the labor market has led to higher turnover and overhead costs, so Armstrong reached out to Portland Community College, and pitched the formation of an ABO training program in their medical career training department. “The idea was met with enthusiasm, but obstacles also presented themselves.”

  • Be able to demonstrate the demand in our local market.
  • Find an instructor. “It took two years of networking and reaching out to industry partners before the connection was finally made that led to finding Andrew Bruce, a master optician with decades of optical management experience, as our instructor,” shares Armstrong.
  • Know how to navigate the classic optometry vs. ophthalmology politics. “PCC has had an Ophthalmic Medical Technician program for years. I argued adding the ABO training program could only strengthen the college’s position in the eyecare field but those running the OMT program were concerned our program would potentially steer candidates away, or lower the future job prospects of the OMT graduates.” It took six months for Armstrong to convince everyone involved that opticians are not technicians and vice-versa. “What seemed like an obvious argument to myself and everyone else in our industry proved to be a very challenging hurdle for this program to overcome.”
  • Be patient. “Three years after I approached PCC about this program, Optician ABO Prep is officially a go and accepting students for January 2020!”

HOW TO WORK FASTER

Caitlin Wicka, San Juan Eye Center, Montrose, CO

Caitlin Wicka of San Juan Eye Center in Montrose, CO, isn’t sure why her ability to work with multiple patients at one time is so rare. Here’s what she does know about squeezing the most out of a workday:

DO:

  • Give trays to customers shopping for frames. “This allows them to look while you help change a nose pad or dispense.”
  • Offer guidance on store layout before a customer begins browsing.
  • Use the Ultrasonic cleaner as a way to make time to help someone else.
  • Look up insurance and patients before you sit with them.
  • Know your inventory and what you can order relative to the Rx you’re looking at.
  • Slow down, if it means making fewer mistakes.
  • Get your workspace set up with the tools that you most commonly use.

DON’T:

  • Chat with patients. “Let them talk to you, don’t talk at them.”
  • Deal with vendors/reps ahead of customers. “If a rep comes in, get them to help your patient look for glasses.”

HOW TO ANNOUNCE A FIRING TO THE REST OF YOUR STAFF

The basic rules of firing apply here. Firstly, do it quickly. Secondly, provide enough information to demonstrate the decision wasn’t arbitrary, but not so much detail that you look like you’re trying to embarrass someone. Be low-key, brief, stick to the facts and avoid emotion. Alison Green, author of the “Ask a Manager” blog, offers the following sample script for an email that she recommends be sent to the whole staff on the day of the firing.

”Unfortunately, Jane’s last day with us was today. We wish her the best of luck, and we’ll be moving quickly to hire a replacement. Until her replacement is hired, please see Fergus with questions about teapot research and Lucinda for any other questions.”

Green adds that “Your staff will generally understand that you’re not going to share every detail with them in cases like this,” while reminding managers that the key is to ensure that your staff understands how performance problems are handled.

HOW TO HANDLE AN EMPLOYEE WHO WON’T TAKE THE HINT

Back to “Ask a Manager” blogger Alison Green for this one: She advises that in fact it’s not your job to manage an employee’s reactions; if they don’t get it, it might be time to show them the door. “If an employee’s refusing to hear clear warnings, you don’t have to keep hammering the point home.” But before you pull the trigger, she does advise that you revisit the language you’ve been using with the employee. Have you been clear? “Sometimes managers think they have, but when we dig into exactly what they’ve said, it turns out that their wording has been mushier than they thought. In particular, managers are sometimes reluctant to say words like ‘If you don’t do XYZ, I will need to let you go.’” So, don’t be fuzzy. A manager/owner’s responsibility in this situation isn’t to keep issuing warnings — it’s to ensure that their warnings are clear. If not, Green says, “It’s time to move to a conclusion.”

HOW TO GET WHAT YOU WANT, AND NEED, FROM A SALES REP

Lorie McBroom, Bakersfield Eye Care, Bakersfield, CA

5 Bakersfield Eye Care in Bakersfield, CA, had tried several colorful frame collections that didn’t do well, so adding Etnia Barcelona felt like a bit of a gamble. Optical manager Lorie McBroom recalls telling the rep, “‘I love the brand, but it would be amazing if we could have 90 days to try it out to see how it would work. And the rep said, ‘Let’s make that happen.’” The line was a hit. “It’s worked out for us, as well as for our vendor, just to ask for the things that you want.” Something else McBroom has learned is that reps are a great resource for recommendations beyond their own brands. A good example of this is Matsuda, one of the first high-end lines they added. Its rep wasn’t familiar with Bakersfield, but another salesperson — who’d already brought Etnia Barcelona and Garrett Leight to the shop — vouched for what Bakersfield Eye Care was up to. By the time the Matsuda rep finally visited in person, “we had already sold through most of our Matsuda we bought at Expo, including a show-stopping frame that retailed for over $1,500,” says McBroom.

