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Best of the Best

This California Lens Lab Has an Inspiring Recovery Story

They were burned to the ground in last year’s wildfires. Six months later, they’re thriving.

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SOMETIMES, THE THINGS that make you the best of the best are born of tragic necessity. On Nov. 8, 2018, the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century, raged through the Northern California town of Paradise, destroying it entirely. Eighty-six people died in the blaze, which destroyed more than 18,000 structures. Among them was Paradise Lens Lab, which the day before had just celebrated its seventh anniversary.

THE FIRE

“I was headed to work a little before 7am,” recalls owner Gary Bates of that day. “It was a clear day but off to the side, where the sun was coming up over the hill I could see either clouds or smoke around the sun.” After about an hour at work, Bates headed to a lookout point 200 yards away. “The flames … were racing up the hill towards the back of the lab.”

A brief discussion about what they might be able to save was soon abandoned. “The Fire Department was telling people it was time to run.” There were five staff including Bates working that day; all got out, but all lost their homes. A few days later it was confirmed that the building and all its equipment was lost.

The rebuilt Paradise Lens Lab in Chico, CA. ‘It took us about three weeks to get our first edger and start the buildout,’ says owner Gary Bates.

THE REBUILD

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That weekend, Bates and wife Tammy’s first thought was to move to Oregon. “But we just decided we had too many people relying on us. We had to give it a shot. That day we were out looking for commercial real estate” in Chico, CA, 15 miles west of Paradise.

Already reeling from the loss of his business, a second shock followed: “I thought I was insured fully, you know, rookie business owner.” Bates’ insurer informed him that on the $400,000 worth of equipment and stock he’d lost, he was covered for just $3,500. Help was at hand, however. Prior to opening Paradise Lens Lab, Bates, who’s been in the optical industry since 1989, had worked at Coburn Technologies. He was able to marshal some contacts there to get some edgers delivered within a matter of weeks. Later, Satisloh came through with a donation of brand new digital equipment. And a group of local doctors he does a lot of work for gave Bates $50,000 to help him start back up. “The generosity and kindness was amazing right after the fire,” he says. Most importantly, Bates’ customer base came through, pledging to stay with him.

Not everyone was so helpful, though. According to Bates, one major industry player “actually tried to poach my business. They went into all my shops, and promised them all this awesome pricing to ‘help them out.’”

Thankfully, things moved fast. “It took us about three weeks to get our first edger and start the buildout.” He was able to take some customers back almost immediately, though some were asked to be a little patient, as he didn’t want to underserve anyone. “Within a month and a half we were able to get them all back and provide excellent service for them all.”

THE POSITIVES

Many in this situation would see it as an insurmountable setback. But the Bateses have been rewarded for their determination. He says that whereas before Paradise Lens relied on conventional surfacing, with the new equipment, they can now process digital freeform lenses. Amazingly, business is actually up about 32 percent from before the fire. “We’ve gotten more customers; people have reached out to us wanting to give us their business.” And while they still live in their travel trailer, because of a post-fire housing shortage, they’re philosophical. “At least we have a travel trailer,” Bates says.

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The rebuild at Paradise is now fully finished. “We’ve been complete for about three months now. It took us just a little over three months to build out and get all the equipment, get everybody trained and up to date,” he says.

PHOTO GALLERY (13 Images)

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at heath@smartworkmedia.com.

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Best of the Best

Let This Texas OD Tell You About a Way to Serve Underprivileged Patients in Your Area

Helping kids see has never been easier.

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IT’S A SIMPLE, sad fact that in this country millions of children are dependent on charitable organizations, and the doctors who work with them, for their vision exams and eyewear. On the local level, many practices encounter community members in need, and even if the ODs are willing to donate their time, providing the hardware — like frames, lenses and finishing —is a hurdle that is hard to overcome. Luckily, there are resources to tackle just this problem, and doctors making the most of them, like Dr. Jerry Gundersheimer, owner of Eye-Do Optical in Sherman, TX.

THE IDEA

Gundersheimer has been a member of the Sherman Noon Lions Club for 25 years, and has been providing free eye exams and eyeglasses to needy schoolchildren in Grayson County, Texas for the vast majority of that time. His optical manager, Albert Yougas, got wind of the Changing Life Through Lenses Program from the non-profit Essilor Vision Foundation (EVF) via Eye Do’s Essilor rep (you don’t have to be an Essilor customer to join the program; see below). This created an opportunity for the club to save the expense of the lenses, frames and lens finishing, the cost of which is now picked up by EVF. They have been doing so for at least six months now.

THE EXECUTION

The partnership has been highly successful, according to Gundersheimer, who has seen about a hundred kids or so since it began. With its help, he has also been seeing adults on behalf of the Sherman Evening Lions Club. “The Essilor Vision Foundation has been a dream come true for us. They are so easy to work with. The lenses they provide are of superior optical quality, too.”
According to Gundersheimer, Essilor will walk you through the steps it takes to send the glasses in for Rx-ing. “It’s a no-brainer,” he says.
EVF also has programs for optician-owned boutiques, including See Kids Soar, an in-office donation campaign that gives optical staff the tools they need to raise funds for underprivileged kids who are going without eyecare.

