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Independent optometry ownership: a sound investment

More younger practitioners are seeking fulfilment in their careers through independent optometry practice ownership. PHILIP ROSE explains how Eyecare Plus can help aspiring business owners with the transition.

Over the past couple of years industry figures have noted that practice owners have been reconsidering their personal and business priorities. As a result, they have adjusted and reset their succession plans and expectations, creating a shift in the independent ownership market.

In particular, Eyecare Plus – with more than 140 optometrists as members of the group – has seen a spike in younger optometrists moving into ownership earlier.

Philip Rose

The organisation says this has a lot to do with ownership opportunities becoming available, with COVID-19 accelerating many older optometrists’ retirement and exit plans.

“We’ve been finding that 30- to 40-year-old optometrists are approaching us to purchase practices,” says Mr Philip Rose, Eyecare Plus national business development manager.

“They have learnt from working in practices, often various business models, to know what they want in their own. At the same time, the younger the buyer, the more daunting self-employment can be for them. They want to take the leap into ownership but tend to gravitate back to the employment safety net because it’s what they know. Unfortunately, this will ultimately limit their potential earning capacity and lifestyle choices.

“Younger optometrists underestimate the opportunities that an independent lifestyle can bring.”

Eyecare Plus helps optometrists run their own independent practice in their own exclusive geographic territory.

It’s a formula the organisation says has worked successfully since its launch in 2000.

Practice ownership suggestions

The past has shown that optometry is a resilient profession and practice ownership has proved a sound investment.

During the 2008 financial crisis, while most businesses suffered enormously, optometry practices in Australia generally stayed afloat with stable income.

A lot of the time, retail sales were up every month, with many achieving record levels of turnover and profitability during what was said to be the toughest economic conditions in 20 years.

According to Eyecare Plus, this trend has also been evident during COVID. While many non-optometry businesses had to close their doors, optometry practices in general were able to stay open, albeit with slight adjustments to their levels of service provision.

Rose says it has a lot to do with eye health being an essential service.

“People value their vision over any of their other senses,” he says, in a claim supported by Optometry Australia’s ‘2020 Vision’ report revealing 76% of all Australians consider their eyesight to be their most important sense, while 59% are concerned about the quality of their eyesight, and know they need to do something about it.

Buying options

Rose explains there are two options potential buyers have in entering the market: either they buy an existing practice or purchase a new (greenfield) practice.

He says the difficulty with buying into a greenfield practice location is that a practice owner is taking all the risk themselves. This can not only be daunting but enormously risky.

This is the reason why many potential owners contact Eyecare Plus, Rose adds, stating that the national office is prepared to assist practice owners who are looking to open their own practice.

“We can work with a new owner to find the right practice for them. We can set them up into a partnership because we know which optometrists are planning to exit and in how many years. We also have all the KPIs and knowledge of the market they are entering into,” Rose explains.

“Eyecare Plus can provide owners – both current and new – with personal advice and assistance. Current members and practice owners are happy to talk with and mentor anyone who does not have experience with the business side of optometry.

“Also, due to our protected territories, one point of difference with Eyecare Plus is that members can exchange ideas and talk freely at meetings because they know that their direct competitor will not be in the same room. This creates a fantastic collegiate culture within the group.”

Wayne Derrick, Eyecare Plus Maroochydore.

Business plans

In addition to practice benchmarking and understanding the local competitors and changing patient demographics, Rose says Eyecare Plus recommends that practices create a business plan.

A new or revised business plan can improve a practice’s ability to recognise and meet its goals, as well as steer future success and personal reward.

Eyecare Plus recommends business plans exist as a “living” document.

“Your business plan must have ‘meaning’ to you and be the guideline by which you manage and develop your business,” Rose says.

“We have recently started doing face-to-face appointments again, but also continue to offer these via Zoom meetings.”

Rose explains there are three elements to the Eyecare Plus business plan:

1. Situation analysis (where you are)

Eyecare Plus looks at a broad range of KPIs and compares them to industry benchmark figures, together with an incremental growth demonstration tool to show the impact of small changes.

2. Goals and objectives (where you want to be)

Depending on identified strengths and weaknesses, the organisation works with members to achieve their personal and business goals.

3. Strategies and tactics (how to get there)

Eyecare Plus considers which actions need to be followed to achieve the business’ goals and objectives for an improvement to the practice’s performance.

Rural optometry boom

Rose says that young optometrists are not only driven by the potential business opportunity and independence that ownership brings, but they also want to build long term relationships with their patients and use their full scope of optometric skills.

“This is where owning a regional or rural optometry practice comes into its own. A rural practice is such a good fit for a new owner,” he says.

“In a country practice you will see all sorts of eye conditions. Optometrists who move from the city to take over a partnership in a rural practice are always surprised about the diversity of eye conditions that walk through the door. In a rural practice, you’re not just dispensing glasses all day.”

Rose notes that more flexible working conditions, such as working from home during the pandemic, has had a long-term effect on property purchase decision making, particularly for younger people who have found the major cities unaffordable.

“There has been a huge surge in home ownership in regional towns and that hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic,” he explains.

“These regional towns are seeing big population booms for the first time in decades, and they need services. This is why a potential new optometry practice in a rural setting will thrive. Populations are moving out of the city and buying homes. Because of their investments into these rural areas, it is unlikely they will pull up stumps and return to the capital cities.”

Marketing assistance

Once practices come into the Eyecare Plus fold, the organisation’s services extend into providing practice owners with marketing assistance under its Marketing Plus division.

For the benefit of its members, Eyecare Plus National Office has funded digital advertising during the past two years across two main channels – social media (Facebook and Instagram) and Google Ads.

According to Rose, the Eyecare Plus website attracts more than 143,000 unique visitors each year and has been purpose-engineered for optimal user experience through easy navigation that provides relevant and topical information.

Marketing Plus also works to continuously adapt messaging and creative presentations to bring people back to the site regularly. In turn, this helps grow brand awareness and, as a result, increased online bookings for practices operating under the Eyecare Plus banner.

Rose says the Marketing Plus team can create and execute a marketing and communications plan for any of its partner practices.

“Marketing Plus continues to help support and grow the Eyecare Plus brand at a local and national level. They work closely with individual members to market their practice within their local community,” he says.

“Nationally, Marketing Plus continues to evolve and adapt marketing strategies through online offerings, digital advertising and the Eyecare Plus website.”

Human resources

Finally, at Eyecare Plus, Rose says new owners have access to a human resources consultant.

“This also includes our library of Human Resources Procedures, which covers areas such as recruitment and selection, performance management, pay reward and recognition, policies and procedures, workplace health and safety and wellbeing,” he says.

Once a practice is established, the Eyecare Plus national office staff will accredit the practice to give on-site feedback to help improve practice operations and ensure the provision of quality patient care.

Regular practice business performance reviews and monthly benchmarking will guide new owners on areas to improve in their practice.

“Whether taking over an established practice or opening a new practice Eyecare Plus can help you make the transition seamlessly from working as an employee, to becoming a successful independent practice owner,” Rose concludes.

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