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FORTUNE FAVORS BUSINESSES that can adapt their models and technologies to evolving economic and social conditions, booms and busts, fads and phases. But how many industries offer the small business owner so many potential new directions, so many personal and professional opportunities, so many chances for renewal, as this one?

At INVISION, we’re constantly nudging ECPs, suggesting new possibilities and pushing them to consider new approaches, be they in the form of business ideas, management and marketing tips, new products and services, technological advances or educational opportunities. So we thought it was high time to recognize some eyecare businesses that have accepted the challenge and struck out in bold new directions.

We reached out to our readers for stories of reinvention and they didn’t let us down: A change of ownership at an optometric practice ushers in a slate of specialty services and galvanizes the team; a well-timed phone call leads to the owners of two longstanding competitors becoming partners in mere months; a decision to tackle a neglected niche has an entire team of doctors and opticians learning to shoot; an optical business’s decision to add another location sets off a chain reaction resulting not only in a third office, but also new lab and management tools; a well traveled OD used to medically-oriented environments throws himself into the world of high-end optical and personalized eyecare, transforming his life in the process.

There’s much to be learned from the following five tales of reinvention; we know you’ll find them as inspiring as we did.

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Eyes on Plainville / Plainville, MA ‘Smack dab in the middle
of a metamorphosis.’

When it changed hands in October 2021, one of the first innovations introduced at Attleboro Vision Care by new owner Dr. Sabrina Gaan was a name change to more accurately reflect its location in Plainville, a small town to the north of Providence, RI, just across the Massachusetts state line. But what started with a new name has since blossomed into a comprehensive transformation as Gaan brings with her an entirely new vision for the office, now Eyes on Plainville.

To start with, according to optical manager Christine Howard, the switch from male to female ownership resulted in an almost immediate difference in the office’s overall look, “thanks to having a woman’s touch.” Gaan’s goal is to create a boutique-style optical alongside an optometry practice that offers the newest technology and specialty services such as Ortho-K contacts and state-of-the-art dry eye treatments like iLux and BlephEx. “We are also expanding our products and services to include optometrist-approved makeup and treatments in our Brow Bar, like eyebrow threading and microblading.” The optical side is undergoing a gradual shift from a heavy collection of conservative consignment frames to a bolder, edgier collection of luxury brands.

The changes reflect the very distinct personalities of the former and current doctor-owners. “Their practices are an extension of those personalities,” Howard says. She describes previous owner Dr. Joseph Russo as “very much a small town, friendly guy-next-door type who is happy with the classic and simple things in life. Dr. Gaan has a love of fashion and a thirst for knowledge and she keeps her finger on the pulse of the optical industry.”

Given that stark difference, the initial response from both clients and staff was shock. “No one saw it coming — no pun intended,” says Howard. “As with any change, there has certainly been some stress, but I will say we’re starting to find our groove.” She says she’s been forced to think and approach problems in a new way and to “use parts of my brain that maybe haven’t been exercised in a while.” Reassuringly, the response from the patient base has been overwhelmingly positive. And the sudden influx of new technology, equipment and frame lines has proven equally exhilarating for both patients and staff.

For Howard’s part, the change has also resulted in some unexpected — and welcome — reflection on how deeply she had settled into her comfort zone. “This shake-up was a wake-up and has helped reinvigorate my passion for the eyecare industry,” Howard says, adding that the biggest challenge has been changing her routine. “I tend to be a creature of habit and would sometimes do things the old way, not out of resistance or defiance of the change, but just because I was on autopilot. It has been rewarding though to see the success that we have had because of the changes implemented. It’s exciting to see what you hoped would happen actually pan out.”

One of Howard’s main takeaways from the change of ownership is the realization that while change can be hard, it’s important to not be too resistant to it. “I believe that if you’re open to the changes, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.” That said, she stresses the importance of maintaining an open dialogue with all parties involved about what is and isn’t working so that problems can be addressed and the process made smoother. She adds: “And finally, I find it valuable to share the ‘Why?’ behind the change. If change is being forced in a ‘because I said so’ kind of way, I believe resistance is more likely.”

For all the challenges, Howard finds being “smack dab in the middle of a metamorphosis” rewarding and exciting. “I understand that change is expected with a new owner, but with the same staff and the same patient base to experience those changes it’s really exciting to see the shift.”

