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Getting to know National Optical Care

National Optical Care has arrived by acquiring 14 practices and launching a new buying group and managed services division. CEO MR JASON GOWIE explains the company’s ambitions for the eyecare sector and how it plans to make a positive impact.

Owners of independent Australian optometrists may have noticed the recent, but discreet, introduction of a new player, in National Optical Care (NOC).

With the acquisition of 14 practices and an alliance with EyeQ Optometrists, it hasn’t taken long for the new group to gather momentum and vital credibility in a sector that’s seen its share of “disruptors” come and go. It’s also just branched out with a subscription-based buying group and managed services division called Optical Growth Partners, with the aim of supporting as many independents as it can.

Mr Jason Gowie and Mr Tomas Steenackers – the duo behind the venture – are no strangers to the healthcare sector, with NOC’s blueprint largely based off Steenackers’ highly successful National Veterinary Care (NVC) business.

Jason Gowie
Jason Gowie.

Under his leadership, NVC grew its acquired practice network from an initial 34 separately branded clinics to 110 within five years. That’s in addition to 550 independent clinics that subscribed to the company’s buying group and managed services offering.

Meanwhile, Gowie was in the leadership team that took Medibank Private to public listing in 2014, and he’s also held senior roles at Bupa. But his most relevant experience is in audiology as the managing director of Oticon Australia – one of the country’s largest hearing healthcare companies he helped grow from 69 to 170 clinics, and also took into New Zealand.

The pair came together in 2019 convinced that a healthcare-led ethos that allowed practices to retain their brand and clinical independence would work well in the optical industry too.

“Tomas’ goal in the veterinary sector was to leave a positive impact on the industry, beyond just owning practices, so that’s the philosophy of the model that we’ve brought to the optical industry,” Gowie says.

“The sector is also highly fragmented with a large number of independent practices. There’s probably around 2,800 practices that are non-Specsavers or Luxottica, so there are many who are trying to do the best to deliver quality eyecare and often they’re doing it tough because they don’t have the size and scale to compete.”

Respecting identity

To kick-off the venture, NOC acquired the first 14 practices in between November 2020 and January this year. The group is locally funded by private investors in Australia and is poised for more growth later this year.

When NOC acquires a practice, it retains its local brand and practice teams. They can also continue using their preferred practice management systems and product suppliers, says Gowie: “We don’t do centralised ordering of stock, we don’t think that works because we never know the local demographics as well as the practice team.

Optiko Eyewear
Optiko Eyewear, in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, is also part of the NOC network.

“Behind the scenes it’s different because we are taking care of all the stuff most optometrists will tell you they aren’t good at, don’t like – or both. They love the way we have respected the business they have built up over a long period of time, and respect their expertise.”

The group supports its practices with business expertise in marketing, human resources, finance, IT and business development initiatives.

Gowie says building platforms is where NOC aims to drive value to its practices who would have otherwise struggled to do so alone.

In less than six months it has also established a data business intelligence tool and a customer relationship management (CRM) system that displays the performance of each practice and patient behaviour in real time. Its patient communication journeys are also said to be based on global best practice for healthcare organisations.

Soon, the company is looking to introduce AI capabilities to support practices with tasks like answering phones and other tasks. The objective is to free up staff in practice to offer a better support to their patients and improve the customer experience.

NOC is also currently working on training programs to continue developing its staff at all levels.

“Our people are the most important element in the business, and we need to provide a clear path for career progression for everyone involved in the business, including administration and reception staff, practice managers, dispensing and optometry staff,” Gowie says.

“We are committed to becoming an employer of choice by 2023, developing the strongest and most skilled network of optometrists in Australia and New Zealand. We will invest in our team members’ skills, careers, wellness, personal growth, and create opportunities for them to do what they love at the highest standard.”

Gowie says NOC is in discussions with a number of practices across Australia and New Zealand about acquisition opportunities and they will be welcoming more new practices between July and September this year and a third wave of acquisitions in early 2022.

“We would also welcome confidential discussions with practice owners who are considering the next phase for their practice, but have perhaps been concerned about preserving the legacy they have built up over many years,” he adds.

EyeQ alliance

Another major step in NOC’s short, but rapid, evolution has been its partnership with the EyeQ group as an unbranded franchise last November. The combined entity takes the total national network to 40 practices in all states and territories, except the Northern Territory.

Tomas Steenackers
Tomas Steenackers.

By joining EyeQ, NOC’s practices are benefiting from administrative services provided by the EyeQ franchise network support office. Both companies view EyeQ’s expertise in optometry and NOC’s experience in business growth as an ideal opportunity to create an alliance that leverages the strong trading conditions experienced since mid-2020 in the optical sector.

The partnership has meant EyeQ CEO, Mr Ray Fortescue, is now chair of a new joint-committee overseeing the operations of the EyeQ Optometrists and the NOC alliance. He has remained as chairman of the EyeQ board, as well as a clinical optometrist at the EyeQ Ramsgate practice. Meanwhile, Gowie has taken on the shared responsibility as CEO of both NOC and EyeQ.

Because EyeQ is branded and has a similar approach for each practice – and NOC’s practices are managed as discrete entities that run separately – each has their own teams to help with day-to-day operations.

But Gowie says joining EyeQ has allowed access to its Q Optical Network – a new entity that collectively negotiates health fund contracts on behalf of independents. It’s also led to less duplication, and they’re able to develop and share advanced technology platforms.

“We are both very passionate about eyecare-led models of optometry, so that’s why Ray, an experienced optometrist who’s well known in the industry, is chair of the executive committee, while I’m starting to bring both entities under the same umbrella operationally as the CEO,” he says.

“At NOC, we bring strong experience in developing platforms, so that’s HR, business intelligence tools, CRM for marketing, and finance related platforms. All our investments in technology are shared, so the alliance is becoming stronger.”

Buying group and managed services

On 1 May, NOC launched what Gowie anticipates will be a disruptive, yet welcome, new offering for independent optometry practices.

Its Optical Growth Partners initiative is a new subscription-based buying group and managed services division for independents and will be based on a set monthly fee across three levels of membership.

“There are several incumbent players, but we think there is an opportunity to put a model in place that’s lower in terms of cost to members, because we can leverage our investment in running our own practices,” Gowie says.

He says a key difference is NOC’s relationships with non-optical suppliers such as insurance, electricity, and other key business operating expenses. Steenackers formed these relationships years ago at NVC.

“We will pass on exactly the same deal we get with our own practices to members, and we have been able to negotiate very strong arrangements on the optical supply side, through the EyeQ group,” Gowie adds.

“We are confident of the value we will deliver to independent practices and as such have put in place a money back guarantee should we not deliver a 200% return on the investment in our membership essentials package within the first 12 months.”

NOC’s combined model of acquired practices and managed services has been transported from NVC, where Steenackers grew the managed services side of the business to 550 clinics. In some cases, NVC also presented as willing buyer and succession option for veterinary clinics that were originally part of the managed services community.

With around 650 optometry practices signed on with other competing optical buying groups, Gowie hopes to subscribe 10% of an estimated 2,800 independent practices to Optical Growth Partners within two years.

“We want to make Optical Growth Partners available to any independent practice owner in the industry – regardless of practice size or whether it’s optometry- or dispenser-led,” he says.

More reading: National Optical Care unveils subscription business model for independents