HOW TO SELL FROM THE CHAIR

Chris Lopez, OD, Roberts Eyecare Associates, Vestal, NY

To the eye docs reading this: We get it — you’re NOT salespeople. But there are ways to boost eyewear sales from the chair without feeling like you’re selling, and without dragging discussions of fees/costs into the exam room. Here are a few, provided by Dr. Chris Lopez of Roberts Eyecare Associates in Vestal, NY.

  • A key point from a sales point of view comes after refraction. Says Dr. Lopez, “If there is a moderate-significant refractive change, I demonstrate the change for the patient using their current prescription and the new one with the phoroptor. That’s a main selling point.”
  • Ask patients about their lifestyle. What recommendations present themselves? Says Lopez: “A prescription is what I deem necessary to provide the patient with the sharpest and most comfortable vision possible. A recommendation is what I think the patient could benefit from but which is not necessary.” ODs are within their rights to make both, he says. Discuss your recommendations as you walk patients to the handoff.
  • Ask all presbyopic patients if they’ve heard about multifocal contact lenses, an option that can get them out of reading glasses or bifocals/PALs. Many Baby Boomers and younger presbyopes are very conscious about their appearance. Being able to solve their near vision problem and helping them look young will make you a hero.
  • Raise the potential benefits of anti-fatigue lenses and daily disposables with appropriate patients during the exam. “With more and more patients reporting eye strain or tired eyes towards the end of the day, anti-fatigue lenses have earned a spot in my patient education armamentarium,” he says. “And I put any young patient (children and teenagers) into a daily disposable contact lens if it’s a new fit. It’s best to start healthy habits from the get go.”
  • “Always. Always. Have I said ALWAYS yet? I always ask patients at the end of the exam if they have any questions for me, or if there is anything that I haven’t answered for them. It gives them an opportunity to express all of their concerns and it allows you to once again educate and solve problems.”

HOW TO OFFER FREEBIES THAT MAKE YOU MONEY

Nancy Revis, Uber Optics, Petaluma, CA

“We are known to have fun free stuff,” says Nancy Revis, owner of Uber Optics in Petaluma, CA. She studied graphic design and marketing, so fun giveaways come naturally. “I had matchboxes made with our logo. Nice pens with our logo. We had beer coozies made that say ‘For your beer goggles.’ We always have fresh red vines and have a kitchen-size fridge full of beer and sparkling water. We have mints and chocolate all over the shop … especially mints because we are all in each other’s faces, so that is important.” Revis isn’t above setting the occasional sugar trap, either: “Now the little kids remember that I have red vines on the coffee table so they drag their parents in when they are walking by. I have totally sold sunglasses from them being dragged through the store for candy.” Selling suns doesn’t get any sweeter.

HOW TO BOOST WORD OF MOUTH BY DELIVERING A ‘WOW’ EYE EXAM

Robert M Easton, Jr, OD, Oakland Park, FL

Dr. Robert Easton in Oakland Park, FL, offers comprehensive eyecare and, when indicated, topography and a wellness OCT at no extra charge. Patients are shown the results in the exam room on flat screen HDTVs. He points out that topography is an excellent way to pick up a range of disorders. And “if a patient has a family history of glaucoma and/or deep cups, and/or high normal eye pressures, I want to be sure their Ganglion Cell Thickness is normal and I’ll run an Optovue Wellness exam. Furthermore, before I refer a patient for cataract surgery or Lasik I run an Optovue Wellness exam to rule out any retinal issues prior to surgery.” He adds that patients are more likely to accept treatment recommendations when he blows up their tests on a flat screen TV. “Because I do this as part of the comprehensive eye exam, I do not charge the patient. Many patients have referred their family members because of our thoroughness.” Business is so good, in fact, Easton doesn’t advertise.

HOW TO MANAGE FIRST TIME PRESBYOPES/PROGRESSIVE WEARERS

Kim Hilgers, Monson Eyecare Center, Owatonna, MN

A “no surprises” approach for first time progressive wearers is advocated by Kim Hilgers at Monson Eyecare Center in Owatonna, MN. Here’s her advice:

  • “I start by explaining that the ground won’t be clear when they look down because the viewing area is only 14-18 inches in the distance. I talk about steps and curbs (and vacuuming) being a challenge. I like to make a drawing to show them the reading area isn’t all the way across the lens.”
  • “The OptiKam has an amazing virtual lens demonstrator that the patient can hold and see more realistically what to expect.”
  • “Varilux Physio and Physio Drx are my go-tos. I’m kind of obsessing about Varilux X series right now for higher presbyopes.”
  • “I would say 95 percent of first-time progressive wearers are first-time presbyopes. I implore my doctors to speak to them about this as early as possible in their journey of presbyopia, to make MY job easier.”