Fava & Maria Eye Associates / Lebanon, PA‘We are quickly
becoming experts …’

Fava & Maria Eye Associates has had its share of revamps over the years, moving locations in the 1980s and undergoing a major renovation in the late ’90s. But those were minor in comparison to the genuine transformation the practice has recently embarked on — not just another significant facelift, but the successful addition of a lucrative and growing niche, providing specialty eyewear for marksmen, clay shooters and hunters. The step has involved not only bringing in new eyewear and lenses but also significant training for all staff to get them up to speed on the needs of this market. And with word of mouth now taking off, they’re seriously glad they did.

The practice has always been careful to continually update its technology and training, but taking a look around the office not long ago the team was forced to admit that its décor had not kept pace. In optical coordinator Miguel Rodriguez’s blunt assessment, “We did not look the part.” So, with the help of Pennsylvania-based optical design firm EyeDesigns and a local contractor the practice comprehensively updated its look, repurposing unused waiting room space, moving reception and making the optical dispensary brighter and more inviting. “Now,” says Rodriguez, “we look the part.” According to him, the staff love working in a fresh new environment and clients have offered “nothing but positive feedback.”

But the team’s new ideas didn’t stop at the layout of the office. Nestled in the sprawling countryside of rural Lebanon County in central Pennsylvania, Fava & Maria is surrounded by hunting and fishing spots, as well as all sorts of gun clubs and shooting ranges. It was decided that this was a market that needed to be tapped. According to Rodriguez, “This decision was not taken on lightly but once made, we went all in.”

Like any hobby or sport, shooting presents its own unique visual challenges, especially for presbyopes. The practice’s optometrist researched the best distances for open site handguns, open site rifles, laser, red dot scopes and hunting scopes, while Rodriguez led the opticians in developing the best lenses for each discipline and learning how to take specific measurements, PDs and focal lengths. The practice owner, ophthalmologist Dr. Mark Maria, went a step further, taking the entire team out to a shooting range where an instructor trained them to shoot sporting clays and all kinds of handguns, giving them a broad knowledge of the different types of sites and their different visual needs.

“We brought in Wiley X frames for police, tactical and even sports glasses and RE Ranger for our sporting clay needs,” says Rodriguez, adding that the partnership with RE Ranger has really paid off, its website driving custumers in from two hours away. “Word is spreading amongst the sporting clay enthusiasts,” he says, adding that “we are quickly becoming experts in the prescription shooting glasses field.” A decision to offer free shooting glasses to their instructor paid off big time: He shot 50 out of 50 clays for the first time. And the team’s crash course in specialty frames, tint colors and best focal points occasionally yields unexpected results. “One gun shop owner, a presbyope, also shoots pool in a league. His progressive lenses were driving him crazy. And rightfully so, figuring the best line of attack. We created an SV pair of glasses for shooting pool. Another niche we will be filling.”

An industry veteran, Rodriguez has been in optical since the late 1980s, contributing to success stories in discount opticals, big chain opticals and private practices. One thing, he says, has held true everywhere: “Even though we are all in business to make money, if that is the only reason for doing something it will probably not do well. If you are meeting a need, delivering a better product or result and most of all benefiting the client with your product, expertise or service, you will succeed.” To him, Fava & Maria’s recent transformation exemplifies this philosophy. He points out that the practice does not take any managed vision care, yet is well above national benchmarks in all categories. “We have never paid incentives, so our opticians sell the products to our patients because it is the best thing for their visual and eye health needs. Our opticians are ABO-certified in an unlicensed state. Our practice pays for our continued education so we can stay on top of the newest and latest in the field. So when we took on the shooting glasses it was not just another thing to sell. We took it on so we could help this group of people with their specific needs in the best way possible while proving ourselves as experts in this field as well.”

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Spectacular Eyewear + Eyeglass House / Plainview, NY‘Four months later we
were 50/50 partners.’

For many years, Joseph Lerner and Jodie Feist were friendly rival optical owners in the hamlet of Plainview, NY, in Oyster Bay on Long Island’s North Shore. They first met each other at a product presentation about seven years ago and got along, as Lerner recalls, as “very cordial competitors.” Both businesses were well established — Lerner’s Eyeglass House had been around for 30 years and Feist’s Spectacular Eyewear for 15, approaching the point where many owners would be thinking of working out an exit strategy.

While neither was looking to retire, both were feeling the stress of running a business and open to changes that might ease some of that pressure. Ultimately it was Feist who made the first move. “Two days before New York was shut down for COVID, Jodie called me and came right out and asked if I ever thought about merging my business,” says Lerner. “I was intrigued so I said, ‘Sure, let’s talk.’ Four months later we were 50/50 partners.”

