With many original partner optometrists moving on to a well-earned retirement, George & Matilda Eyecare is overseeing succession to a new generation of buy-in partners across its network.
When Mr Ken Ingram owned pure-play independent optometry practices, he had a lot on this plate. After a long day seeing patients, there were times he’d need to stay back until 8pm for administrative tasks – and then came the arrival of his son with a disability.
You would be forgiven for thinking something had to give, but after doing his research, Ingram came across the George & Matilda (G&M) Eyecare model and realised he could have the best of both worlds – time with his family and the self-actualisation of running a practice he had equity in.
“Although I was initially attracted to the practice itself – George & Matilda Eyecare for Greg Bowyer Optical – due to its heritage and boutique, high-end positioning, in general I thought G&M was a good option because I could see they were acquiring really solid practices run by great practitioners,” he says.
“I did a fair bit of due diligence, in fact, I worked as an optometrist in the network for three years before becoming a buy-in partner. The investment was reasonably modest, nothing like establishing a new practice, and the model is set up in a way so that I have skin in the game to keep me interested and sharp, while also providing that support structure around you. Given my circumstances, it suited me nicely.”
Ingram is among the next generation of optometrist partners emerging through G&M. Since its foundation in 2016, the network has acquired several practices with owner optometrists in the twilight of their careers. Many of these practices are part of the fabric of their community, so finding suitable, long-term successors has been a priority in recent years.
Ingram – who in 2021 took the reins of G&M for Greg Bowyer Optical in the Brisbane suburb of Kenmore – is one of those who have taken on partnership of a practice after the original partner has retired or left the business, which G&M refers to as buy-in partners.
The benefits of becoming a buy-in partner are similar those enjoyed by original partners, including clinical autonomy, back office support for business functions like recruitment, marketing and payroll, as well as flexible models that ensure the buy-in partner has a vested interest in the practice’s commercial success.
Prior to joining G&M, Ingram had a varied career, spanning from independent ownership, to drawing a salary as a corporate optometrist.
“Private practice ownership became challenging for me in terms of time and flexibility plus, like a lot of people, I had to mortgage the family home to finance it. So for a couple of reasons, I sold my two practices in the early 2000s,” he says.
“When I went into corporate practice, it had some advantages. It had that collegiate feel, as opposed to the more isolated feel of independent optometry. On the flip side, I tended to get frustrated with some of the constraints put on professional practices, which is only natural when you come from private practice.”
Although G&M’s practices aren’t independent in the strictest sense, he says G&M for Greg Bowyer Optical operated like one – and still does in many ways, controlling its own frames range and, importantly, allowing Ingram to stamp his mark on the way he executes his clinical skills.
This has seen him diversify the eyewear offering that was predominantly boutique and high end in the past, but was calling out for options to cater for longstanding patients who had become more budget conscious in their older age. With an interest in orthokeratology, myopia control and rigid lenses for keratoconus, he’s also added a specialty contact lens service.
“Becoming a buy-in partner means I’m invested in my own success and treat it as my own practice,” he says.
“For me and my family, there’s far less risk financially, I can sleep better at night because there’s not so much on the line. Because I know I’ve got good people around me who will look after things, I don’t have to stay back till 8pm each night doing the books, ordering stock or payroll. It gives me my time, gives me my family back – while still having skin in the game.”
‘Throw me in the deep end, I can handle it’
At the time Mr Marshall Mrocki spoke with Insight about becoming a buy-in partner at George & Matilda Eyecare for Optique, in Double Bay, a ritzy harbourside suburb in Sydney, he had only been in the role five weeks. But it had been some time in the making, after several proposals to G&M head office to express his interest in partnership.
“When I found out Double Bay was available, I leapt at the opportunity, and didn’t stop nagging CEO Chris Beer and COO Matt Bradford – I told them to throw me in the deep end, I can handle it,” the 33-year-old says.
Indeed, it’s a steep learning curve, especially when you consider he graduated from The University of Melbourne in 2021. But when you speak with Mrocki, one can tell he is a capable operator. He’s also been primed by recent experience as the principal optometrist at G&M’s George St location, one of the network’s flagship practices in Sydney’s CBD.
“I was working for an optical retailer on the NSW Central Coast in 2022 when I originally received a message from G&M. They told me what they were about – basically a network of independents supporting each other,” he says.