HOW TO FIND/MAKE THE BEST USE OF AN OPTOMETRIC EXTERN

Mark Perry, OD, Vision Health Institute, Orlando, FL

Whereas internships are usually narrowly focused, months-long paid arrangements involving an employment agreement, and specific duties, externships (the word combines “experience” and “internship”) last a day to a few weeks, are unpaid, informal, have no major deliverables and often involve a student shadowing a doctor or simply observing what goes on. Dr. Mark Perry at Vision Health Institute in Orlando, FL offers the following advice to those thinking of bringing one (or more) on board:

  • Be dedicated to the profession, willing to instruct and help them adapt to patient encounters — lead by example!
  • Make sure your office is accommodating (and busy enough) to the optometry school, as well as the student (medical model of practice, latest equipment, etc.).
  • Start with your alma mater — contact the director or manager of the externship programs.
  • Be prepared to spend time with them.
  • Get staff to embrace and engage with the students.
  • Be prepared to learn from them!

HOW TO HANDLE VERY YOUNG CHILDREN

Nikki Griffin and Sara Mabie, OD, EyeStyles Optical and Boutique, Oakdale, MN
Nikki Griffin, owner/optician at EyeStyles Optical and Boutique in Oakdale, MN, fits babies as young as three months, so she knows a thing or two about doing it well. Her advice for opticians:

  • Fit them for now. Not yesterday, not a month from now.
  • If you don’t have the right size, admit it and refer to someone who does. Otherwise you’ll drive those people online.
  • Watch for endpieces that stick out too far.
  • Fit a frame to sit high.
  • Toddler tip: Use two penlights to get a PD. One to shine on their eye and another for them to shine at you.

Lastly, for optometrists looking to work with more kids: “Think like a kid,” advises EyeStyles’ OD, Dr. Sara Mabie. “A toddler might see a symbol of a rotary phone in a turtle. Be flexible — sometimes even getting on the floor for the wiggle worms. Have a variety of bright flashing toys to pull out, not a creepy puppet. Their attention span is short so change objects often. Oh, and keep moving!”

 

HOW TO GIVE AN EDUCATIONAL TALK

Taylor Little, OD, Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs, CO

According to Bob Levoy, author of 201 Secrets of a High Performance Optometric Practice, “the average optometrist has all the qualifications needed to become an effective public speaker. It’s really just an extension of in-office patient education.” By getting on the speaking circuit, you’ll be harnessing the power of your knowledge to bring in new patients. One doctor who’s already using this approach is Dr. Taylor Little at Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs, CO. Dr. Little urges other ODs to:

  • Decide on your expertise and have a direction before you start organizing your lecture.
  • Look for smaller events that need volunteers first.
  • Practice aloud beforehand.
  • Utilize pauses.
  • Choose a way to increase engagement with questions or surveys.

Levoy reminds ECPs not to turn the event into an advertisement. “The optometrist whose only motivation for public speaking is to obtain new patients will come across as self-serving … Establish yourself as an ‘authority,’ not as someone who is ‘looking for business.’”

HOW TO TELL A JOKE

Sometimes the route to “Yes” is through a customer’s funnybone. But before you clear your throat and dust off your knock-knock jokes, here are some thoughts from the guys in white jackets who know how to be funny:

  • Be self-deprecating, but don’t overdo it. In his sales blog at yesware.com, a sales productivity platform, Lou Carlozo counsels that sales humor at your own expense is safe, but don’t make yourself appear incompetent. You can joke about your hairline but don’t undermine your product line. He adds that self-effacing humor builds trust to show the real human being behind the salesperson; it creates a sense of authenticity.
  • Queens, NY-based standup comic Hari Kondabolu had this to say to The New York Times’ tip columnist Malia Wollan on the topic of joke-telling: “People should not be able to telegraph where a joke’s going.’’ Kondabolu says stock or street jokes — the kind you read in a joke compendium — are almost never funny. So, work on your ability to slip jokes naturally into conversation (i.e., don’t start with “Want to hear a joke?”).
  • If you must tell a joke involving an animal, ducks make for the funniest quips, according to a global survey done by scientists at the University of Hertfordshire, Wollan reports.

HOW TO BANISH BAD VIBES

Morgan Bartel, Collins Diamonds, Liberal, KS

Morgan Bartel, the owner of Collins Diamonds in Liberal, KS, told our sister publication INSTORE that “It’s store policy that we have no bad attitudes, conversations regarding politics, religion or anything that could cause any negative vibes. We believe in the law of attraction, which means that whatever thoughts/words we put out there or allow to be said within our store bring about either good or bad feelings. We have given numerous customers the opportunity to step outside and rethink their attitude. Some have immediately changed their tone, while others took their given opportunity, started looking at the bright side and then re-entered our store with a much more positive spirit!”

HOW TO FIRE A CLIENT

Tania Sotelo, Balfour Vision Optix, Brentwood, CA

It’s smart to set and maintain a chain of command and have a policy on what to do with people who disrupt your business. Staff tasked with carrying out the order should make it clear to the patient that it’s the doc’s call, and invoke their name, ideally in a brief conversation or call, but it can be done in an email. “Dr. Smith feels it’s time for you to find a new doctor, as we don’t seem able to meet your needs in our office,” Tania Sotelo of Balfour Vision Optix in Brentwood, CA, says. “We have a letter we mail to them stating we unfortunately have not been able to meet their needs and feel it’s best for us to terminate the business relationship,” she says. “We give them a 30-day notice for emergency services only and offer help finding another doctor if needed.”

