From the source: Chris Beer, George and Matilda

Since leaving the corporate world behind him, including more than a decade at OPSM, Chris Beer has been focused on building his optometry retail business, which has already acquired 75 practices in less than three years. Here, he chats about working with independents and George and Matilda’s plans for the new financial year.

Inside Retail Weekly: What is some of the latest news at the business?

Chris Beer: The latest news is we’ve signed on one of the eminent practices in Dubbo. It’s a big regional practice has been there for over 100 years. It’s a real pillar of the community. 

The whole premise of George and Matilda is to help independent optometrists, acquire them and partner with them. We bring the benefits to scale, because they find it hard to compete with the big guys and usually, it’s because they simply don’t have the resources in terms of data analytics, e-commerce, data scientists and supply chain platform. 

We want to work with people who are ingrained in the fabric of the community, the true independents. They usually stay on board with us for a minimum of five years. Some see it as an exit strategy, some see it as being able to focus on what they really want to do, like seeing customers, testing eyes and letting someone else take care of financing, P&Ls and hiring. They’re small business operators – they’re good at what they do, but they have to do everything, marketing and IT. So we provide them with a platform and we’re the engine behind the independents. We’ve invested a lot of money in terms of data analytics and data science, where we market and become really personal.

They get equity in the company and become shareholders and partners with George and Matilda. We co-brand and we take all the great things they’ve done and enhance it. Our goal is for George and Matilda to always be in the background, because we are focused on independents looking after the communities. Ultimately, independent optometrists spend more time and care more about people’s vision. Whoever we partner with, with all our marketing technology, we want to give them an even bigger profile in the community. 

Over three years, we’ve reached a milestone of 75 practices, which we’re proud of and it’s a testament to making sure we attract the very best and provide the support they’re looking for. 

IRW: What have you learned from your time in corporate and how have you implemented those insights in your own business?

CB: Learning is a mindset. I ran Asia for 13 years and woke up every day in countries that I wasn’t born in, never with a view that I knew the answer, but always the curiosity to find answers or to engage with people who had answers. I was always hungry to learn.

Corporate life is good. There are systems and structures and I learned how to build a business, to scale and take them to other countries. I worked for some amazing leaders, like any organisation. I worked for people who were less than inspiring, but sometimes you learn just as equally how you don’t want to treat people.

A really wise guy at Luxottica’s view was the business world is black and white, it’s not grey. The message was that if you think it’s grey, keep asking questions, because you need to make it black and white. If you’re in doubt, keep asking questions ’til you get to the answer.

The other thing that resonated with me was the opportunity of a lifetime passes you by every day – you just got to know what that is. But if you miss something, it’s OK. You don’t have to say yes to everything, but you have to be open and aware of what the possibilities are and be comfortable to say no. Sometimes it’s easy to keep saying yes, because the world is full of opportunities but you need to be disciplined to stay really focused.

Going from a big corporate to a small entrepreneurial business, you need to be comfortable having a lot less structure. There’s a lot more uncertainty, but there’s a lot more enthusiasm, energy and passion because you’re creating something and maintaining, building and growing your own business. 

I think the learnings around focus help because we get approached by many opportunities and we have a clear business model that we execute with our partners. It’s about having the discipline to say, ‘As appealing as that is, it’s not on-strategy’. If it’s not on your path, don’t get distracted. That’s a discipline I have to remind myself a lot, because there’s always a voice inside saying, ‘Nah, it’ll be all right, it’s OK.’ 

Yesterday we met for the next quarter and we broke down into work streams what we need to execute in the next 90 days across sales margins, service, all those sorts of things and everyone aligned. 

If someone’s got a great idea, we’ll park it and talk about it in our next session. We set a day aside every three months to do that. It also means everyone understands whatever everyone is working on and where the independents are at. It stops wheels spinning. We’re too small to have pet projects wasting time and resources, so everyone knows exactly what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. They can challenge it, debate it and improve it. Because I’m the founder and CEO, I don’t have the right to say no – everyone has to agree. I have the veto right not to do something, but I can’t say, ‘This is my project’. It means everyone has a say in how the organisation works and how we achieve our goals and ambitions. 

Everyone here is a shareholder and our partners are shareholders, so everyone has a common alignment. It’s not like in corporate or when you’re working with a franchise partner or JV partner and you get this ‘us and ‘them’ mentality. Everyone is aligned to doing well, getting bigger and going faster.

IRW: What are some of your focuses for the coming new financial year?

CB: First and foremost, it’s about the success of our partners. To do that, they have to come on board with us and we have to improve their practice. For us, it’s patient satisfaction – what are we doing to improve that? We’re spending a lot of time and effort adding to what those practices have done, we almost morph around them, we learn and understand, we agree to a plan together. If we can’t add value, we don’t. If they’re doing best practice, we like to take that and share that with other people. We want to grow their top line and profitability.

Given we have the belief that independent optometrists look after your eyes better, we want more patients to come see them. Fundamentally, we focus on each individual practice becoming more successful, otherwise why would they become a big part of the community?

We have ambitions to continue our growth and keep growing at the same pace, if not more. We started last financial year at around 40 practices and we finished at 75, so we want to keep that trajectory going.

IRW: You’ve grown quite a lot in three years. How do you maintain that growth while still keeping that entrepreneurial small business mindset and those same values across the whole business?

CB: Our office is small, we don’t plan to get to a bigger office. There’s 350 in the business and 24 in the support centre. It’s a question we’ve been asked many times: ‘When do we stop calling ourselves a startup?’ I got asked that 12 months ago and I didn’t have an answer, but the next day, we had a meeting with the team and said, ‘What are the things we value about a startup?’ The energy, enthusiasm, growth, passion, nimbleness, belief – we like all that and don’t want to lose it. 