He remembers the decision as being easy to make, because he and Feist ran their businesses in a very similar way. And given that they were basically closed due to COVID, they had plenty of time to discuss all the intricacies of merging the two businesses. Both partners had pretty simple and clear motivations for moving ahead with the plan. Says Lerner, “Business got hard; two is better than one. It gave us some days off and help in decision-making and the duties of running a business.” Feist was chiefly looking for a better work-life balance.

When it came time to execute, the first thing they did was to compare the businesses financially. Then they discussed which location they would use (it was agreed that Eyeglass House would squeeze into Feist’s location) and how they would keep their employees. A partnership agreement was written up detailing how they would make decisions.

Pre-merger, Eyeglass House was attended by one OD one or two days a week, and employed two state-licensed opticians, while Spectacular Eyewear had one employee and an OD one or two days a week, so both Lerner and Feist had to make some adjustments to the larger scale of the new operation. According to Feist, “Having a much larger business and learning how to navigate staffing, purchasing, having proper systems in place and yet still trying to grow and become better,” was intimidating at first. Lerner says working with more people was his chief challenge in those early days, and admits to some trepidation about whether he would fit in with Feist’s employees. “I didn’t want to come in as a pushy new boss.”

In the end, though, he was surprised at how well everyone got along.

Lerner admits that having control of everything was something he had to learn to let go of — even though that was a reason for the merger in the first place. Feist concurs: “It was an adjustment in the beginning running all decisions past another person. We soon learned that even though some things were different, the other person may have had a better way, so it was all for the good.” Because Lerner and his team were the ones moving to a new location, they faced the additional challenge of adjusting to a new POS system and new layout, but he says that other than that, the resulting business is “very close to a true hybrid,” operating as a single commercial entity but with both brands preserved and maintaining their identities in the store and in the business’s online presence.

For both partners, the benefits of the merger have been as much personal as professional. “A reward for me,” says Lerner, “is the new enthusiasm I found in myself. I have new people to learn from and share what I know [with]. I like having someone to discuss and share business decisions with.” Adds Feist: “I agree. I have an excitement for business and going into work again. I also love not having to make every decision on my own and having someone I trust to bounce things off of. We make better decisions now working as a team and thinking through options.”

One of the most gratifying aspects of the merger has been that all employees not only kept their jobs, but according to Lerner “were pleased to take on this new challenge and rose above and beyond what we could have expected. We made our fantastic OD a minority partner as well. Everyone gets along fantastically and the business is doing better than we had planned. All in all, a silver lining. Gold actually.”

Asked for his main takeaway from the experience, Lerner doesn’t hesitate: “Bury your ego. Two hearts are better than one.”

Eye Designs / Scarsdale, Armonk AND Mamaroneck, NY‘Everyone waspushed
to their limits
 …’

Anyone who runs an optical shop knows that changes are tough. Small changes, like switching the brand of coffee in your Keurig, can seem monumental to your staff. Still, sometimes you just have to rip the band-aid off. That challenge presented itself to mother-son tandem Sharon and Harris Decker of Eye Designs this past winter.

It all began with the search for a new store. For many years they had been on the hunt for a new location to add to two successful locations in Westchester County, about 30 minutes north of New York City. The debate always came back to:

Where are there customers similar to those near their current locations that are underserved when it comes to unique, high-end eyewear?

A location in the Bronx was seriously considered but ultimately rejected; it wasn’t until a few years later that another opportunity appeared. Harris was ready, and Eye Designs of Mamaroneck was born.

Acquring a business is a large undertaking for any partnership. But the Deckers weren’t done yet.

The next decision to make was where finishing work would be done. With three stores, two fully equipped with a lab, it was important to synergize this process. The Scarsdale location was chosen, but there was a major space constraint.

The Scarsdale lab was about 100 square feet — fine for a single person and a Santinelli edger, but to handle the workload for the three locations, Eye Designs would need not only additional staff, but more edging power. Behind the wall of the lab sat a sparsely used office and storage room measuring 320 square feet. On the same day the paperwork was signed in Mamaroneck, the walls started coming down in Scarsdale.

Given the scale of these two huge tasks, everyone was soon pushed to their limits. “We were literally working on eyeglasses on one side of the wall while nail guns and hammers were heard on the other. Space was tighter than ever, as anyone who’s done major renovations can attest.”

Still, there was one more hitch in the plan. The new location in Mamaroneck did not use a modern optical management program and the stores in Armonk and Scarsdale were unhappy after many years with theirs. The time was perfect to make a change, and staff took the lead.