THE REWARDS

“As optometrists,” says Gundersheimer, “we took an oath to make certain that no individual in our community lacked for proper vision care.” The Changing Life Through Lenses program, he says, “helps each of us to fulfill that portion of our oath.” He adds that it has created goodwill for his practice throughout his community via word-of-mouth, and the satisfaction that comes from serving those we live with who can’t otherwise afford their vision care needs.
Gundersheimer says there may be financial benefits in the form of others hearing about his benevolence, and thus widening his paying patient base, “But truthfully, if this is the motivation for entering into this particular public domain, you are doing it for the wrong reason! The benefits are more emotional, and that is far more rewarding, in my opinion.
“We will continue to avail ourselves of this relationship as long as the Essilor Vision Foundation will continue to provide this amazing program.”

Do It Yourself: Partner with Essilor Vision Foundation

  • CALL YOUR REP. “My advice to anyone who wishes to utilize this program,” says Gundersheimer, “is to contact your Essilor rep and see how easy it would be to help those very deserving individuals out.”
  • NO REP? NO PROB. You don’t have to be an Essilor customer to participate. Create an account here: changinglifethroughlenses.org
  • NOT AN OD? Essilor Vision Foundation’s See Kids Soar program can help your optical retail biz raise funds for kids who can’t afford vision care: evfusa.org/get-involved/see-kids-soar-enrollment
  • TESTIMONIAL. Watch Dr. Gundersheimer discuss his experience with the program here: invisionmag.com/051901
  • SMALL PRINT. EVF will ask you to sign an agreement; among the requirements are an NPI or license number. Patients must be at, or below, the poverty level and without insurance to qualify.

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Best of the Best

An Iowa OD Who Developed an Industry-Leading Neuro Rehab Specialty

Offering glasses just wasn’t enough.

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DR. DEANN FITZGERALD STARTED practicing optometry in Cedar Rapids, IA, in 1984. In 2006, she founded the non-profit Spanda, Inc., which combines optometry with other healthcare specialties and took her as far afield as Kenya. Soon, she decided to expand Spanda’s activities to her own community. Spanda opened Cedar Rapids Vision In Motion (CRVIM), a vision wellness and rehab clinic, in 2007. What started as a 1,600-sq. ft location with an occupational therapist and a single employee now occupies 6,000 sq. ft and employs two athletic trainers, seven therapists and two ancillary staff.

THE IDEA

A Door Opens

Vision therapy was on Fitzgerald’s radar screen from her earliest days in optometry, but it took some time for her to embrace it. “I originally went to school with the thought of providing therapy but Cedar Rapids was very medically oriented, with the University of Iowa just 20 minutes away. Which made it very difficult at first to want to do therapy.” But by the 1990s — the “decade of the brain” — she sensed a door opening.

THE EXECUTION

Bridging the Gap

Dr. DeAnn Fitzgerald

CRVIM deals with a larger variety of diagnoses and issues than we can list. The services Fitzgerald’s team have developed bridge “the gap between assessment and treatment” for patients of all ages who experience visual processing dysfunction. In other words, “It’s a brain thing,” as the practice’s mantra states. Since 2010, CRVIM has also been teaching, offering instruction to OTs, PTs, ATs and others, passing on Fitzgerald’s “Train your brain to see again” gospel.

Patients find CRVIM in a variety of ways. “We have the general practice so sometimes people come in for routine care and find out that we do other services to help with various problems.” Of course, there’s word of mouth, as well as the training conferences to which the CRVIM team are now often invited as experts. “I have patients come from a nine-state area for our services. With the training conferences, we try to collaborate with other OTs and PTs.” Among the many hats Fitzgerald wears, she is vice president of the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association (NORA), an inter-disciplinary industry group whose mission is to see that patients with physical or cognitive disabilities as a result of an acquired brain injury get full ocular health evaluation and optimum visual rehab services.
Fitzgerald doesn’t have the luxury of patterning CRVIM after anything in the industry, “because it doesn’t exist. But I look at what’s possibly working and couple it with things that work — multi layered therapy or integrated therapy for quicker recovery — so we combine vision vestibular and auditory and proprioception all together for a more intense and passive therapy that works well.”

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THE REWARDS

‘The Last Resort’

Fitzgerald finds working with neurologically challenged patients — “giving them back their life,” as she puts it — hugely rewarding, but along with the highs there are tough moments. “These patients have a lot of depression and emotional issues that you have to cut through to get them better.”
Fitzgerald established baseline testing for 1,400 metro youth football players over a period of three years. At first many parents didn’t see the need, but by year three every one of the players came in to get tested. She eventually donated seven laptops so these schools could do their own testing. The Pop Warner youth football league last year rated these schools’ testing system as the best it had seen.
It’s an anecdote that illustrates the complexity, and the importance, of CRVIM’s activities. “We do get very complex patients,” says Fitzgerald, “because sometimes we are the last resort.”

