Name: Dame Mary Perkins
Companies run: Bebbington and Perkins, Specsavers
Dame Mary Perkins may not immediately strike you as resembling a revolutionary, but that’s precisely what she is. It’s all too easy to forget that things have not always been the way they are now, with Specsavers sitting prominently on more than 1,200 high streets worldwide and boasting a £1bn plus turnover.
However, when Mary and Douglas Perkins founded Specsavers Optical Group, the opticians business, in 1984, it was without peer. Just prior to an opening of a loophole by prime minster Margaret Thatcher, optometrists were not allowed to advertise their products and services.
The couple had already had considerable success building a 23-strong chain of opticians in the West Country, delivering NHS glasses prescriptions for patients, and were quick to latch on to the potential of the deregulation in the market.
They had sold Bebbington and Perkins in 1980 for a reported £2m and moved to Guernsey to be near Dame Mary’s parents. The nature of the agreement with the purchaser stipulated that the Perkins’ could not launch a new business in optometry for three years.
Instead, Dame Mary having flirted with working for Citizens Advice, they planned a new concept – eyewear showrooms with affordable and fashionable glasses to try and buy. Opticians traditionally charged sky-high prices for glasses bought through wholesalers according to NHS recommendations. The new model involved cutting out the middlemen and going straight for manufacturers, as well as introducing more stylish frames, and, crucially, making local opticians joint venture partners in any new outlet.
The theory went that opticians are good at what they do best, in eyecare, but are typically not outstanding businesspeople. By relieving them of buying, advertising, accounting and payroll duties they could focus on the job in hand. The Specsavers parent would effectively take a fee for handling the admin and marketing.
Specsavers was created in Guernsey in the Perkins’ spare bedroom and its head office remains on the Channel island. The first showrooms were opened in Guernsey and Bristol, with Dame Mary working in both. In the first year three more opened. In 1991 the company hired in senior executives in marketing, retail and IT in a bid to move the business up a gear.
It is now the largest private optical company in the world and the UK’s leading eyecare provider, with one in three spectacles wearers using its, often designer brand, eyewear and 18 million prescription lenses sold in 2007. As well as the UK, Specsavers, which employs in excess of 217,000, now has a significant presence in Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, plus outlets in other European countries. It has also moved into the provision of hearing aids.
In 2007 Perkins was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and also serves as patron of women’s business networking organisation Everywoman. Also in 2007 she won the most Outstanding Woman in Business Award at the Orange National Business Awards.
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