The Welsh founder of international opticians Specsavers has returned to his roots to officially open two new stores in Wales, and confirmed that further expansion is on the way.
Doug Perkins, who started the £1.6 billion chain in 1984 with his wife, Dame Mary, took a break from a rapid roll out programme in Australia to visit two new stores, in Newport and Cardigan, along with a newly-extended facility in Specsavers’ Swansea store, the first to open in Wales.
The new stores and extension in Swansea bring an additional 25 jobs to Wales, as part of a package of investment worth over £0.5m. The expansion reaffirms Specsavers’ position as the largest privately owned optician in the world, employing more than 30,000 people in over 1,600 stores across 10 countries.
Llanelli-born Mr Perkins says: ‘As I grew up in Wales and lived here for many years, returning always brings with it some happy memories.
‘I try to get back to Wales as often as I can, so it’s a pleasure to come home to see these new stores opening, further showing Specsavers’ commitment to growth in this country.’
Mr Perkins’s two-day tour saw him visit the new store inside Tesco Extra at Spytty Road Retail Park, Newport, as well as on Cardigan High Street, which mark the 32nd and 33rd Specsavers store openings in Wales.
The opening in Newport re-united Mr Perkins with store director and founding partner, Leighton Griffiths, who worked with Mr Perkins as a pre-registration optometrist at the company’s first ever store, in Bristol.
Mr Perkins says: ‘It was fantastic to see Leighton again and to visit the new facility in Newport. With more and more out-of-town shopping developments cropping up, it’s not something you can ignore, and our new store in Spytty Road Retail Park is a response to that.
‘You need to strike the right balance between out-of-town retailing and maintaining an investment in the High Street, though. In the Netherlands, if you go down the High Street, you can see how well looked after its towns and cities are, and we need to be careful not to go too far down the route of big box retailing in Wales.
‘In Newport, Specsavers now has a store both on the High Street and in an out-of-town retail park in Newport, so we are meeting both of those needs.’
Cardigan was the only county town in Wales without a Specsavers, but Mr Perkins also officially christened the new store there, which offers full eye examinations in Welsh and English.
Mr Perkins adds: ‘We always knew Cardigan would be a great area to open a Specsavers, so this has been long overdue, but it was important that we had the right people behind the store.
‘It’s also an important step for us because it signals an investment into a regional area. Currently there is just a single training facility for optometry in Wales, at the School of Optometry in Cardiff, and this is an on-going issue we have in this country as there is a danger that the talent can get sucked away from other parts of Wales.
‘This is why we’re conscious to invest in regional areas at Specsavers. We are delighted, then, that we have a strong team in place in Cardigan, and we’re so pleased that the store is up and running there.’
Mr Perkins’s, a former Llanelli Boys Grammar School pupil, also visited the oldest Welsh store in the Specsavers group during his tour. The store on the Kingsway, Swansea, is the third oldest in the world, and has nearly doubled in size since its recent expansion.
Mr Perkins says Specsavers is also considering further expansion in Wales, by opening another three or four stores before the end of the year.
‘While at times it can be tougher to invest in Wales than other areas, what we do have is the foundations here with strong connections between private practices and the NHS,’ he adds. ‘There’s a great spirit in Wales – and it’s not just because of the success of the rugby team!
‘The partnership model is key to our expansion here. It works for us and has served us well. We’ll be looking at opening three, maybe four, more stores here this year if we can.
‘I think this is partly because we’re starting to see the confidence pick up again. Last year we felt was a crunch year, but we have felt the mood has generally remained positive in Wales.’
Mr Perkins, the son of a Welsh-speaking police sergeant and farmer’s daughter, first met his Bristol-born wife in 1965 when the couple were both studying ophthalmic optics at the University of Cardiff.
From one Bristol store, they built up the largest chain in the South-West of England and Wales, which was sold in 1980. The couple spent some time touring the USA and studying how opticians operated there, before opening up the first Specsavers in 1984 in Bristol.
It marked the first time customers (patients) could walk into an optical ‘shop’ with hundreds of clearly priced frames on display. Its advertising slogan ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers’ is now part of the nation’s everyday language.
The company, which is run as a joint-venture partnership model, has 1,642 stores and operates throughout the UK and six European countries, as well as Australasia. Its expansion into Australia has been credited as being the fastest retail roll out in the country’s history. Perkins opened Specsavers’ 300th store there in 2011, just three years after opening its first.
Specsavers also now has 148 hearing centres, after opening its first one just 10 years ago. Their stores now dispense more than 60,000 digital hearing aids annually – one in four dispensed privately in the UK, making it the nation’s largest retail dispenser of digital hearing aids.
Mr Perkins adds: ‘Mary and I started out with just two part-time staff, who are still with the company today, and worked from our spare bedroom using a table-tennis table as a desk. We posted glasses to our first few stores from a nearby letterbox. It’s hard to imagine how much things have grown since then.
‘Much of the basis for our growth now is down to the joint-venture partnership model. It gives us the buying power of a large international brand, which means the savings can be passed on to the customer. Our model also means each store is owned and run by local opticians, directors and partners, who are in the heart of their local communities, talking to business leaders and fellow eye care professionals on the ground every day.’
Mr and Mrs Perkins’ remarkable success has resulted in a number of accolades. For Mrs Perkins, 2007 was a key year, when she was named Most Outstanding Business Woman at the National Business Awards and made Dame Commander of the British Empire.
In 2006, Anglia Ruskin University presented an Honorary Doctorate to Mr Perkins, for his pioneering development of the British optical industry, in respect of providing affordable eye care to communities and for his contributions to charitable medical organisations.