George & Matilda Eyecare’s inaugural partner optometrists have served their first five years as part of their original agreement terms. Insight asks how the model has worked for them during that time, while the company hints at adding further allied health streams.
Ask a George & Matilda (G&M) Eyecare partner optometrist their chief concern when negotiating their entry into the network, most will say it was the unfounded fear of losing their clinical independence.
When the company launched in 2016, it vowed to become the independent pillar and third major player in the Australian optical market, providing fuel to the engine of some of Australia’s most reputable independent optometrists.
Six years – and around 90 practices – later, technology and the advantages of buying, marketing and administrative power remain the major components of G&M’s value proposition. In the majority of cases, it purchases the assets of the business and co-brands, building on the existing brand equity. The optometrist becomes a remunerated employee, and still shares in the profits.
For optometrists that have built their businesses over many years, letting go of many daily business functions may evoke a sense of liberation. But there may also be some anxiety around the integrity of their clinical independence.
“For many years I worried about selling my practice one day, who would want to buy it and how it would lead to comfortable retirement one day,” said Mr David Evian, of Evian Optometrists by G&M Eyecare, a practice in the NSW community of St Leonards that was among the first to join G&M.
“My initial concerns were: are they a reputable company and how would it affect me practising high quality optometry? What has surprised and delighted me over the years is how little they interfered with the professional part of my practice, enabling me to practise all levels of my definition of quality optometry.”
Dr Margaret Lam – an optometrist partner at theeyecarecompany, a three-practice Sydney business that joined G&M seeking a step change – echoed Evian’s sentiments. She wanted to ensure optometrists still had clinical independence and a voice in how the practice continued to be run.
“What I’ve experienced in G&M, is we balance listening to our practitioners and team ‘on the coalface’, as well as bringing impressive insights from big data analytics that independent practitioners wouldn’t normally have access to. This balance helps to improve the care and product offering we offer patients and improve the care journey,” she said.
“I’ve been impressed by [founder and CEO] Chris Beer’s big picture thinking to integrate analytics and big data into all aspects of growing our optometry businesses. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend someone consider joining G&M as the right step to developing their practice or improve their business, and allow them to take out their hard-earned equity.”
George & Matilda in 2022
Beer – an optical industry stalwart of 37 years, including 11 years as CEO of Luxottica’s Asia Pacific operations – says high quality service is a major reason why the best independents flourish, so it makes sense to preserve this.
“Many optometrist partners that join G&M are surprised that we actually don’t interfere at all with the clinical independence and that this is maintained after joining a community like G&M,” he explains.
“They all say ‘you do what you say’. They don’t see this level of independence in corporate optometry and in many cases independent where the owner will heavily influence the practice of one of their team.”
Over its short lifespan, Beer says G&M has learned a lot about itself, but importantly its partners, their patients and local communities.
“This allows us to customise each practice offering to enhance the community offer for eyecare and related services,” he says.
“Like any start-up, there has been many challenges along the way, and then to be impacted by COVID over the last three years and still to be in the strong condition we are in reflects the hardworking and strong team that we have. The efforts of the whole community have put us in a position where we are now well placed to accelerate our growth plans in the coming year.”
Previously, Beer has spoken of his concern for independent Australian optometrists to keep pace with large corporates in terms of technology. He also believes the local independent environment will remain challenged by the ability to provide a competitive service without the buying power that larger businesses have.
He says G&M’s scale has allowed it to invest in technology and place it at the centre of its decision-making. Head office-based data scientists analyse sales data, correlations and trends across the network that are then fed back for continuous improvement. It can also leverage artificial intelligence offering hundreds of personalised patient communications.
“The continual transition to a digital world is going to accelerate the gap between corporate and independent practice as small independents and buying groups simply don’t have the resources or structure to make the investments required,” Beer predicts in the next five years.
“The gap is accelerating rapidly and COVID has exacerbated this. The customer expectations are changing at a speed that will see those not participating fall of a cliff rapidly over the next two to three years.”
Beer says it’s fair to say in G&M’s early days, its systems and technology stack based off AI learning “were a little clunky”.
“Now we have developed into a very data and insight driven organisation that can cut through opinions to facts that provide insights to continuously improve our offering to partners and patients,” he explains.
“The result of this is we can materially add value to all our incoming partners in a way most have not experienced before. My team often hear me say I’m interested in what the data and AI tells us, not the opinions and personal bias that exist in the industry.”
Optometry’s mass retirement
G&M has made no secret of its selectivity when weighing up acquisitions. As Beer has previously stated, it’s more about building a high-quality community than a drag race for size and scale.
“We are excited to see G&M’s growth, being able to render our professional and high-quality services and products to all parts of Australia and serve and extend our reach to further local communities. In addition, we will start to add allied heath streams to our community where they are aligned with our values and service creation,” Beer says.
“It goes without saying that we are looking for practices that are well established in the local community and practitioners with great reputations. But on top of that, we have a strong set of characteristics and standards we would like our partners to resonate with as we are a values-driven organisation and go to a lot of effort to ensure incoming partners align with them before proceeding.”
That means not all negotiations end with a signed contract. But when it does, partner optometrists say they have been impressed by the value created, allowing them to focus more on patient care, work/life balance and a smooth path to retirement.
For Mr Gary Scheckter, of Eyes On Optometrists by G&M Eyecare in Duncraig, WA, the main reason for joining G&M was a willingness to retire or semi-retire.
“I was interested in finding less stressful ways of selling my practice. G&M offered a fair price and I also liked the idea of not having to deal with landlords and it would be good to have experts deal with marketing, payroll and HR issues,” he says.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend G&M, whether you want to retire, need support from experts in their field or just want to make some money from all your hard work. I fully intend to stay with G&M on reduced hours, until I retire in probably five to seven years’ time. That way I can still look after my patients that have been loyal to me and G&M for so long.”
Mr Michael Angelos, of G&M Eyecare for Karisma Optometrist in McMahons Point, NSW, says the ability to lighten his workload has been an attraction of G&M: “I have no plans to retire. But working part time as an optometrist has given me the freedom to pursue other business and social interests.”
Mr Glen Barker successfully transitioned his patients on to his successors at his namesake practice. He’s now retired and after six months helping out for a couple of days, he’s taking an extended trip to South Africa to see relatives and friends.
“In future you may see me work from time-to-time as it’s my choice to stay connected to my community. This was the right choice and have no hesitation to recommending Chris and the team.”
According to newly appointed general manager of partnerships Ms Cassie Gersbach, over the next five years the industry will be impacted by very experienced optometrists moving into retirement of their choice. Equally, the sector will have the largest number of new grads entering the industry – “a perfect storm really”.
“G&M plays a pivotal role in this transitional stage by ensuring we connect the two to share learnings and secrets of success while paying homage to the legacy built,” she explains.
“This is complimented by the new ideas and energy to continue servicing and caring for our growing patients in each community. Our existing partners and I propose not to wait till you’re ready to retire. It’s best to work into retirement supported by those who do care for the best outcomes for all involved.”
- For job opportunities at George & Matilda, visit Insight’s Classifieds page.
- Optometrists interested in becoming a George & Matilda Eyecare partner can access more information here.