HOW TO DEAL WITH A NATURAL DISASTER WITH HEART

Texas Smith, OD, Dr. Texas L. Smith & Associates, Citrus Heights, CA

Northern California’s Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 homes last year. Survivors who made their way to Dr. Texas L. Smith & Associates in Citrus Heights, CA, were seen and given Rxs for free. The idea began when VSP started providing vouchers for eye exams and glasses after the fire. “Several patients came in with the vouchers and I would ask them if anyone in their family needed eyecare,” explained Smith, who later reached out to VSP for more vouchers, and eventually just began providing survivors with needed care and Rxs at no charge. Smith has a history of quietly giving back. He has volunteered eyecare for homeless veterans, which, as a Vietnam vet himself, he says is “a no brainer.” He also volunteers with the VSP Mobile Clinic at Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento. “Optometry has been very good to my family so I need to pay it forward. Just doing my best to make a positive difference,” he says. Fires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, it seems Mother Nature has no shortage of disasters. Are you doing your part?

Continue Reading

Cover Stories

Endings: Owners Share How and Why They Closed the Curtain on Their Eyecare Businesses

No two exit strategies are exactly the same.

mm

Published

on

They say all good things must come to an end. In this industry, we often focus on the numbers when it comes to the sale or closing of a business… What sort of revenue did they have? What kind of deal did the owners get? How much did they sell for? But for business owners, there is an entire emotional and psychological journey when they are exiting the businesses they have poured money, sweat, and often, tears into.

No two exit strategies are exactly the same, and in the following pages we profile four business owners who have transitioned, or are looking to transition, out of ownership. What was their motivation? What did the process look like for them? How did they communicate their exit to their patients and staff? How did leaving their business make them feel? And what do their lives look like post-ownership?

LIFE SOMETIMES HAPPENS

Bryan Finley, LDO | Island Opticians, Palm Beach, FL | DATE CLOSED: May 2016

Bryan and Amie Finley

The original founder of the business, Stuart Villars, worked at Lugene Opticians on Worth Avenue, the luxury-shopping destination in Palm Beach, until they closed unexpectedly. Shortly after, he opened Villars Opticians on Peruvian Avenue, one block north of Worth. The business moved twice, but always stayed on Peruvian. In 2010, Mr. Villars decided it was time to relax a bit, and listed the business for sale. I was living in Oklahoma but saw the listing at a continuing education event I attended for licensing requirements in preparation for a move to Florida. I contacted Mr. Villars about purchasing it but, unfortunately, my then wife wasn’t interested in moving to Palm Beach, even though it was a tremendous opportunity. Mr. Villars sold the business to Christopher Moné, who renamed it Moné Optical Gallery.

After a short time in Florida, my marriage ended and I moved back to Oklahoma. I met Amie and we married. Again, I was looking for work opportunities in Florida when I saw a listing for a Moné Optical Gallery in Palm Beach. I told her: “No way, surely not!” She was excited about the prospect of owning our own business, so we contacted Chris Moné and struck a deal. We took over ownership and re-opened as Island Opticians on our first wedding anniversary, providing independent eyewear to the people of Palm Beach.

Although a bit stressful due to seasonality (Palm Beach has about 2,000 year-round residents but swells to 9,000 in winter), we loved our little 300 sq. ft boutique … But then life started to happen. Three months after opening, one of our daughters told us she was going to have a baby. Then, four months after that, another daughter called with the same news! Suddenly, we were going to have grandkids 1,500 miles away. Not long after the grandkids were born, our parents started having some medical issues. We tried traveling back to Oklahoma frequently to see the kids, grandkids and parents, but eventually we decided it was important and necessary to be near our family on a regular basis, so we made the difficult decision to sell the business after only two years.

We listed the business for sale on several optical forums and sites. After several inquiries, we reached an agreement in principle to sell to an optician, so we finalized all of our moving plans. One month before the sale was to be finalized, our buyer and her financier went in a different direction. Suddenly we had no buyer and no backup plan. With no time left to find a new buyer, we went into liquidation mode. We quickly had mailers printed to send to all of our clients and potential customers, with an aggressive going-out-of-business campaign. Everybody loves a good deal, even affluent people, so we were able to sell the majority of our product in one month. I ended up staying in Palm Beach a few weeks longer than Amie; she had already committed to a start date on a new job.

Since we were an LLC, the transition was fairly simple. We just had to notify the state that we were ceasing operations. As for communicating our plans to employees — no employees, so that was easy!

The first lesson we learned was: Have a good long-term plan and plenty of capital! Realize that starting or selling a business, should the need arise, doesn’t happen quickly; have patience. Be flexible. At the end of the day, integrity is the most important thing you offer as a proprietor.