“I was yearning at the time for greater freedom to establish relationships with patients and autonomy to apply a patient-first principle way of practising. For me, it’s really important to establish a pleasurable and comfortable dialogue with patients by blending humour into my examinations and building meaningful bonds, and G&M allows me to do that.”
G&M for Optique has a rich history spanning over 25 years. Nestled between Edgecliff and Rose Bay, it is located in an affluent hot property suburb. The last major owner was Ms Sue Green who left the business two years ago, with the practice overseen in a caretaking capacity by local optometrist Ms Eva Freeman and practice manager Ms Lynne Abrahamson.
Now under Mrocki’s remit, he is excited to lead the practice in his own way.
“I’ve always been a hands on individual and professional. My unofficial mantra is if you want something done correctly, you most likely have to do it yourself – and I’ve seen firsthand the advantages of running your own business and creating something you can be proud of,” he says.
“I’ve also seen the shortcomings of having no one else to rely on so it’s quite the dichotomy, but the G&M partnership model is advantageous, with a blend of freedom, guidance and support structures to help an eager, ambitious, young optometrist like myself to find their entrepreneurial feet.”
Mrocki says the transition would not have been possible without the support of G&M’s head office. Beer and Bradford have always been just a phone call away, and whether it’s the merchandising or IT department, his feedback has been welcomed with open ears.
Abrahamson, who has long been with G&M, has familiarised Mrocki with the practice’s processes. Some have been refined already, such as a new shared cloud with local ophthalmologists to improve the flow of diagnostic images, without the need for Mrocki’s involvement.
“In other areas, we’re working to streamline the products that we’re offering to make it laser focused on what the people are asking for, with boutique brand appeal,” he adds.
“All in all, the message I have for younger optometrists wanting to dip their toes into partnership or seeking more control over their optometry activities is to look at what G&M are offering because from my experience, it’s an ideal blend of support alongside day-to-day operational freedom that I haven’t seen at other larger groups.
“The deal that was offered to me aligned well with my career objectives … now that I am a partner, it’s lighting a fire under me to ensure G&M for Optique in Double Bay remains the best place for eyecare and eyewear fashion.”
A 10-minute commute
It’s fair to say nothing can fully prepare an optometrist for their first foray into practice partnership, but the experiences Ms Antigone Kordas had during her first five years out of university had her well-equipped for the demands of becoming a buy-in partner.
Her first job as a fully-fledged optometrist was at George & Matilda (G&M) Eyecare for Maroubra Optometrists in Sydney – under the guidance of optometrist partner Mr Kyriacos (Kyri) Mavrolefteros. She was swiftly elevated to the role of principal optometrist and saw the bulk of the patients, while helping coordinate an outback eyecare program and supervising final-year Deakin and UNSW optometry students, among other roles. It was a significant responsibility.
So when a partnership opportunity emerged at George & Matilda Eyecare for Optometrist Menai, a G&M area eyecare manager put Kordas’ name forward. The stars aligned and wheels were set in motion for her to become the new buy-in partner on 31 July 2023. What’s more, the practice is only a 10-minute drive from her house, a major drawcard for Kordas who used to commute more than an hour daily.
“Practice ownership or partnership was always something I had thought about but I didn’t know quite how quickly that would eventuate,” she says.
“Working at G&M Maroubra provided great exposure for me in terms of my responsibilities and the way practice was run. I first started working there as an assistant when it was independently owned by Kyri, and then when I first became an optometrist that was when G&M entered the picture. Even so, it was still very much run like an independent practice.”
Now Kordas is a buy-in partner, this is what she appreciates most about the business model – the benefits of clinical autonomy and leading the practice in her own way, without feeling like she’s doing it on her own.
G&M was even able to work around her wedding and honeymoon plans before bringing her on as a partner. She’s also been able to adapt her schedule to align one of her days off with her husband’s (a paediatrician) off-day.
“Now that I’m here, all I need to do is focus on my patients while G&M takes care of the rest whether that be advertising, recalls, the building etc. It means I can focus on recommending the best options for my patients and I think people can see that too,” she says.
“I don’t feel any pressure to do things in a particular way, I just have to do the best by my patient, and my hope is that by taking this approach we will naturally grow the business side of things. I’m not hugely KPI-focused; if people are happy, it’ll grow and it’s already started to show.”