So once a year, part of our strategic plan is to have an ambition so all we do every year is recast an ambition that is so big, bold and exciting, we’re always the size of a startup. It’s as simple as that. We keep redefining the ambition.

Over the next couple of years, there’s a great opportunity for us to continue our drive, value and create a bigger community in Australia and we’ll look offshore to other countries with my experience and contacts. Those possibilities might eventuate. I don’t think we’d want to slow down that mindset that startups bring, though.

IRW: What are some of the challenges when it comes to acquiring new businesses?

CB: We’ve been very selective of who we attract. There are two people who talk about acquisitions [with practices] another gentleman and I. There are conversations that take place in the company, but if someone wants to move forward, we don’t sign a heads of agreement until we talk about the values of George and Matilda, what we do and don’t do, what we expect, what we don’t expect.

Probably one of the first things I say is, ‘George and Matilda is not for everyone and not everyone is for George and Matilda’. We’ve announced 75 practices, but we have more than that because we don’t announce anything until we have leases signed, which sometimes takes two or three months. We’ve said no to about 50 practices because there hasn’t been an alignment of values. We’re selective like with any allied-health profession. There are different factions and politics in any profession. What we’re conscious of is when we have a conference, when you walk into that room and look around, you might not like everyone, but you respect them and you think, ‘I’m hanging out in the right group.’ 

We spend a lot of time talking about our values upfront and if we can’t find an agreement on that, it’s OK, it’s not a criticism of the other person, it’s just that we don’t have an alignment. But if there’s an alignment upfront, then we can see if we can find the right valuation. 

We have a very disciplined model. We’re not as flexible as people would like us to be because we want everyone to be [treated] the same. We don’t want someone going to a conference and saying, ‘I got this deal’ or asking ‘Why didn’t I get that deal?’ We’re consistent.

Sometimes that doesn’t work for people and we have to respect that. If someone says, ‘I’ll sign today if you do this because I’m special and unique’, I’d love to, but really, they’re not that special and unique. All the people who already signed up trust us because they wanted to become part of us, so I’m not going to lose their trust by signing this deal.

In our early stages, it was hard to say no to practices when we were trying to grow. You’re trying to get to the point where you’re not burning cash but we’re past that now, which is great. Three years in, it’s easy. We tell practices, ‘We’d love to, but if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for us and that’s OK.’ It’s better to work that out early on before you’ve incurred costs and they’ve incurred costs. Who knows? Maybe in a couple of years’ time, it might change. Our quickest deal took just a few weeks, which is crazy-fast, and the longest was three years.

IRW: Is there a standard George and Matilda instore customer experience?

CB: This is something that we discussed a lot yesterday. It’s not standardised because of our model, and whatever has made our independents successful, we want them to keep going. 

What we’re in the process of doing is taking the customer journey and all those great things they’ve done so we have best practice – every single independent we have has something brilliant we can learn from. We’re going to have a model customer experience that’s there as an ambition. 

You’ve got to be comfortable running a multi-lane highway. As long as the ambition and where we want to head is very clear, people will go at different speeds and directions to get there and we have to be really comfortable with that.

When you’re running a big corporate, it’s usually about: ‘This is our way. This is our model and brand and this is exactly how we want them to be represented. It’s not what you’ve done for the last 20 years, but we don’t care, we want it done this way.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

The difference with George and Matilda is we really value how our independents ran before us, so we encourage them to continue doing that. It’s a strength of our model and it can be a weakness, but the underpinning part from a George and Matilda experience is the optometrist and the teams who really care about their patients and customers. They love eyecare and bringing it to life in their way and if that’s slightly different, that’s OK. 

The brand experience is ‘I’ve gone in, people took a long time taking care of me, probably more than I’m used to, they explained a lot to me and now I’ve left more educated than I probably was beforehand’.  

Everyone’s really good at some things but no one’s perfect at everything and all we ask is for our independents to be open-minded around what best practice is. There are about 2500 independent optometrists in Australia. The interesting mindset is each of them think they’re competing with everyone, but when they come to George and Matilda, they realise they’re not competing with the guy 10 kilometres down the road, they’re part of the same community because they’ve got common investment, they’re sharing ideas and interacting with each other. We’ve created a tight community. People have different specialties and we’ve created hubs where they can talk about those specialties with each other.

IRW: What insights have you gained from the independent practices?

CB: I think I learn something every day. They’re very entrepreneurial in being successful. Luxottica and Specsavers are two global gorillas and they’ve been banging it out against each other for nearly the last 15 years. The strong independents have weathered all that and that’s because they care more than you could imagine. They’re visiting patients on weekends because they’re concerned about their eyes or they’re driving people to the specialists because they need a lift. 

There’s nothing wrong with corporates – they’re good at what they do, but they don’t often do that. Some will – I’m not being critical in any way of them – but independents do it every day. All the conversations we have with them are about more care, better experiences, better products and services, how can we enhance their lives?

You only get one set of eyes. Around the world today, we’re getting older, so we become heavy users of eyewear and more complex users of eyewear. The population is getting bigger, genetically, there’s an Asian population that’s more predisposed to myopia, and the demographics of Australia are changing, which means the market is growing.

According to the World Health Organisation, myopia is becoming a world epidemic because of computer screens. It’s been bigger than it has been for a long period of time and optometry is becoming more important. You can control myopia but you need a close relationship with the optometrist, who has to spend a lot of time on you. In the corporate world, it’s about how to be more efficient and make more money, but in our world, it’s about how to provide more care, more services, better quality. It’s like paying it forward.


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