Our advice for others is to have a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C!

QUICK Q&A

What was your greatest concern about giving up ownership?
Would we recover our investment? Would we ever have such a unique ownership opportunity again? After being owners, could we be happy working for someone else? Can we trust someone else to take care of our long-time clients?

Is there a patient encounter that stands out when they found out?
Many clients called in that last month to express their disappointment. Tears were shed. Mr. Villars, upon hearing the news, called to express how crazy he thought we were, but I think he was mostly sad to see the business close. One client offered to buy the business if we’d stay!

How would you describe the emotions you went through?
It was a bit heartbreaking. I felt like I was letting Mr. Villars down, and I was sad that my “retirement plan” wasn’t going to come to fruition. But we were both excited to spend more time with family.

Would you do anything differently?
I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to sell.

What did you do to help overcome doubt?
We just reminded ourselves of the importance of family, and that things don’t create happiness.

How do you feel about the outcome?
We’re okay with how things have turned out, and plan to return to Florida, but as retirees instead of owners! We miss owning Island Opticians, but there is a certain level of anxiety that comes with ownership that we don’t miss.

Now what?
We tried working in private practice again, but just couldn’t get past knowing how to get things done better than our employers, because we’d been both opticians and owners. So, we decided to become brand ambassadors for some of our favorite independent lines. We still work together and are able to plan our travel schedule around our family activities. We do things a lot differently than most frame reps; we bought an RV that we live and travel our six-state territory in. This way, we’re “home” every night. We’re still technically owners as independent contractors, but have a little less anxiety now!

 

HANDING OVER YOUR BABY

Shimul Shah, OD | Marysville Family Vision, Marysville, OH | DATE SOLD: September 2018

The practice began as an ophthalmology practice. I purchased it in 2012. I practice general optometry and the patient base is very family oriented.

Accepting it was time to end ownership was a slow, painful realization that finally took a friend telling me that I would be just signing up for years of being unhappy and financially unsettled if I didn’t. It took a lot of introspection to realize I wasn’t able to accomplish what I wanted. I am very risk averse when it comes to money, and the one thing you need in growing a business is the ability to invest in it financially.

I had started asking around a little but was not actively looking for an exit strategy. When two different people gave me the same name to reach out to, I thought I should give it a try. I was hesitant to make promises and was willing to hold off until I knew that the practice, patients and my staff would all be treated with care.

A lawyer generated a Memor­andum of Understanding to get my intentions on paper and list what I wanted and was not willing to budge on. An accountant helped come up with a price and negotiate the sale. The biggest help was my family, who served as my sounding board.

Shimul Shah, OD

When it came time to communicate the change, I spoke with each employee and made sure they knew that a part of my agreement with the new owner was their position, the hours they would be working and the pay. I needed them to know it was something I had to do for myself and that I had made every effort to make sure they were taken care of.

We sent emails to all patients letting them know the business was turning a page but the doctor, staff, products and service were not changing. They seem accepting of what has occurred.

One surprise is that I find myself slightly disconnected from the profession at the moment. I went to a conference recently where I found myself wanting to attend and listen to practice management talks but didn’t know how I could implement anything now that it wasn’t my position to worry about those things anymore. I want to refocus on patient care, but changing gears has been challenging.

The process of deciding to give away ownership of something is a grueling one. I had to really think about my life and what I wanted out of it, and whether the good outweighed the bad. I learned on a deeper level what my strengths and weaknesses were and how each contributed to the conversation, and the ultimate decision, to start placing my efforts elsewhere and to pass the practice on to more willing and able hands.

My advice to others is to have good advisers in your corner. Be specific and diligent about what you want, but know that without compromise you will probably never find anyone that’s good enough to take over your “baby.”

QUICK Q&A

What was your greatest concern about giving up ownership?
Being an employee in a space where I’m used to being in charge. Secondly, I was nervous I would lose the passion I’d had for the practice’s success.

Is there a patient encounter that stands out when they found out?
Every encounter I’ve had has been positive and supportive! I don’t think patients care so much about the behind-the-scenes stuff as long as there is continuity of services.

How would you describe the emotions you went through?
I felt a myriad of emotions ranging from failure to anxiety, sadness, and excitement. At times, I felt I was abandoning my patients, staff and Marysville. At others, I felt like I was letting down all the people that had so much faith in me. Now that it’s over, I feel peace, stability and anticipation for the future.

Would you do anything differently? No.

What did you do to help overcome doubt?
I reminded myself that the current situation was unsustainable. I could potentially keep going for another six months, maybe even a year, but ultimately that would just be delaying the peace of mind I was so desperate for.

Are you happy with the outcome? Yes

Now what?
My plans include making more time for traveling, cooking, reading, and spending time with friends and family. I may get involved in the political and legislative branches of optometry and see how I can use my talents to help optometry grow in a different context.