EyeCloud was the business’s platform of choice and after signing up and understanding Eye Designs’ deadlines, they came through and worked with staff to get all inventory and patient data transferred over. “Our staff worked extra hard, staying late, through the sawdust and hammers, to learn a brand new system in just four weeks. By the time the paint dried in the brand new lab, all three stores were up and running on EyeCloud and the transformation was complete,” recalls Harris.

Undertaking a task of this magnitude seemed a little crazy at the time and looking back, Harris concedes that it might have been overly ambitous. Still, it has already paid dividends. The lab is now running about 70% faster than it used to with two full-time lab technicians at the helm, and the new optical management system allows the business to book appointments across all three stores and share inventory levels while giving the Deckers a bird’s eye view of what’s happening.

Most importantly, their new store in Mamaroneck is off to an amazing year. “After a paint job and some minor renovations and inventory overhaul, Eye Designs of Mamaroneck has joined the family,” shares Harris. And family is something he and Sharon know all about.

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Urban Eyecare / Phoenix, AZ‘A reinvention
of my self.’

By the time he opened Urban Eyecare in downtown Phoenix in late 2017, Dr. Jason Klepfisz had practiced eyecare in a range of settings. At school he did two Indian Health Service rotations in remote areas, followed by a yearlong residency at an HIS hospital in New Mexico. Upon returning to Phoenix, where he had studied, he worked at a large multilocation medical practice serving primarily as the gatekeeper to a large HMO for the area. It was a terrific learning experience, but the years in a medical-oriented practice took their toll, leaving him drained, overworked and underpaid. “There were a lot of unhappy people, both with their insurance company and often times what was going on in their lives. People weren’t happy to see me and it felt more like a forced marriage. It wears on you over time.” And while optometry school had prepared him for medically oriented patient care, he knew nothing about eyewear.

He had some ideas, though — the practice of his dreams had begun to take shape in his mind. What he wanted was to be his own boss and open an optometric practice that was differentiated from others, but not in terms of a medical specialty.

“I believed there was room to claw back eyewear sales from new age competitors by offering different and better products. All independent brands, from avant-garde to luxury and everything in between. I dreamed of a practice that more resembles a luxury retail store than a doctor’s office and service that mimicked the hospitality industry. All in all, I wanted a practice that could attract clients just by existing, and we did this through architecture, product selection, and branding.”

Thinking back on his opening, Klepfisz mainly recalls being scared … of everything. He had never designed an office, never worked in an optically focused practice before, never dealt directly with vision insurance plans. And from a practice standpoint, the change was significant. A doctor used to a disease-heavy senior patient population suddenly found himself with a demographic that skewed to 25- to 42-year-old mothers. There were moments when he questioned his decision to leave a good job. What he was hearing from other ODs didn’t help: mostly, complaints about decreasing reimbursements, vision plans, automated down-coding, online eyewear sales. Interestingly, it was in optician-focused eyewear groups and luxury eyewear forums that he found encouragement. “These folks have figured out how to sell eyewear for cash money without taking vision discount plans. This is what most optometrists dream of.”

Klepfisz stayed positive, reminding himself that 98% of OD practices succeed, and tried to stay flexible. Self-identifying as “a bit neurotic,” he made changes almost daily for the first few years in everything from language to patient flow and sales flow. Over time, by investing in the business via branding, training and office culture, Klepfisz and his team created the kind of environment that draws in patients and essentially serves as its own primary marketing tool.

“It’s difficult to predict how people will react to changes, so just make them,” he advises. “The only guaranteed way to fail is to not adapt to the changing healthcare and retail environment.” One lesson he has learned is that the answer to a given problem is usually right under your nose. “Patients tend to tell us what they want. Staff tend to as well. One of the best decisions and most difficult was to stop looking at the books constantly and stop worrying about money.”

Urban Eyecare’s main goal for patients shifted during the pandemic from merely providing eyecare to: “How can we improve this person’s day?” The approach has borne fruit, based on referrals and positive reviews. The business is now firmly focused on growth. “I have tried to create a concept not tied to a doctor but to an experience. We will attempt to replicate the patient experience in a second location soon. We have also decided to stay on top of trends and bring in new eyewear brands more frequently.”

For Klepfisz, opening his private practice was nothing less than “a reinvention of my self.” He urges peers looking to embark on a similar journey to “just do it. Start small and try new things. To this day we continue to implement changes constantly, adopting what works well and throwing the rest to the curb. You’re either growing or you’re shrinking, and we prefer growth. We still go against the grain, and I believe that has served us for the better.”

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 23 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at [email protected].

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