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How do I…

Growing your business as an independent

Managing director of Urquhart Opticians, Peter Telfer, explains how to grow an independent business while still prioritising workplace culture

Peter Telfer

Urquhart Opticians, in Ayrshire, has five optometry practices and plans to expand further. Here the group’s managing director, Peter Telfer, tells OT  how he and his business partner have gone about growing their business while ensuring that community and culture are still at the forefront of everything that they do.

Building an independent practice

It’s stating the obvious to say that every business needs to make money, but our experience is that this is perfectly achievable (perhaps even more so) when profit is not the only driving factor.

For my business partner, Alistair Duff, and myself, it’s extremely important that success is built around clear values. It’s essential to never underestimate the importance of developing a genuinely personal relationship with colleagues and customers, and with the various communities who support the business’ growth.

Strong roots

Alistair and I first met at our village primary school in Mauchline, Ayrshire. The town has a long history but only 5000 inhabitants, so it was never difficult to see people as individuals. When we first took over the business, we already knew we would be serving friends, neighbours and even an occasional relative who might have known us since our days in short trousers.

That upbringing made us realise that people are not just numbers. Each individual is an integral part of the community, as are all locally-owned businesses. The relationship between community and business can be a strong one, lifting service way above the provision of a commodity and building reputation and loyalty - which in turn drives success. We have chosen to follow this path as an independent chain, and would encourage others to prioritise it too.

Maintaining culture while growing

Urquhart’s opened its fifth practice in August 2020 and hopes soon to be able to announce further growth – in a professional “courtship” that has been ongoing for two years.

We are determined that expansion should not be at the expense of our carefully cultivated culture, so while our growth has been encouraging, we deliberately take our time in considering acquisition.

We recommend spending several days checking out local transport networks, parking, and other amenities nearby possible acquisitions. Never underestimate the value of being able to get a decent coffee nearby.

Insist on getting to know not only sellers but their staff, and avidly canvass local opinion before making an acquisition offer.

For our business, things that impress us include where staff are actively involved in the community, whether through Rotary and Chamber of Commerce membership or being a volunteer coach or sponsor of the local youth football club. All these things give people a strong reason to choose one of our practices over the competition.

The benefits of visibility and communication

In building relationships, never forget your relationship managers at the bank. Bankers don’t like surprises, so it’s important to actively ensure that all our stakeholders are kept fully in the information loop.

Where funders can see that the community recognises and values a practice, they will often take comfort in knowing that this is a business which can weather storms – such as COVID-19. It’s important to take marketing communications extremely seriously. Urquhart’s has also recently gone one step further by setting up a dedicated Community Fund, which offers £1000 a month to local causes, selected by staff.

It’s important to remember that positive customer reviews typically get more airtime at board meetings than financials since we recognise that one, to a significant extent, drives the other.

We’ve also found it useful to utilise local billboard advertising, reminding people not only of the importance of regular eye tests but that not all optical practices are equal.

Accessibility is key

By putting effort into differentiation and brand values, it’s equally crucial that customers experience no barriers when they reach out to your practice. Make sure your website is kept up to date and interesting; that it sits highly among local online search rankings, and that people have a wide range of ways to contact you.

If people leave voicemails, prioritise responding quickly. Make it easy for customers to book appointments or have queries answered through a wide range of platforms. Don’t miss the moment to engage with any existing or potential customers.

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