With an astute vision for his business, strong resolve, and a wealth of clinical knowledge, it made sense that Dr Brendan Schelbach would build his Brisbane practice, Honour Optometry, from the ground up.
The consensus among Dr Brendan Schelbach’s optometrist peers was to avoid opening a greenfield practice. The odds of success were against him, but his story proves that it sometimes pays to go against the grain.
Schelbach’s optometry career started after completing his degree in 2005 at Queensland University of Technology, where he moved on to work in corporate optometry practices across Brisbane including a stint as store manager over the next several years. When Luxottica introduced its franchising model, Schelbach made the decision to purchase an optometry-only option, without a retail component.
However, he decided to cease operation of the franchise in 2018 when Luxottica announced that they would not be renewing the optometry-only contracts moving forward. Here, Schelbach was at a crossroads in his career. With a new-found appetite for independence, he vowed to maintain the flexible working conditions that came with being his own boss.
“After seven years of franchising, I just said ‘okay, we’ll call it quits early’, and got out of that, with the plan then to probably open my own practice,” Schelbach says.
In the interim, Schelbach worked as a locum, with the pandemic delaying his plans to open his practice.
A key challenge in opening any greenfield practice is the absence of a patient database without the goodwill to create a loyal, returning customer-base. Purchasing a pre-existing clinic was Schelbach’s first port-of-call. However, eager to own a practice in Brisbane and with a lack of local purchasing options, he opted to start from scratch.
A retail opportunity in the riverside suburb of Graceville opened, with Schelbach snatching up the lease and beginning operations in February 2022.
“All the information I’d been given from other practitioners was that it certainly would be the easier option to buy an existing practice with a database. That was part of the benefit with my previous franchise. I walked into a practice that had been there for 20 years and had a full appointment book to work from so that made things very easy in that situation,” Schelbach says.
“But going greenfield, I was able to work where I wanted [Brisbane]. There wasn’t the option to purchase a practice and I felt that I could make a greenfield practice work in the area [Graceville]. Having lived in this area for the last 10 years and knowing there were no other practices in the suburb, it certainly gave me the confidence that I could be successful here.”
He also enjoys the work-life balance with practice ownership.
“My wife and I also welcomed our first child in May last year, and whilst starting a new business and having a new baby might seem like a lot to have on your plate, having the flexibility to spend time with them when days were quieter was another great benefit, rather than buying an already busy practice.”
In saying that, opening the practice made Schelbach feel isolated at times. Guiding him through the process was ProVision, which offers business support, services and buying power to more than 450 independent practices across Australia.
“Having known about ProVision as a student but not really dealt with them since, I was lucky to be talking to another practitioner that was looking to open and he raised the question whether I was dealing with them. They’ve got a great team that can help in almost every aspect of opening a new practice. They have developed resources, like a 100-point checklist to make sure you’re not missing anything in all aspects of the journey, including the shopfitting, the leasing, frame buying and the accounting side of things. They’ve got consultants to help with things like the HR that I’d never had to deal with previously,” he says.
“The ProVision network of practices has also been great resource to be able to reach out to when needed, and members evenings have been invaluable for networking with like-minded peers. It was great to be able to chat with their business coaches as well, just to make sure there wasn’t anything I was missing.”
Schelbach opened Honour Optometry with a breadth of clinical knowledge, but with little exposure to the retail aspect of optical business ownership. Eyewear stylist and optical retail expert Ms Kay Keegan proved to be an invaluable asset with her experience in front-of-house duties. Together, Schelbach and Keegan bring the full suite of skills necessary to operate a successful practice.
“Kay is a phenomenal personality and has been working in the optical industry for over 35 years. She’s a great advertisement for the practice and lovely person to have at the front of the store as people come in. She’s amazing at her job when it comes to selecting fabulous frames for people,” he says.
Schelbach had accumulated some assets from the franchise he operated and retained them in the hopes of opening his practice one day.
“There were cost benefits having had the franchise with Luxottica. I’d purchased a lot of the consulting equipment already and had put that away in storage with the idea of opening a practice. So that certainly brought down some of the costs compared to what others might have when opening a new practice,” Schelbach says.
With any greenfield practice, establishing a customer base is challenging, but with the support of family, friends and the local community, Honour Optometry quickly developed a loyal customer base.
“It’s been fairly organic,” Schelbach says.
“Friends, family and colleagues of both Kay and I were there to start things rolling, but the local community and other business owners have embraced us from day one as well. We truly believe that our willingness to provide care and attention, and great service to every person who has walked through our door has helped grow positive word of mouth and given others the confidence to give us a go.”
Eclectic, distinguished, vibrant and sustainable
According to Schelbach, much of the success of Honour Optometry can be attributed to its eyewear selection, with the eclectic, unique and sustainable range of frames garnering a positive response from locals.
“Kay also ensures that every customer is a walking advertisement for Honour Optometry by pushing their eyewear boundaries, and mine, with our more unique, interesting and beautiful frames. And whilst our customers have not necessarily sought us out for our sustainable eyewear offering, the stories behind each of the brands seem to resonate,” Schelbach says.
“They’re brands that people haven’t seen in Brisbane or even in Australia before so that’s certainly been another drawcard. You’re not going to see anybody else wearing the same frames walking down the street. Customers have been drawn to the ‘more out there’ and vibrant product that we’ve stocked. We definitely wanted statement eyewear that isn’t run-of-the- mill.”
Sustainability is a hot topic right now, and the optical industry is responding with eyewear made from various bio/recycled materials. Although Honour Optometry’s customers are initially drawn to the distinct range of products, the sustainable factor is adding value to spectacle purchases.
“You can fill the whole store with sustainable eyewear. We wouldn’t have thought that was possible two years ago. Having just been at the O=MEGA23 conference, it’s evident that it’s continuing to evolve and there are plenty more options out there,” Schelbach says.
Honour Optometry is conscious about stocking brands that adhere to its sustainability values. Sustainable eyewear brands are made from recycled materials or with sustainable manufacturing practices. It also offers a recycling program for old eyewear and contact lens packaging.
“Audiophiles have loved our Vinylize range made from upcycled vinyl records in Budapest. And we are proud to be the first optometrist to stock Good Citizens Eyewear. Each pair is made from one plastic bottle by a father and son team in Sydney,” Schelbach says.
This, in combination with the uniquely natural ambiance and peaceful holistic environment within the practice, only adds to the patient experience.
Schelbach hopes to consolidate Honour Optometry’s sustainability model by working towards a B Corp certification. This involves incorporating sustainability and ethical business practices into the company’s corporate governance structure, effectively holding itself accountable to its ethicality. With Seekers Optical in Melbourne as the first optometry practice in Australia to be awarded B Corp certification, Honour Optometry intends to follow in its footsteps.
“Whilst I knew of their [Seekers Optical] practice from one of our reps, I hadn’t realised they were also focused on sustainability in optometry and we thank them for blazing the way. I hope that we can be the second B Corp certified practice in Australia,” he says.