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Dame Mary Perkins on building a £1bn empire

High-street chain Specsavers, founded by Dame Mary Perkins and her husband in Guernsey in 1984, today has 655 stores across the UK (each one of which is a separate company registered with Companies House) and 1,600 stores overseas. It’s a truly global brand, operating in ten countries. “Once you go beyond your home shores, it’s very difficult to remain entrepreneurial,” admits Dame Mary.

Before she kicks off her speech at the Entrepreneurs’ Summit, she clarifies: “Yes I do wear reading glasses. It’s an age thing!”

Dame Mary talks us through the early days of the brand: “I had to put my house up as collateral. My bank manager, now a close friend, told me he would drive past my house every day just to make sure it was still there! When we started out, there weren’t any computers. It was ‘snail mail’ in the truest form. We’d send letters.”

Specsavers has a 42 per cent market share in the UK: “We have never closed a store here,” says Dame Mary. “They mustn’t be allowed to fail. And we’ve grown entirely organically.”

She goes on to explain the company’s joint venture partnership. Each JV is a 50/50 split between the optometrists (who are in charge of the day-to-day running of the store and profits) and Specsavers Optical Group (run by Dame Mary and her husband, providing supporting services and expertise in exchange for a management fee and a casting vote). “All of our optometrists have a guaranteed salary and the loans they put into the business are usually paid back by the company within three years,” adds Dame Mary. “The structure of these partnerships hasn’t changed in the past 27 years.”

Specsavers’ support services range from wholesale merchandising, management accounts, payroll and training to retail operations, product development, call centres and business development.

“Every year, the company holds 95 retail communication meetings to update our partners on the latest strategies and to hear what’s happening in the stores,” says Dame Mary.

The company also has a “Partnership Charter” to which all stores must sign up. The Charter outlines particular rules to prevent any tension and disagreements. “We ask our partners to commit to open, honest, two-way communication. We don’t want any foot-stamping. This is about treating each other with respect. And it’s important for me, too. I’ve been known to loose my rag!”

Her final nuggets of advice to the audience: “Deliver on promises and believe in Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

“And if you’re number one, always act as though you’re number two. It’s a steep slope down if you take your eye off the ball and become complacent.”


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