Q&A with Dame Mary Perkins
Let's Talk Shop Spring 2019
Keoghs recently had the opportunity to chat with co-founder of Specsavers and DBE recipient, Dame Mary Perkins, who talks innovation, the future of the high street and being a librarian in an alternative life.
1. What has been the biggest highlight of your career to date?
Very difficult to just find one highlight, because I feel pleased every time a new joint venture partnership starts a new Specsavers store, plus the fact they all do well. And now, they all strive to obtain the “Platinum Employer” status.
I suppose, personally, it’s being awarded a Damehood in 2007 for business and charitable work. Obviously not something I’ve done on my own; it’s basically all down to people at Specsavers who have the same passion as me to provide affordable eyecare and hearing care to everyone. We have a saying - “we all have green blood” and belong to the Green Blood Club.
2. What is the most rewarding aspect of having co-founded Specsavers?
I think it has to be seeing so many optometrists, dispensing opticians, retailers owning their own stores, looking after their customers and their staff teams, and then seeing their development progress with the numerous courses we provide. In fact, I’ve seen “Saturday school employees” progress to full time, do Cert 3 and Cert 4 level optical training, then the degree distance learning course in Dispensing optics, to become a fully-fledged qualified dispenser, ABDO, then some have gone to University as a mature student to qualify as an optometrist, and on to a partner. It’s like a fairy story – sometimes people who left school without many exams under their belt end up owning their own business.
3. Following on from online, what will be the next major challenge to the retail market, good or bad?
Online, as such, is only just having a small effect on the world of Optics. Yes, people can order glasses and contact lenses online, but as yet still have to see an optometrist for a prescription and the vital eye health checks. When you’re young nothing health wise seems to bother you (note the dangers of smoking when young and not much notice is taken of any warnings!)
In some countries, we do sell glasses, and contact lenses online, but all transactions are linked to a local Specsavers store. Customers are able to look at frames at home and upload a photo of their face to see these frames on their face. I envisage this will be the norm in the future and be very easy to do. Quite frankly, even a prescription for glasses will be able to be done online. Specsavers is well advanced in this software and, indeed, have automatic refraction machines in many stores used in the diagnostic centres along with ‘MRI’ scans of the eye and photos of the fundus. We can also look at pressures of the eye and detailed field of vision maps – all vital for “quiet” eye diseases along with other defects such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
At Specsavers we are not afraid to innovate and embrace changes – working with changes not against them. Our leaders meet often to discuss long term framework.
4. What is the future for the high street and real estate in retail and within our communities?
I wish I had a crystal ball! Let’s just focus (no pun intended) on the customer – what do they want!? They are time short – hence ordering online – and don’t want long journeys into a town, finding a costly parking space to leave the car, wandering around a large store with no personal contact and then not finding what they want. That’s why good ‘community shops’ do well – local stores for things customers want (return of local greengrocers/butchers?) Specsavers tries to be in local communities, so customers/patients don’t have to travel too far, with opening hours to suit them. When I first started an independent practice in 1967, long before Specsavers, I opened three evenings a week so customers could pop in after work, and then on Sundays (unheard of back in the 70’s)
It’s a nightmare driving into big towns and finding somewhere to park nowadays.
I like how they mix shops and housing/flats in Holland plus entertainment in the towns, community centres, restaurants, cafés, free parking (bikes!?) sitting areas, with some evening life. Quite a different feel to ghost towns at night in the UK.
So, more living accommodation into empty premises and making it easier for local shops (lower rates?). There are lots of local entrepreneurs out there hoping to set up somewhere, but they don’t get any encouragement or find it outrageously expensive!
5. If you had to choose an alternative career, what would it be?
I just love people and find the whole human race fascinating!
But I love reading and when I was a teenager I quite fancied being a librarian! Maybe I would have been another Waterstone’s bookshop (sorry Tim!) but most likely teaching would suit me best – I don’t mind what age group.
6. What values and attributes do you look for in your supporters and partners?
Firstly, they have to have an absolute passion for everyone who needs eyecare and hearing care. Yes, they will make profits – that’s nothing to be ashamed of – but they have to put their customer at the centre of everything they do and to give the customer what they want, not what we think they want.
To become a Specsavers partner, it is important to already be working in a Specsavers outlet. Then there is a training programme called Pathway to complete and an assignment to do before they are assessed for a partnership. I am also a firm believer in continuous improvement, so there is a good ‘learning and development’ programme for everyone – either eLearning or instore training – appraisals playing a large part in everyone’s development.
7. As a leader in business and the community - who and what inspires you and why?
That’s quite a difficult question because I’ve always just ploughed ahead and done what I wanted. Even now I just get on with work and caring for all my colleagues and tend to be very focused on Specsavers. So I really have to go back to my early years when, without a doubt, I was inspired by my father who started his working life aged 14 in a Lancashire Cotton Mill and ended up in Bristol as an optometrist in 1951. I helped him in school and college holidays and I am sure his work ethic and love of people rubbed off on me. I have a great deal to thank him for, as he shaped my life in so many ways.
8. If we could grant you three wishes, what would those be?
Flippantly – more hours in the day! There’s so much I want to do, but not enough hours! I would love to be able to play the piano – but without all the hours of practice. It’s very relaxing playing (or listening) to music. Nothing else personally, but all the most obvious wishes of making nations live peacefully together and just getting on with life instead of fighting and put their efforts into making people’s lives easier and healthier. I quote Specsavers values “treat others as you wish to be treated yourself”…… if only everyone did it!
9. Lastly, when you are not running Specsavers, playing an active role in numerous charities… or completing Q&As for people like us… what does Dame Mary Perkins do at the weekend?
I live in a lovely place – Guernsey – and so I always go for a long cliff walk. Fresh air, sun if lucky, beautiful views; time to “chill out” the busy mind – nowadays called Mindfulness! Church on Sunday morning (I am also a Trustee of the Church). It’s always good to have a chat with non-optics people!
Lunch or dinner with friends or family (3 children, 7 grandchildren). Sometimes a quick visit to the UK for a show – although we have quite good events here in Guernsey.
In the last year (and next two years) I work weekends on my position as Chair of the Island Games which is like the Commonwealth Games but just for islands. The Games are being held in Guernsey in 2021 so there’s quite a lot to do before 3-4 thousand participants arrive from 47 islands as far away as St Helena. I also have a gym at home which I make myself use at weekends. In good weather there is swimming in the sea and visiting the other small islands – Herm and Sark. I don’t have a boat but my son-in-law does, so hopefully beg a lift from him.
Plus, mundane boring things such as food shopping – yes, we have Waitrose, M&S, and Co-op here on our small island!