 

PRIVATE PRACTICE TO PRIVATE EQUITY

Carol Record, OD | Drs. Record & Record | Charlottesville, VA | DATE SOLD: February 2016

Steve Record and I graduated from SUNY Optometry in 1982. It was the heyday of extended wear contact lenses and retail optometry was just beginning to advertise for eye exams, eyeglasses and contact lenses. We moved to upstate New York and worked retail optometry as our first jobs. We saw many patients and fit lots of contact lenses. We wanted to work in private practice and eventually own a practice, but not in upstate New York. The population was not growing. We felt we needed to move south to a town that was experiencing growth; preferably a college town.

After exploring established practice opportunities in Virginia, none seemed quite right. Once we accumulated enough capital to open a practice we moved to Charlottesville and opened cold. We opened in August 1983 and were the first in town to advertise our services for eye exams and contact lenses. Looking back, it is hard to believe we survived and actually made enough to pay our bills. Fortunately, we were able to live off the income we made from optometric employment and both had part time jobs working one hour away. Within five years we gave up all outside employment.

Our practice grew from zero patients, to two offices, four doctors, and over twenty employees. We embraced medical eyecare, added new equipment each year, and were fortunate to experience growth every year we were in practice.

Before we knew it, our children graduated college and we were advised that we had enough money saved to retire whenever we wanted. We were in our late 50s. I still had the mindset of growing the practice, perhaps adding an additional location, but Steve wanted to retire and I did not want to do it alone. We sought the advice of Al Cleinman of Cleinman Performance Partners to map out our options. We learned there were fewer buyers able to purchase a large practice as a whole. The better option was to sell each location. We were also informed it usually takes a few years to sell, so we retained him to help us transition our practice.

Selling a practice takes time and there are lots of facets to it. Finding a buyer willing to provide a fair deal is perhaps the hardest part. Legal and accounting documents will be needed. Will you work for the new owner? For how long? What will your employment contract look like? What will you do with the real estate? We were lucky to have an unsolicited offer from MyEyeDr that we could not walk away from. Cleinman, having brokered many practice sales, knows a good offer from a bad one and advised us as such. He also walked us through the details, along with our attorney, financial planner and accountant. From the time we decided to look for a buyer to the time we actually sold took about 2.5 years and MyEyeDr purchased all the assets.

We have many colleagues who are transitioning their practice. In all cases, the employees are informed of the sale of the practice once it is definite that the deal will go through. In our case, we informed our employees one month prior to closing. Since Steve and I were employed by MyEyeDr, MyEyeDr informed our patients of our new affiliation. As it came closer to the time when I would retire, I thanked my patients, hugged them and told them it would be the last time I saw them professionally. Often it was my retired patients who said “You can’t retire. Who am I going to see for eyecare?” Most patients thanked me for their care and congratulated me.

I consult with doctors at least once a month about practice transitions. The first thing I tell them is “no matter who you sell your practice to, your practice will change.” Second, I inform them that “the best deal for your practice is the deal that is best for you.” Everybody’s situation is different. The longer you work in the practice after the sale, the more valuable the practice is.

For the doctor who is unsure they should sell their practice I’d ask first, “What do you plan to do after? Will you continue to work? Will you change careers?” If you plan to retire I can assure you, you will be surprised at how busy you will be. Volunteer opportunities abound. New hobbies and games are ready for you to explore. New friendships will form, and the extra free time you now have will let you experience life’s moments with greater joy and enthusiasm.

QUICK Q&A

How would you describe the emotions you went through during the process?
I was consumed by worry about giving up control… but I found it quite liberating to see patients and go home. Once I left the office, work was behind me.

Would you have done anything differently?
I speak at Cleinman’s Practice Transitions Conference and have learned a lot about transitioning a practice. There are various options you and your new owner may have that I was unaware of. This type of meeting did not exist when I sold. I wished it had. The transition will go a lot smoother if you allow someone who has experience in practice transitions help you.

What did you do to help overcome doubt?
I reminded myself that the business of health care was changing and eyecare was no exception. Colleagues I respected and considered good businessmen were also selling their practices to private equity. Health care professionals may not think of their practices as businesses, but they are and business models change.

Are you happy with the outcome?
If you are anything like me, your practice is something you are very proud of. It is very emotional to give up what you have taken years to build, you want to be sure your patients will be cared for the way they need to be taken care of. Fortunately, the next generation of optometrists are very bright and take very good care of patients. Throughout the sale process, even up until the last week, I wondered if I was making the right decision. My husband encouraged me it was the right thing to do. Now, I am so happy I sold.

How are you spending your time post-ownership?
I have been fortunate to continue my optometric affiliations by serving as secretary treasurer of AOA’s Optometry Cares Board, co-chairing the HEHC community grant program, speaking on optometry topics, and up until last fall, serving on the disbanded Essilor Advisory Board. Not a day goes by however, where I don’t think about starting a venture to bring new optometric services to the members of my community.

