Welsh Wisdom For Businesses – Douglas & Mary Perkins

Learning from those who have proved their success in business makes a lot of sense.

In this series we gather advice from successful Welsh entrepreneurs, bringing together their quotes and opinions, to inspire and guide you to ever-greater business growth.

Douglas Perkins & Dame Mary Perkins

Doug and Mary PerkinsPhoto: aop.org.uk/ot/industry/high-street/2016/08/02/a-year-of-growth

Doug and Mary Perkins met at Cardiff University, founded Specsavers in 1984 in Guernsey, and gradually opened over 2,000 stores all over the world, to become the biggest global private optician chain.

The company operates as a joint-venture partnership – each Specsavers opticians is a separate legal business, with 50% of shares owned by the Specsavers Optical Group and 50% by the practice partners.

Each practice pays a fee to the Group for services and support such as IT, marketing, operations and retail training. Profits belong to the partners and staff in that store.

Mary sits on the Group board, oversees the Guernsey operation, runs PR, provides the retail know-how and vision.

Doug describes his role as ‘putting the infrastructure round that, and making sure we have done the support and marketing and motivation of people’.

Business Growth Advice

1. Work Hard

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Doug’s upbringing taught him a mantra he still swears by: if you didn’t work, you didn’t get.

“I am well and truly working class. And I’ve used it as an advantage: it gives you extra drive, there’s no doubt about that. When others may have slackened off, I’ve kept with the same work ethic for 50 years and I really enjoy what I do.”  

Mary says ‘We enjoy going to work every day. Just because we are of retirement age doesn’t mean we should stop doing what we love.’Helpful Resources:

2. Build A Family Values Culture

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Doug says “I’m not working for next year’s results like most people on the stock exchange, watching the share price bob up and down – that doesn’t interest me at all. My shareholders are out there on the shop floor.”

“That’s one of the reasons why we’ve never gone on the stock exchange, because then you would spend half your time talking to institutional shareholders”.

Mary believes the culture of the business – “still a private company with family values” – has been integral to its success.

With over 30,000 staff and a total turnover of £2.61 billion, Specsavers is a huge business, yet retains the feel of a family firm, or as Mary calls it “a family business with thousands of family members”.

Helpful Resources:

3. Focus On The Customer

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“Being working class gives you a work ethic but it also allows you to identify, always, with the importance of the customer, young and old, rich and poor,” says Doug.

Mary adds “I never lose sight of the customers. We wouldn’t have a business if it wasn’t for them, so they… are my best friends, the most important people in my life.”

Helpful Resources:

Specsavers has achieved growth year after year. It has never closed a store, has no loans or outside investment. This is nothing to do with luck or timing, insists Mary, but the result of “careful appraisal of everything”.

Specsavers rigorously researches locations and partners, and is closely involved with the running of each store.

“A board member meets with all the opticians in every country every eight weeks…. It’s not all done from behind a desk, we’re very much involved at the sharp end.”

Helpful Resources:

5. Nurture Community Relationships

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The Specsavers joint venture structure encourages opticians to build engagement in their own patch.

Doug explains: “Reputation is ever more important with the new media around. Companies should stay close to their customers and be part of their communities.”

He warns the internet has increased customer expectations “Customers are searching for more value – for more for less. They’re more demanding, and more knowledgeable, using the internet to find out things for themselves, and they want better service. So they need to be told why they should spend money with you.”

Helpful Resources:

6. Stick To The Knitting

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Mary’s famous phrase is “Stick to the knitting”, which emphasises the importantance of sticking to core activities that mesh with your existing skills and customer base.

Specsavers have kept growth at a steady and manageable rate. A common cause of failure, she says, is “trying to run before walking, trying to get big in a hurry – there’s no need to do that”.

She warns against being too thinly spread, and losing culture and values when expanding into other markets.

“I think entrepreneurs who want to grow a business have to think really hard about whether they want to add on another country, or whether they should be strengthening what they’ve got.”

Helpful Resources:

7. Different Growth Stages Need Different People

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Growing a business necessitates some ruthless decisions, and involves difficult conversations.

“We started with generalists, we could all do a bit of everything. Then there comes a stage when you need specialists – a marketing director and so on.

Later when you go out to different countries, you need global experience.

So there are times when you have to say goodbye to someone… The people who start the business with you are not always the people you need as you get bigger.”

Helpful Resources:


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