RICH PICKINGS: The vision for growth

The founders of the globally successful Specsavers optometry business, now living part-time in Melbourne, are seeing clear results from Australia. The business is growing, and currently generating sales of around $340 million a year.

The recently released Sunday Times Rich List of Britain’s wealthiest 1000 people contained the usual group of Australian money-management stars, led by Michael Hintze (valued at $837 million on the list), Greg Coffey ($383 million) and Hilton Nathanson ($280 million).

But there were also some surprises.

Controversial Hungarian/Australian miner Frank Timis soared up the list to jump into Australia’s billionaire club with a fortune of just over $1 billion.

Timis, who has convictions for heroin trafficking and theft, has had several run-ins with corporate regulators across the world and must surely be one of the most colourful rich list members anywhere in the world – just check out his director’s disclosure for National Stock Exchange-listed African Petroleum.

However, one of the British-born stars of the list also has a close connection to Australia.

Doug Perkins, who along with his wife Mary Perkins founded discount optometry chain Specsavers, hit the headlines last week after their pair joined the £1 billion club. Their fortune jumped from £340 million ($523 million) to an impressive £1.15 billion ($1.8 billion), making them the 56th richest people in Britain.

Part of the reason for the rise is the company’s rapid expansion in Australia, where in the space of three years it has opened more than 250 stores and turned the staid optometry sector on its head with an aggressive marketing strategy and ultra-competitive pricing.

But the Australian connection doesn’t end there. While Specsavers is based in the British Guernsey and has close to 1400 stores around the world, Doug Perkins is now based in Melbourne.

We did try to contact Perkins for an interview, but the Perkins are notoriously shy when it comes to talking about money.

Instead, they’ve focused on building a business – and perhaps just as importantly, a brand – that has allowed them to disrupt markets across the world.

The Perkins have one of those classic small-entrepreneur-made-good stories that inspires business owners around the world.

Doug and Mary Perkins met at Cardiff University when studying to become optometrists. After they were married they established their first chain of optometrists in the 1960s in Mary’s hometown on Bristol. The chain would eventually expand to include 23 stores.

In 1980, the business was sold for £2 million, and the pair moved to Guernsey, where Mary's father had retired.

But the British government’s decision to deregulate professions such as optometry – and allow these businesses to advertise their goods and services for the first time – created an opportunity. The couple decided to launch a new business from the table tennis table in their spare bedroom.

Specsavers grew quickly, starting with stores in Guernsey and Bristol, before spreading to Plymouth, Swansea and Bath. Within four years, there were 100 stores and by 1995 there were 300.

Two years later, the company expanded overseas, opening its first store in the Netherlands. Sweden followed in 2004, Denmark and Norway a year later and Finland in 2007.

In January 2008, Mary Perkins opened the 1000th store in Roosendaal, Netherlands, before travelling to Australia to open the first three stores here.

The chain’s expansion has been dramatic in Australia. Under managing director Peter Larsen – and with a very involved Doug Perkins – the group has targeted existing independent optometrists, converts from other chains, and Australia’s relatively strong pool of franchise entrepreneurs.

According to research firm IBISWorld, in three years the company has grabbed about 18.5 per cent of the market. Based on revenue projections in the prospectus it provides to potential franchisees, revenue in Australia is around $340 million – well beyond the target of $200 million by June 30, 2010.

It’s that impressive growth that has lifted total revenue at the group to around $2.4 billion and sent the Perkins’ wealth through the roof.

So what are the secrets to the explosive growth? There are four: aggressive marketing, sharp pricing, strong customer services, and a clever twist on traditional franchising.

Specsavers was born out of the opportunity for optometrists to advertise and it remains a marketing-led company. In Australia, the company’s launch has been accompanied by an avalanche of aggressive advertising, with the company spending just over $20 million a year to push its famous "You should have gone to Specsavers” slogan.

This heavy advertising has cleverly piggy-backed on other well-known brands – Quiksilver, DKNY and most recently, Australian fashioner designer Alex Perry – who are also trying to establish themselves in the ultra-competitive optical frames market.

"Doug doesn’t really have any hobbies, he needs to work. I can see him in his 90s as a crotchety old man in his dressing gown, still holding meetings.”

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