 

LEAVING A LEGACY

Michael Cohen, OD | Four County Family Eye Care Center, Winslow Township, NJ | Sold business: TBD

our County Family Eye Care Center opened on Sept. 11, 1973 in the Winslow Professional Center of Tansboro/ Berlin/ Winslow Township, NJ, three months after I graduated from Pennsylvania College of Optometry. My father, Dr. Philip Cohen, learned about the center from a patient of his who was friendly with the building’s owner. We decided it looked like a good place to open a new optometric practice, signed a lease, and began planning to lay out and equip the office.

My wife and I made address labels on a typewriter and had announcement cards printed. We mailed out thousands of cards and on the day we opened, I prayed for good business. In those days, if I saw one or two patients a day, I considered myself lucky. I spent most of my time watching General Hospital and writing a digest for my wife, who was keeping us afloat teaching at a local school. I grossed $33,000 that first year. No insurance. No credit cards. Cash only. I made patients’ glasses by hand in my optical lab.

A couple years later, the owner lost the building in a bankruptcy. I decided to look for real estate to purchase and build a new office on. A patient and local realtor, Ursula Christinzio, found me a location nearby; a vintage 1850s farm house sitting on 1.5 acres on the highway at an intersection with a county road. I opened Four County Family Eye Care Center on June 1, 1979.

I’ve been in optometric practice in Winslow Township for 45 years offering comprehensive eye exams, diagnosis and treatment, and contact lens and eyeglass fitting. We counsel patients about LASIK and do the follow-up care, treat glaucoma, and make referrals to many ophthalmic sub-specialists in the region. I have three full-time staff and three part-time. My office manager started working for me at 17 years old; she is now 47. People tend to stay on for years; it is better to pamper your staff and keep them happy, than it is to abuse them, lose them, and train new people!

Michael Cohen, OD

I realized it was time to think about ending my ownership and retiring when my wife informed me that she hates the cold and would like to spend winters in a warmer clime. Also, I noticed that most of my patients my age are now retired and very few of my peers were alive and well and still running their own practices.

My ideal exit strategy would be to find an honest, talented, skilled, clever, caring, and compassionate OD who would be willing to purchase both the real estate and my practice and allow me the luxury of still seeing patients.

I worry that, if my staff get wind that I am thinking about retiring, they will look for employment elsewhere. Hiring and training staff is costly, time-consuming, and fraught with peril. Also, is it fair to hire someone when you are planning on leaving? When I have confirmation I am throwing in the towel, I’ll meet with my employees and lay my cards on the table.

I lead a very busy life now. Selling my property, as well as my practice, is time-consuming. I’ve spoken to a number of professional practice brokers, all of whom concur my gross revenue does not justify them getting involved. They all said I should sell it myself and I would like to continue seeing patients for two more years, provided my health holds up.

Every day, my long-time patients query me about my plans. I’ve been honest with them. I’d love to slow down but I don’t see any way out. Everyone encourages me to stay on … then they tell me how much they enjoy their retirement. My advice to other ODs looking to transition out of ownership is to try and build a business that has sufficient gross revenue to justify a professional broker skilled at doing all of the things that I must now do myself.

QUICK Q&A

How would you describe the emotions you are experiencing as you begin this process?
I am feeling quite inadequate to meet this challenge. I have a fear of failure.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently to prepare for this?
I did it my way! I have always been true to myself, my family, my staff, my patients/friends. If I have to turn off the lights, lock the doors, and not look back, I really have no regrets. I’ve helped a great many people over the years.

What do you do to help overcome doubt?
I talk to friends who are older than I am and find out how they were able to live so long and so well. I attend religious services weekly to meditate through prayer. I’ve discovered that Tai Chi and Quigong help me divest myself of my monkey brain. I call this my standing meditation. I occasionally use a therapist friend to bounce ideas off, when I cannot seem to move a big rock that is blocking my progress.

What would make you happiest with the final outcome?
I would love to see someone take the baton and run with it after I am gone.

How do you plan on spending your retirement?
Workout at the gym ten hours a week, travel to new places, spend time with my children and grandchildren and maybe spoil them a bit. Find people less fortunate and extend a helping hand. Go to synagogue on Saturday mornings, read the classics, watch great shows, eat great food at the best restaurants, and take in some Broadway shows now and then.

Continue Reading

Cover Stories

Escape From Insurance: Words of Wisdom From Eyecare Practices That Made the Leap

They left managed care and went to private pay.

mm

Published

on

If you feel you’ve reached a point in your practice where you no longer want to be held captive by the low-margin traffic generated by insurers, you may be wondering how to break free. We reached out to eyecare businesses to find out what steps they took to throw off the shackles of dependency on vision plans. None of these tips will work unless you’re able to engender patient loyalty — and you don’t need us to tell you where that comes from ­— but here are eight tips to help you plot your escape from insurance.

