3 questions with Doug and Dame Mary Perkins, Co-founders of Specsavers

11th November 2020

UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Doug and Dame Mary Perkins, Co-founders of Specsavers, before their virtual talk.

1.What makes Specsavers’ business model unique?

Mary: The business model for Specsavers is unique and the main reason for this is the unique partnership that we have. We wrote that partnership agreement and it is very much a two-way agreement that we help each other - people in the stores and people in the support offices.

We have very strong visions and values which the whole company believes in.

In fact, we say, if you’re in Specsavers and you live the visions and values, then you have green blood, and I think it’s very important that everybody buys into that.

So, yes, it is unique.

2. What are the most valuable lessons you have learnt in building your brand?

Mary: We’ve learnt some valuable lessons along the way, running Specsavers, and I think one of the important things to me is that you actually listen to the customers.

It’s what the customers want, not what you think that they want, and it is quite important to be differentiated from your competition.

And I firmly believe that, although we’re retailers on the high street, as the case may be, you can’t run retail optics from behind a desk and your remote office.

There’s a lot of customer care there, eye and hearing care, and you need people in the store that really are there for the customers. So, those are the things that we’ve learnt along the way.

Doug: That’s lasted forty years and there have been three stages.

The stage of local and regional learning. For that you’ll require, basically, start-up specialists, commercial people in your industry with a wide range of skills.

When we come then to becoming nationwide, aspiring to be a national company, you’ll actually need leaders more skilled than yourself, so actually we’ve got a team of experienced career professionals.

Now, when we come on to international that was a different learning experience. We needed to have international career’s specialists, those people who could master international technology and international marketing and branding, and many other skills.

So, having people around you with greater skills than yourself is very much paramount to our learning.  

3.What advice would you give to students looking to build a business model as successful as yours?

Mary: We would love to give lots of advice to students coming on or maybe starting their own businesses.

Foremost, you’ve got to have a passion for what you do because it is not easy. It is not a 9 to 5 job. 

You wake up thinking about whatever you’re doing, and you go to sleep thinking about your business.

So, you have to be prepared for that. And, I’ve always said that as you grow and get a little bit bigger, always employ somebody who knows more than you, that way you keep your company moving forward.

And, as I say, have the passion and know that you’re doing something different in the market you’re in.

Doug: Yes, with your ambition it’s never too early to start, coming out of university, but the first thing to realise is that you actually need to have more experience.

You need to be in the world of work in your industry of choice.

And preferably to join the right company, a company that will help your development, your people skills, provide you mentorship and leadership, and that is so vital.

As the months and years go on, you might have to even change your company in order to widen those skills.

So, the answer is not to rush into owning your own business, you have to ask yourself all the time, as Mary has said, making a difference is paramount. Can you make a difference?

Mary: Do remember, we had 15 years in optics before we started Specsavers, so we’ve learned a lot and we knew exactly what we needed to do in the market we were in. That’s important as well.

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. You can discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures and view further content from Doug and Dame Mary Perkins’ lecture here. For more information please contact events@uwe.ac.uk.

Do you want to join the conversation?

Sign up here
  • Bristol Distinguished Address Series

    Bristol Distinguished Address Series is delivered by Bristol Business School in partnership with Business West.

    Check out the BDAS events pages for listings and information.

  • The West of England Initiative

    Provides an effective link between private and public sectors to ensure the interests of commerce are considered in key decision making.