Specsavers founders Doug and Dame Mary Perkins are celebrating a combined 100 years in optometry. Thirty-three years after the first Specsavers store opened, the pair remain bastions of the optical community as the multinational business they created continues to change the healthcare landscape across the globe.
Having met during their optometry studies at Cardiff University in the UK, the husband and wife team, Doug and Dame Mary Perkins, have committed their lives to making affordable and expert eyecare available to all, and in the process, have grown the largest privately owned opticians group in the world. They’ve come a long way together, and this year, the pair are celebrating a joint 100 years of working in optics.
Mary and Doug remain very actively involved in what has always been a family business, with their three children all working at Specsavers.
Aged 74, Doug is the chairman and joint CEO alongside his son John. Forever entrepreneurial and highly regarded as a leading figure in optometry and audiology, Doug is firmly focused on the advancement of professionalism and healthcare to fully address the eyecare and hearing needs of an ageing population and the associated healthcare issues.
Meanwhile, Mary, 73, is committed to driving customer service standards, championing values and shaping corporate responsibility. She is passionately involved with a number of national and local charities, including the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007. She also spends a lot of time speaking with students, encouraging the next generation of opticians.
Doug hails from Llanelli, Wales, while Mary was born in Bristol on the historic St Michael’s Hill, amid the wartime bombing. Keen to follow in her optician father’s footsteps, Mary took A-levels in physics and mathematics – her least favourite subjects – at Fairfield Grammar School to obtain a place to study ophthalmic optics in the Applied Optics Department of Cardiff College of Advanced Technology, one of very few women to pursue such a profession in those days. In the first week, she met Doug.
Starting out in business
In 1967, having both qualified, they wasted no time in setting up business together and getting married. When Mary’s parents retired to Guernsey, a place where they had often holidayed, they bought her father’s practice, which was on the third floor above the old Bristol market.
The couple soon built up a group of 23 practices in the West Country and Wales, which went by the name of Bebbington and Perkins. As the business expanded, they found it harder as sole owners to maintain the personal contact that was necessary to run all the practices. In 1980, Doug and Mary decided to sell the group, move to Guernsey to be near her parents and take a break from optics for a while to consider the changing environment.
They used this time to travel to the US to see how the Americans ran their optical businesses, and attended numerous business refresher courses – something which had previously been difficult to fit in.
The birth of Specsavers
In the early 1980s, the UK Government deregulated professionals, including opticians, allowing them to advertise their products and services for the first time. From a table-tennis table in their spare room, Doug and Mary pioneered a joint venture partnership model, which has become the cornerstone of their new business success. It enables opticians and audiologists to own their practices and play to their strengths in testing eyes and hearing, while being provided with a range of additional and back office services, including IT, marketing, legal and accounting, from various support offices.
The first Specsavers Opticians opened in February 1984 in Bond Street, Bristol. This was the first time customers could walk into an optical ‘shop’ with hundreds of frames on display, all clearly priced. Customers were encouraged to try on glasses and to have a good look before committing themselves to an eye examination. It truly revolutionised the industry.
Doug and Mary have since used their knowledge of optics and management to enable more than 2,700 joint venture partners to run successful Specsavers businesses. Key achievements over the years have included introducing complete and clear pricing for glasses and the two-for-one offer. They have long championed free eyecare for children, introduced dedicated contact lens centres within their stores, made hearing aids more affordable, and taken the value for money and expert Specsavers service to people who are housebound or living in care homes.
The company continues to expand: more than 34,000 staff now work for the company in 12 countries worldwide.
This article first appeared in the UK Specsavers magazine.