When Dame Mary Perkins and her husband Doug discussed a new business idea around a table tennis table in their spare room more than 35 years ago, little did they know the global success it would become today.
Fast forward and Specsavers is now an international empire with 2,000 stores in ten countries, including 900 in the UK and Ireland – bucking the declining high street trend by growing 8% year on year.
‘When we started, we thought we would end up with 100 businesses – enough to cover England perhaps,’ the 76-year-old said. ‘We never, ever thought we would get to the huge scale we are now.’
But to those who know Mary, it’s no surprise given her admirable work ethic, down-to-earth attitude and her infectious passion, which inspires the 32,000-plus Specsavers employees, including more than 550 at the La Villiaze support office in Guernsey.
And despite a busy schedule, the grandmother-of-seven who works nine to five every day, frequently travels attending numerous obligations in the UK and still finds time for her endless charity work. She’s patron or trustee of 28 charities ranging from Health Connections Guernsey and Floral Guernsey to the British Citizen Awards and the Everywoman business organisation, as well as being chair of the Guernsey 2021 Island Games Committee – a huge commitment in its own right!
Throughout her career, Mary has consistently broken the mould. Even during her days at sixth form school in Bristol, where she sacrificed her favourite subjects of English and history to pursue science so that she could follow in her father’s footsteps as an optometrist.
‘Back in the 60s, most girls didn’t have the opportunities that they have now and certainly in my school weren’t encouraged to study science – they did English, and they often became secretaries or nurses,’ she said. ‘In fact, in my physics A-level class there was me and one other girl, and the physics master said, “I’m not teaching physics to girls”. There was a right ding-dong, but the headmaster insisted he teach us, so he did.’
When she attended university in Cardiff in 1962, Mary was one of only five women on the course (these days women outnumber men). It was here on the first day of registration that she met a young Doug and the roots of the Specsavers story and their beginnings as a power couple was created!
‘There were no fireworks as such– I could hardly understand him, he was so Welsh,’ she said. ‘But he was the only one with a car, and he offered me a lift home one evening. We quickly fell in love and within three weeks I had moved out of digs and we had a two-bedroom flat on the top floor of a house. That was quite progressive in those days,’ she laughs.
The couple married the year after they qualified, in 1967, and Doug borrowed the money to buy Mary’s father’s optician’s business in Bristol. He’d worked in a shop and lived on a council estate but retrained as an optician after the NHS was set up in 1948 when suddenly millions of people were queuing up for their free eye tests.
Mary and Doug worked tirelessly – Mary went back to work 10 days after giving birth to their first child, Cathy, with second daughter Julie one year later and then son John in 1972. They built up a local chain of 23 opticians in the west of the UK under the name of Bebbington (Mary’s maiden name) and Perkins. Back then, opticians weren’t allowed to advertise, there were no prices displayed, very little choice of frames, no showrooms and no window displays. The couple sold up in 1980, before moving to Guernsey to be close to Mary’s parents, who had retired to the island where they used to holiday.
However, it was on the now-famous table-tennis table in their St Peter Port home that they came up with the idea for Specsavers, taking advantage of the new, more open deregulated market for all professions, introduced by Margaret Thatcher.
‘Our dream was to make fashionable eyewear affordable to everyone and to have a showroom where people could see all the frames and actually touch them,’ she said. ‘That didn’t happen before, because the optician would bring out a couple of frames that he thought would suit you. It was more like a visit to the doctor’s than to a shop, whereas we thought of it as retail. In the end, we came up with the name Specsavers because it said what it was – save on specs!’
For the first time, everybody paid the same price for their single vision lenses, no matter what their prescription, and prices were clearly displayed. Each Specsavers business is a joint venture. Unlike a franchise, the optician or audiologist in the store owns half the shares and the support office owns the other half and provides support services for a percentage of the store’s turnover.
As soon as the first stores opened in Guernsey and Bristol in 1984, the company grew quickly. As well as offering optical services, Specsavers now also offers home visits, audiology, and other enhanced healthcare services, which would have previously required a trip to the local hospital eye unit. As technology gets more sophisticated, stores have also invested in advanced equipment. This month [Feb], Specsavers announced the UK roll-out of a new piece of hospital-grade scanning equipment called OCT (Optical Coherence Tomography) that can detect eye conditions like macular degeneration and glaucoma up to four years before you might notice symptoms.
Today, Mary (who was honoured with a Damehood from the Queen in 2007 for her commitment to charity and business) still plays an active role in the company and is passionate about driving customer service standards, championing Specsavers’ values and shaping corporate responsibility. She epitomises the Specsavers purpose to make a positive difference to the lives of everyone by helping them to see and hear better.
In 2017, she was awarded a national lifetime achievement award at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year UK Awards in London. In part, it recognised her contribution to Everywoman, the organisation which seeks to advance female careers. Mary became involved when the Everywoman judges felt that she didn’t properly fit any of their categories, so they created a special ‘Spirit of Everywoman’ award just for her and she has stayed involved since, now acting as a patron but also available online to members as a ‘modern muse’, answering career questions whenever she can.
‘I am extremely proud to be Everywoman’s patron and part of such an amazing group that so actively promotes the merits and talents of women and the vital contribution they make to the economy,’ she enthuses. ‘It reflects the work we do within the business of supporting young apprentices to have a career in our industry.’
Although now in her seventies, there is no sign of Mary slowing down.
‘If your work is your hobby, your passion and what you love doing and you are still able to do it, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a retirement age,’ she says.