1 Secure sources of self-pay patients that continue to deliver. Buena Vista Optical in Chicago, IL, is taking what co-owner Diana Canto-Sims calls “pro-active baby steps to transition away from vision plans.” After they run quarterly reports of the vision plans with the lowest reimbursement, they’re on the way to finding self-pay patients to replace those patients the next quarter. Among the places they have found them are career days at local schools — they send every student home with information including a package of exam and glasses for first-time patients with no vision plan — and collaborations with organizations that reach out to the uninsured, such as the consulates of Latin American countries. (Buena Vista has a fully bilingual staff). “These organizations are very appreciative that we collaborate with them and they send us self-pay patients weekly,” she says.

2 Brace for a pre-cutoff influx; remind patients to check their medical coverage. Whelan Eye Care in Bemidji, MN, quit taking VSP almost two years ago. Bridgett Fredrickson warns ECPs that there will be patients that get upset. “We are honest and tell them to check with their medical insurance as it may cover their exam as well, or they are always welcome to self-pay and we give them a 20% discount for same-day payment. Remember, she says, that you will need to send all of the current households a letter letting them know that you are no longer going to be accepting their insurance with an effective date and they need to receive the letter at least 30 days before that effective date. “With this, expect an influx of patients that want to get in before that date,” she says.

3 Phase your plans out. Dr. Robert Easton Jr. has had a solo practice in Oakland Park, FL, for 37 years. One year his CPA told him “that since I was providing comprehensive eyecare, my vision plan base was increasing faster than my major medical, PPO and Medicare patient base. We were concerned that vision plans were taking over my practice, which could eventually put me out of business.” After careful analysis, Easton eliminated the three lowest-paying plans first and kept the other two as a cushion. As the other two continue to become more corporate in nature and their low reimbursements fail to meet his cost of doing business, Easton plans to eliminate those one at a time.

4 Get your team up to speed. Jenna Gilbertson says dropping VSP was the best decision McCulley Optix Gallery in Fargo, ND, ever made. However, she cautions, “Before you ever send the termination letter to the insurance company, have a plan in place. Make sure all staff is on board. Have scripts for what to say. And have a plan for your patients. Be over-prepared for every situation. We ran role-plays with our staff, and had them think of all the questions a patient might ask.” They marked everyone who was pre-appointed on the schedule. They then went through each of those patients to see who had a calendar year plan, and called those patients, explained the situation, and rescheduled them for before our termination date. Yes, it meant the doctor had to work extra days and times, “but it was totally worth it to make those patients happy,” she says.

5 Keep a list of complaints about the plan you’re dropping. Last year Focus Eye Care in Hackensack, NJ, made the decision to jettison Davis Vision. Prior to this, the largest employer in the area had switched from VSP to Davis, while a big-box retail chain associated with the latter began advertising discounts. Before Focus could make the split it endured a period in which patients had a long list of complaints about jobs that were now going through Davis. Managing licensed optician Vlad Cordero took notes: “We used the list of complaints to train our front desk and optical staff on how to handle objections when Davis members call in to schedule an appointment or inquire about eyewear.”

6 Find a niche, or team up with an OD who has one. “The most important key to dropping insurance is having a niche,” says Dr. Pauline Buck, a vision therapy specialist at Behavioral and Developmental Optometrists in Miami, FL. “I was building that practice up while slowly dropping off insurance panels.” Next is the hard part. “You really need to get out into the community and speak about your specialty. I host quarterly lectures with dinner in my office for other professionals… The cost of the dinner is offset by a single referral.” Finally, “for non-optometric professionals who would like to break the bonds of insurance I highly recommend approaching specialists and seeing how your services can help them… I refer out 80 percent of my glasses prescriptions,” she says.

7 Help patients collect out-of-network benefits. The Visionary in Allen Park, MI, took a long look at their profit margin with EyeMed and decided it was time to split. They knew they had patient loyalty on their side. And, says Annette Prevaux, “We make it easy for patients to get their OON reimbursements by having the forms ready when they come in.” She expects to keep about 60 percent of her EyeMed patients.

8 Switch to independent brands; consider an OON service. Krystal Vision in Logan, UT, is in the process of dropping most vision plans. According to Travis LeFevre, being insurance-free goes hand-in-hand with carrying independent brands. “It’s an easy jump to make once you look at your margins while taking insurance compared to cash pay and filing a simple claim for the patient out of network,” he says. He cautions that “creative marketing is a must to stay relevant after dropping managed plans.” And after initially being unimpressed, Krystal Vision now uses Patch, an “online insurance assistant” that helps ECPs and patients negotiate out-of-network benefits and claim them digitally. LeFevre says Patch is now offering a better product than it did three or four years ago. “It allows us to know the exact amount of a customer’s OON benefits for their vision insurance. It gives us a breakdown … depending on the plan and insurer. Another useful part of Patch is the ability to accept payment for VSP and Cigna claims; this allows us to give the patient the reimbursement savings up front rather than making them wait [for the] check in the mail.”

Continue Reading

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Subscribe


BULLETINS

Get the most important news and business ideas for eyecare professionals every weekday from INVISION.

Facebook

Most Popular