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All-American Eyecare

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American Eyecare, Mount Pleasant, IA

OWNERS: Tod Gerhardt, OD, and Matthew Ruhl, OD; URL:americaneyecare.com; FOUNDED: 1980; Opened featured location: 2020;ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Primus Companies, Cedar Rapids, Eye Designs; EMPLOYEES: 42 full-time, 1 part-time; AREA: 2,613 sq. ft.; TOP BRANDS: Varilux, Eyezen+, Acuvue, Ray-Ban, Vogue, Guess; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/AmericanEyecare2020; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/therealamericaneyecare; TWITTER: twitter.com/AmericanEyeC; BUILDOUT COST: $350,000


AMERICAN EYECARE HAS come a long way since its original location opened in a Keokuk, IA, mall under the name “Optical Shoppe” in 1980. Four decades of growth have transformed it into a five-location operation with four ODs and 43 full-time employees led by Drs. Tod Gerhardt and Matthew Ruhl, optometry school buds who joined the practice in 2005 and assumed full ownership in 2017, achieving their first expansion of the business as sole owners with the addition of the newest location — this America’s Finest honoree — in Mount Pleasant, IA in 2020.

Gerhardt and Ruhl put their stamp on things with the first full-scale overhaul of AEC’s brand and office aesthetic. The new design focuses on clean, modern lines, classic black-and-white color palettes with a pop of color, and plenty of natural light. According to operations manager Jamie Strong, “Mount Pleasant is the culmination of 40 years of business insight.” Every detail of the patient’s journey through the office was carefully thought through, be it the frame boards, which are designed and laid out in such a way as not to overwhelm patients, or the width of the adjusting/dispensing table, set at 18 inches for maximum comfort for both patients and opticians. The pretest room was designed to allow a smooth flow, with patients entering on one side and exiting on the other, the exam rooms only steps away. The reception area is inviting but chill, furnished with couches and chairs equipped with USB charging stations. The finishing touch is the distinctive vinyl window designs along the exterior of the business. “It screams eyecare!” says Strong.

American Eyecare’s optometrists. From left: co-owner Dr. Tod Gerhardt; co-owner Dr. Matthew Ruhl; Dr. Abby Granera; and Dr. Logan Granera.

American Eyecare’s optometrists. From left: co-owner Dr. Tod Gerhardt; co-owner Dr. Matthew Ruhl; Dr. Abby Granera; and Dr. Logan Granera.

About half of AEC’s patients are in the 39-65 age group, with Mount Pleasant’s clientele showing a preference for higher-end, trendy frames and luxury lines. “We’ve done a lot of round frames, retro frames and loud designs in Mount Pleasant compared to our other clinics,” says Strong, adding that she’s been impressed by the location’s walk-in traffic. “We have anywhere from three to five outside prescriptions per week visit our optical. Based on feedback from these walk-ins, they simply hear good things about our selection and service and want to give us a try.”

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In addition to word of mouth, American Eyecare gets great mileage from its Back-to-School Sale, which Strong describes as the practice’s “coolest, most utilized marketing event every year.” Additionally, in response to patients looking for a budget conscious solution — as well as pressure from online retailers — it came up with “The Collection,” which offers a good/better/best model for single vision eyeglass buying with value-added upgrades as the patient moves up the tiered system. Another strong selling point for AEC is its status as the only practice in Southeast Iowa with a full surfacing lab.

Social media is used to promote sales events and share fun things happening in the offices, but mostly to reinforce the brands AEC carries. “We put a lot of commitment into our brands,” says Strong. “No-name brands are a dime a dozen online.”

This Iowa Practice’s Newest Location Reflects the Lessons Decades of Growth Bring

Left: Employees’ hypoallergenic dogs are welcome at work, and Lily is a common sight. Right: One of AEC’s patients, 12-year-old Katie, won a Europa frame design contest, so the practice made her the mascot for their back-to-school sale.

AEC’s doctors prescribe various contact lenses based on need, but a large volume of contact sales is Acuvue products. “We have an amazing rep … Hey Steve!” says Strong, adding that the practice has a similarly fruitful relationship with Essilor for its lens portfolio. “As far as frames go, we are heavily invested in Luxottica and our top frame line is Ray-Ban for men and women.” Strong also shouts out AEC’s patient communication tool, 4PatientCare. “They provide comprehensive communication support that we would not want to run the business without.”

AEC used to see patients Monday-Saturday but as a result of COVID dropped to five days to help staff recover some work-life balance. “The stress of working six days a week and taking care of kids who are doing homeschool, childcare closures, etc. just made us reassess our priorities,” says Strong. This healthy perspective was already a feature of Gerhardt and Ruhl’s management. Some years back, they embraced a philosophy of “Staff — not patients — come first.” Says Strong, “When staff are cared for, our patients are cared for.” In line with this, AEC has three rules: “1. We want staff to look forward to coming to work; 2. We have fun here; and 3. Employees have the autonomy to find a way to say ‘yes’ to a patient’s request.” The result, she says, is that “Our employees are experts; they are valued, take better care of people than anyone else in our market and are our ‘how’ to making patients feel like they don’t want to ever go anywhere else for their care.”

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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 [email protected]

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