Do It Yourself: Develop a Niche Rehab Practice

  • BONE UP. Be prepared to learn on the fly. Says Fitzgerald: “Optometric education provides the avenues to do rehab, but I have logged countless hours in classes and reading … on … concussion and brain injury.”
  • LOOK AROUND. Fitzgerald advises finding someone who is doing what you want to do­—and learning. “It’s the quickest way to get where you want to go…We have a lot of doctors visit our clinic.”
  • BE USEFUL. Get into the community, says Fitzgerald, and “instead of telling people what you do — ask them what they need. Then help make it happen — often that is the ‘in’ to getting partnered with them.”
  • HIRE CAREFULLY. Fitzgerald says one of her biggest challenges has been finding staff that are competent but also compassionate.
  • PREPARE YOURSELF. Rehab can be taxing for both patient and therapist. Fitzgerald says of her patients: “They have a brain injury. We have to gently get them out of their own way so they can recover.”

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Best of the Best

How This Colorado Practice’s ‘Office Culture Blueprint’ is Boosting Referrals

And how they persuaded their team to embrace a new mindset.

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EYE CARE CENTER of Colorado Springs, CO, has a large specialty contact lens practice that owes its success in part to the referrals it receives from ODs and MDs in Colorado Springs, Denver, Pueblo and as far away as California. You don’t maintain a referral-driven practice without top-level service, and with so much on the line, sometimes it pays to codify what’s expected of staff. But no one responds to a laundry list of rules. “We have found we have to re-educate ourselves and any new team members we hire,” says co-owner Sara Whitney, OD, and this realization recently led the practice to develop its own “office culture blueprint.”

THE IDEA

Translating a vague desire to get the best out of your team into a set of tangible principles is harder than it sounds. “We made a feeble attempt to create a culture statement a few years ago,” recalls Whitney, “and we never finished it because we didn’t really know how to implement it.” Practice founder and co-owner Dr. Reed Bro eventually came across the concept of “above the line behavior,” an approach based on personal responsibility. Whitney says the beauty of this concept is that it encourages “behaviors that create a positive event for the next person in the chain.” The goal is to “resist the temptation to blame…to complain for the sake of complaining, or become defensive.”

Dr. Reed Bro and Dr. Sara Whitney

THE EXECUTION

Whitney, Bro and office manager Mindi Andrade developed what would become the office’s cultural blueprint over several months. It takes its starting point from a few core beliefs. These are matched with a set of encouraged behaviors and desired outcomes. Your core beliefs, Whitney says, “are the reasons you decided to start practicing optometry or open a business.”

Once these basic elements were finalized, the managers initiated a transitional phase in which they used the vocabulary that forms the core of the blueprint in day-to-day interactions with one another and with staff. “We did not present the blueprint to the team until we were comfortable that we were able to personally apply the core beliefs to any situation,” Whitney says. They launched it at the beginning of January, when people are making resolutions and personal improvements. “We printed up the culture matrix on a card for each member of the team.”

Whitney says you can tell right away which staff will be on board and who will resist. “We lost three team members around the time the blueprint was rolled out. It may have just been a personal decision for the employee, but it can cause you to momentarily doubt your decision to demand these behaviors.” It’s important to be strong and stick to your guns at this stage, she says. Remember that the key beliefs you identified as the basis for your blueprint are important. “They are the reason you get up in the morning and come to work,” she says. “Expectations … make some people uncomfortable. They will resist change, and you have to let them move on.”

THE REWARDS

Whitney says the blueprint has delivered its targeted outcomes: an enhanced sense of community, patient satisfaction, trust, loyalty, adherence to treatment plans, and referrals. But there are personal benefits too. “I think those who have embraced this new mindset will be able to see it spilling over into their personal lives.”

Ultimately, Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs’ aim with the blueprint was to cultivate behaviors that grow the business, and so far, that aim is being met. Says Whitney: “We have developed the mindset that being presented with a challenge is our opportunity to get ahead of the problem and to possibly even be someone’s hero.”

Do It Yourself: Develop an Office Culture

  • DON’T RUSH IT. “Take time to define your beliefs over a period of weeks or months,” says Whitney.
  • WALK THE WALK. “Live out behaviors that support your beliefs,” Whitney advises. “You are the biggest example of your practice culture.”
  • TWO-WAY STREET. An office culture doesn’t have to be static: Survey your team periodically and ask for feedback.
  • COMMUNICATE. If you don’t, a blueprint is just a list tacked to a wall.
  • STAY STRONG. A change like this might cost you an employee. But stay the course or it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

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