Dame Mary Perkins: Specsavers

The Specsavers' co-founder on successful organic growth, managing a vast network, and dealing with tough calls

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From the outset, Doug and Mary Perkins planned Specsavers as a business that would not be sold or floated. Their three children all work in the company, and she hopes that their grandchildren will too. She believes the culture of the business – “still a private company with family values” – has been integral to its success.

With over 30,000 staff and a total turnover of £1.5 billion in 2010/2011, Specsavers is clearly a vast business. Yet it retains the feel of being a family firm, and this is one of its strengths. Dame Mary Perkins gives a sense that she is deeply involved in the company, and deeply interested in its operations on the ground. “I never lose sight of the customers. We wouldn’t have a business if it wasn’t for them, so they… are my best friends, the most important people in my life.”

Among the many awards won by Specsavers since 1984 is being voted most trusted optician by British consumers for 10 years in a row. Mary Perkins herself was made a Dame in 2007, in recognition of her services to business and the community in Guernsey.

Nothing to do with timing or luck

After its slow first year, Specsavers has achieved growth year after year. It has never closed a store, and has no loans or outside investment. This is nothing to do with luck or timing, asserts Dame Mary Perkins, but the result of “careful appraisal of everything”.

Specsavers rigorously researches aspects such as locations and partners, and its senior management style seems to be micromanagement in the best sense, with headquarters closely involved with the day-to-day running of each store. “We have a close working relationship with all the stores, and we’re very hands-on with them,” explains Perkins. “We don’t just give a manual and say this is how you do it. A board member will meet with all the opticians in every country every eight weeks. We sit down for the day and ask what’s been happening, and whether something’s worked … It’s not all done from behind a desk, we’re very much involved at the sharp end.”

The optician chain’s joint venture structure, whereby each partner has a 50% stake in his or her store, offers partners a long-term incentive to perform well and grow. This structure, points out Perkins, offers greater rewards and motivation to each partner than a franchising arrangement. It’s an excellent formula for growing a company and getting staff to buy into its vision.

The joint venture arrangement encourages opticians to nurture their own patch. Perkins explains: “Reputation is ever more important with the new media around. Companies should stay close to their customers and be part of their communities.” It’s an interesting paradox that in the days of global online purchasing, local engagement and individual customer care are more important for retailers than ever. A small local problem or small group of disgruntled customers can quickly become a national or even international story.

Perkins warns that the internet has also changed customer expectations, and the difficult economic landscape has exacerbated this. “Customers are searching for more value – for more for less.

They’re more demanding, and more knowledgeable, using the internet to find out things for themselves, and they want better service. So they need to be told why they should spend money with you.”

One of the challenges for Specsavers has been to keep growth at a steady and manageable rate. A common cause of failure, advises Perkins, is “trying to run before walking, trying to get big in a hurry – there’s no need to do that”. She warns against being too thinly spread, and of losing your culture, vision and values when you expand into other markets.

She continues that if you have good senior managers and good leaders in your team, they may be eager to “forge ahead and do everything. But sometimes you have to put a brake on and say ‘Hold on a minute, this may not be the right thing to do. We need perhaps to look at what we’re doing already, and consolidate it.’ So I think entrepreneurs who want to grow a business have to think really hard about whether they want to add on another country, or whether they should be strengthening what they’ve got.”

This judgment about when to expand and when to consolidate is especially important in the current decade, when the economic landscape in the UK, Europe and the US is so tough.

Finally, one more piece for advice: different growth stages need different people at board level. This may involve some difficult conversations. “We started with generalists, we could all do a bit of everything. Then there comes a stage when you need specialists – a marketing director and so on. Later when you go out to different countries, you need global experience. So there are times when you have to say goodbye to someone… The people who start the business with you are not always the people you need as you get bigger.” Growing a business necessitates some ruthless decisions.

Stick to the knitting

A favourite phrase of Dame Mary Perkins is “Stick to the knitting”. She explains that companies like Specsavers, with huge customer databases, are continually approached by people with an idea for a new activity or market they might enter. But it’s important to stick to core skills or activities that mesh with your existing skills and customer base. “You might think an idea sounds glamorous, but you have to say, ‘Is it really going to help the company?'” Again, this applies more than ever in the current decade.

The homeliness of the phrase also tells us more about Specsavers’ culture, an element that has fuelled its decades of growth. Dame Mary Perkins may appear in the Sunday Times Rich List, but she wears her achievements lightly. She speaks of the importance of good business leaders being willing to listen and learn, and she says: “I am willing to lead from the front and will muck in when needed. I treat others as I would like to be treated – whoever they are, staff, suppliers, anyone I meet.” Remember that as you try to grow as big as Specsavers.

This article is an excerpt taken from the new book published by Regus called Growth in a Difficult Decade. All proceeds from the book will go to charity. You can order a copy on Amazon

Specsavers: A great British growth story

Dame Mary Perkins set up Specsavers with her husband Doug in 1984 in their spare bedroom in Guernsey. At the time the UK government was deregulating professionals, including opticians, allowing them to advertise for the first time.

They opened early branches in Bristol and Guernsey. And by 2011 the company had an annual turnover of £1.5bn and over 30,000 staff in markets in the UK, Europe and Australasia. Despite its size, Specsavers remains a privately owned business, with no outside debt or shareholdings. The Perkins family describes it as “a family business with thousands of family members”.

As that phrase suggests, Dame Mary Perkins emphasises the importance of creating a good corporate culture, despite the challenges of doing so as a business grows. She sets great store by good customer service, strong links with local communities, and an extensive charity programme.

She also emphasises that, in the current economic climate, entrepreneurs need to make careful judgments about the relative merits of expansion and consolidation.

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