Q&A with Paul Hobson on his retirement from almost 20 years at Specsavers

How long have you been at Specsavers, Paul? And what would you say are the main reasons behind keeping you with us for so long?

I joined Specsavers in August 2000, as a Retail Development Consultant. I joined to work for a business that was owned by the owner and still a private business. Previously in my career I had worked twice for the owner of a business and enjoyed how quickly and decisive the environment operated.

I have always wanted to make a difference and change the world around me, challenge the status quo and do things differently. My desktop screen saver quotes the famous Einstein saying about doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result.

In Specsavers you can make a real difference. Something you do or say can change the direction of the business and you are enabled to be brave and make decisions and stand by them when strongly challenged. It brings a new reality to living on the edge as a retailer when you are spending the owner’s money. We at Specsavers are focused on changing peoples lives and we are genuine in our beliefs about that.

For me, it satisfies my feelings of social responsibility and giving back to society. I am also paid for that – so it’s a real symbiotic relationship for me.

What moments in your career at Specsavers stand out above the rest?  

There are too many to write down, but a mixture would be:

Spending several months with Trevor Shier, driving around Ireland and developing a business plan for the whole country. Literally every town – and putting a date when we would open each store. And who could forget the adventure of our short interaction with the security forces on Shankhill Road, when a soldier released the safety on his gun!

On a similar journey to the utmost tip of Scotland, on a very wild and cold day and our female colleague from business development – who will remain nameless – wanted to swim in the sea. Trevor and I sat in the car away from the wind and rain, whilst she swam for about 15 minutes in the freezing North Sea.

Every time a Partner signs for a store is a real buzz, and I have done several hundred of them, but it is a joy every single time. I change their lives and the customers’ lives, who those Partners can now look after locally.

Visiting care homes for the first time whilst setting up domiciliary and understanding the difference we can make to patients lives. It sounds so basic, but if these patients can see, they can read food menus, enjoy books, and it can help keep them safe by preventing falls. I feel happy to know that I helped in some way for these patients to have a better quality of life.

In Perth in Australia, doing one-to-one interviews for potential Partners with Doug Perkins. Doug would ask me what I wanted him to say to the next candidate, so that we pitched our offer to each individual interviewee. A special man in special times. My wife would also highlight Doug and Mary coming across to Western Australia and taking us out for dinner. We ate in a stunning restaurant called Raffles overlooking the river on a warm summer night.

We had only been in Australia a short while, and we all stayed in some serviced apartments just outside Melbourne. One night, walking into Melbourne for dinner, Neil Hamilton, myself and Trent Scanlen – a UK Partner who was Australian – joined us to support the start up. It was quite light, and we were walking along the side of the road covered in trees, Trent starts talking to Neil about ‘Drop Bear Spiders’ in Queensland, and he will need to be very careful as they drop from trees land gently on your head and burrow into your head and lay eggs. Both Neil and I come from Liverpool, so not something we had encountered before, and why not believe Trent – as we were past walking past wombats and had seen wild Kangaroos and other native wildlife around Melbourne. On the way back to the hotel after dinner, it was quite dark and we’d had a few beers, we were walking back under the trees. Trent dropped just slightly behind Neil and lightly touched his head. I cannot exaggerate the speed at which Neil ran off screaming and shouting. Trent was doubled over with laughter as was I when I realised what Trent had done. Poor Neil nearly had a heart attack!

On leaving Australia after six years, it coincided that we had our first Specsavers Ball at the same time. The evening was amazing as I had recruited every Partner of the 45 stores, and pretty much all the staff. We had built something really special based on Specsavers values, so leaving that team was really emotional. But what a night, which apparently is still spoken about today.

Which roles have you enjoyed most at Specsavers? Tell us why…

Doug once honoured me by saying I was like him, I was a pioneer, and I hope my career shows that, even before joining Specsavers I always wanted to change the status quo of businesses.

So, I was involved in developing the brand in Ireland and Scotland way back in 2000. This learning came into its own in Australia where we arrived with nothing but enthusiasm and a plan that changed as we developed. No shops, no warehouse, just the belief we could make a difference to peoples’ lives.

Setting up Australia was a challenge on many levels, and almost every day you would make decisions based on the team around you and their ability to deliver. So, you took ownership of what you promised, and delivered. It was an amazing unique opportunity with a small team that totally aligned to a vision we had all agreed.

Working in teams like that are what I enjoy most. Setting up domiciliary was the same, a small team that trusted each other with different skill sets that respected each other and delivered.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about joining the company?

I tell colleagues the same thing, you will have a job description but you ‘plough your own furrow’ in Specsavers, you should not be limited by job descriptions as if you can add value somewhere to enhance your contribution you should do it – as long as you are still doing your own job well. You can change the world; you can add more value to your role if that is what you want.

And when times get difficult, I believe it is best to take control and manage stress – as it is a great catalyst for change if you harness it. And look at how you can take it away by taking control of a situation.

Tell us what you’ll miss about Specsavers when you retire…

Changing the world, making people’s lives better and being paid for it. A retailer to the end.

Just one last thing to add from Chairman Hobson… when I left Australia the MD gave me the attached caricature and I love it as it sums up my belief that knowledge should be free and we are here as retailers to bring some happiness into people lives.

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