Business, Company, Feature, Report

Taking independent optometry to the leading edge

George & Matilda Eyecare has rapidly grown its network to around 90 practices in four years. With plans to double in size by 2024, founder and managing director CHRIS BEER explains how data scientists, AI, and advanced digital assets are driving value to independent optometry.

Despite 36 years in the optical industry, Mr Chris Beer, founder and managing director of George & Matilda Eyecare (G&M), says his biggest lesson has been to forget almost everything he has learned and be guided by the data.

It’s a mindset that aligns with the way in which the world’s leading optical businesses operate to dominate their respective markets today. And more importantly, according to Beer, is critical to the survival of independent optometry.

“Seven years ago, I was on record saying if you don’t have a data scientist you’re going to die, and I believe if you don’t have one today, you are dead, you just don’t know it yet,” he says.

“In the next year or two I think George & Matilda would be as digitally-savvy as the best in the world in the optical business – and right now we are certainly well advanced of most companies in Australia. But the problem is it’s too late for those businesses that haven’t already invested. Many simply may not even know about the technology yet, and once they do the cost of entry isn’t small.”

Technology and the advantages of buying, marketing and administrative power are major components of G&M’s value proposition for its independent community that has grown to around 90 in just four years.

Beer says the company has invested ahead of the technological curve. This includes customised supply chain software, as well as artificial intelligence that leverages databases and can send more than 700 personalised patient communications depending on age, sex and demographic. Underpinning this is a centralised data system that’s analysed by an in-house data scientist, with the company set to appoint another in the coming months.

When G&M launched in 2016, it vowed to become the independent pillar and third major player in the Australian optical market. Its mantra was to be the engine behind Australia’s best independent optometrists that are embedded within the fabric of their communities.

George & Matilda Eyecare’s practice network has grown to more than 90 in four years. Pictured here is theeyecarecompany by G&M Eyecare in Liverpool, in Greater Western Sydney.

While the values-driven company has outlined ambitions to double in size over the next three years, it remains selective about who it chooses and has turned away more than it has brought on board.

“For us it’s about building a quality community, not a drag race for size and scale,” Beer says, adding that some practices are coached before later joining the network.

“The way I describe George & Matilda Eyecare to my friends is when I’ve got the man flu on a Sunday night, I don’t care who I see. I just want to go to the 24-hour clinic and make sure it’s nothing worse and maybe get some medication.

“There’s already others doing that today [in optometry] – and there’s nothing wrong with it, they do that well – but if I get chest pain, I want to go to the doctor I’ve been seeing for the last 20 years who’s got all my history, family history, and will spend more time with me. That’s what George & Matilda is and that’s the DNA we go through to choose who’s part of our community.”

Succeeding where others failed 

G&M’s business model provides significant back-office support and infrastructure so its partner optometrists can dedicate more time to their patients. In the majority of cases, it purchases the assets of the business and co-brands, building on the existing brand equity.

But Beer says continual investment in technology – with the benefits of scale – is where it generates significant value for its partner practices.

It’s an area he identified when formulating the G&M business plan more than five years ago. Beer always

believed independents needed to be better coordinated, and this was confirmed after visiting the graveyard of failed allied health businesses, and researching what worked.

“It’s all well and good to cobble together a few stores, but if you don’t build platforms or technology and therefore add value, it doesn’t work. All you’re doing is adding some overhead infrastructure costs, and if it wasn’t profitable before, it’s going to be worse today,” he explains.

George & Matilda seeks to build on the practice’s existing brand equity.

“As an independent you can’t afford to have Salesforce turned on doing A/B testing, interactive messages, and using AI tech and the data scientists behind them. The big guys are already doing it, and the gap isn’t linear, it’s accelerating.”

While it’s a technological challenge, Beer says G&M’s strength is its ability to allow practices to maintain their individuality, while embedding the back-end systems that customise to each practice’s requirements.

“We want our partners to come on board because they’re good at what they do, and we want them to continue that. Where we can add value we will, and where we can’t, we leave you alone. Our technology accounts for the customised frames assortment in each practice, and, in theory, every customer will have a personalised customer journey and all the digital assets will continue to build upon that every time.”

With the imminent appointment of another data scientist, a large part of that work involves looking for correlations in data collected through each practice’s Sunix or Optomate practice management systems. Insights are fed back to practices to help grow sales and run more efficient businesses.

This extends to looking at certain customer groups and their basket values, and figuring out what motivates purchasing decisions.

“Historically, in a meeting of decision makers, there’s usually two outcomes: the most passionate person in the room wins because they convince the majority, or the leader says no we are going to go this way. And it’s all done usually with good intentions, good will, some information and bias,” Beer explains.

“Even though I’m one of the most experienced people in the room, one of the key learnings has been to forget everything I have learned and understand what the data says. When we’re sitting around the table, I want to know what our data scientist thinks because that’s where the answer lies – and often it’s very different to what people think.”

Poised for rapid growth 

While many businesses reacted to the changing landscape in 2020, Beer says G&M used it as an opportunity to reset.

It is now much clearer on its ambitions, which includes being even more selective with people and practices that align with its values and vision, while also forming deeper business ties with fewer suppliers.

G&M wasn’t immune to the pandemic; it shut and merged some marginal practices that were included in package deals and figured out how to do more with less. It also halted acquisitions and head office worked seven days a week to ensure liquidity, renegotiate rental/loan agreements, review supplier arrangements and provide key business and employment advice to practices – including up to 100 businesses that weren’t part of G&M (outside normal business hours).

When Beer spoke with Insight in December, the recovery was in full swing, and he had just completed a three-day off-site meeting with the board and senior team to outlay the strategy for the next three years.

As mentioned, a major component is doubling the practice network. The first phase happened in late 2020 with the relaunch of its acquisitions program, seeing Meyer Optica in Balmain, New South Wales, and Mt Martha Optical, in Victoria, join the network.

Traditionally, G&M has preferred to focus internally on driving value to its practices and patients and placed little emphasis on consumer marketing. But that is also set to change this year.

“You will see the launch of George & Matilda 2.0 for want of a better term, and we will start going to market through a number of different channels and digital assets. We can start driving more people to the stores and building that brand equity,” he says.

“We have got to a size and scale now that economically it makes sense. There becomes a tipping point where you can invest that money and it becomes a virtual circle, but if it’s done too early, you’re not big enough to get scale, so you’re not really driving the value.”

Another major focus will be succession planning for the future leaders of the industry. G&M has some partners – and key opinion leaders – seeking to transition to retirement.

“Succession planning is not just about finding a great partner, but a great partner who wants to take the baton and the legacy and be part of what the future of the industry is going to be for the next 20 to 30 years. We are spending a lot of time around succession planning and I think that’s going to be quite interesting.”

More reading

George & Matilda network nears 100-practice milestone

Internationally recognised optometrist joins George & Matilda

Prominent George & Matilda figure among changes to OA national board