“It’s been my dream since I was 14”
Nottingham optometrist, Stephanie Lipsey-Liu, on realising a long-standing dream and the value of working with a business partner
10 March 2022
Stephanie Lipsey-Liu, an optometrist, children’s book author and now practice owner, realised a childhood dream when she took over a long-standing local independent in Nottingham in late 2021.
“I've always wanted to own a practice,” she added. “When I was younger, I used to go to an independent down the road, and it was so friendly. I just thought, ‘that is such a good little living to have.’”
A known quantityLipsey-Liu had previously worked in the practice, providing cover for holidays. This familiarity has made the transition easier than it might have been otherwise.
“We've both been working there over the pandemic,” Lipsey-Liu said, “so a lot of the patients I have seen before, and over the last couple of years I've built up a rapport with everyone. All the staff are amazing; you couldn't ask for better. They literally run the place. We can't wait to get started.”
The journey into ownership began at 100% Optical, when Lipsey-Liu and another business partner, with whom she runs a domiciliary service, first discussed the idea of purchasing a practice together. The idea that they might want to buy was mooted to the practice that Lipsey-Liu is now taking over, and when the owners made the decision to sell two years later she was first in line.
When her domiciliary business partner decided not to go ahead, Lipsey-Liu contacted a previous colleague, Aarti Assi, to see if she might want to take the leap alongside her instead. Assi agreed, and the process began. When we speak, Lipsey-Liu and Assi are a fortnight away from getting the keys.
An established practiceThe High Street practice is the only one in town, Lipsey-Liu told OT, and it has a large number of patients that come from elsewhere. “There has been an optician there for 70 years,” she said. “It has been under the current name for about 50 years, so we've got patients from 50 years ago, and they still come specifically to see the previous owner.”
Moving into a practice that has been at the heart of the community for so many decades must be a challenge, but Lipsey-Liu explains how she and Assi have been easing longstanding patients towards the change.
“We've been mentioning over the past few months that, actually, it has changed hands, and that we will be taking over,” she explained. “Everyone has been supportive so far.”
COVID-19 financesThe pandemic meant that it took much longer than expected to secure the finance required. With banks only providing COVID-19 loans or help to existing businesses, and interest sky-high, delays appeared inevitable.
Eventually, a finance broker was able to secure a deal – with the High Street bank that Lipsey-Liu and Assi had originally been talking to. It was an exasperating moment, Lipsey-Liu said, but “At least we got the finance eventually. If we hadn't gone through a broker, I think we could have still been waiting.”
An opportunity to growLipsey-Liu explained the opportunities she sees in the business, including developing a new website and investing time in growing the practice’s social media presence. She believes that there is ‘massive scope’ for change, which will “bring in new patients, who are maybe a bit younger, who we can get nicer frames in for.” Focusing on new frame collections is key, and appointments with reps were booked in early “so we can get those frames in straightaway.”
New patients were signing up before Lipsey-Liu got the keys, with the practice seeing the benefit of those who were working from home and making the decision to shop more locally. She explained that the area has a very strong community, with “a lot of people who want to support independent businesses, whether it's the optician or the baker or butcher, instead of going to the supermarket, which is really nice.”
I can't imagine doing it by myself. The girls at the practice are really good and I think they would help me out if it was just me, but it's nice to have another optometrist
She explains that the timescale for a redecoration and rebrand is between six and 12 months, and that a Hoya rep is helping with electronic charts and automated equipment. There is also the potential to convert an upstairs flat into a second testing room or a lab, should the practice take on enough new patients to justify it.
Benefits of a business partnerOT asked Lipsey-Liu about how taking on the challenge of ownership alongside someone else has made the process easier.
“Mostly it's having someone to share the ideas with,” she said. “I think it's scary to do something completely on your own. I was in two minds whether to try and do it by myself, or whether to invite someone on board, and I'm still certain it's a good idea. Partly financially, as there's less risk, but also, it’s less responsibility.
“There are a number of things that I’ve thought of myself, and then she's suggested, and we've ended up going with something in the middle that has worked really well.”
She added: “I can't imagine doing it by myself. The girls at the practice are really good and I think they would help me out if it was just me, but it's nice to have another optometrist.”
Of her business partner, Lipsey-Liu says, “She's very good and she's very careful. She's going to keep me in check. I'm the one that's like, ‘let's do all these things,’ and she's like, ‘maybe we'll just do one of those things, and then work on it.’ It is a good balance, because otherwise we'd probably run out of money.”
Finding a balance
How does Lipsey-Liu plan to balance practice ownership with the demands of her domiciliary business, Freedom Eyecare, which she has been running since 2015?
“We get a lot of recommendations from other opticians, independents or multiples who don't do home visits,” she explained. “We have enough patients at the moment for one day, so I'll be doing one day for Freedom Eyecare, and then I'll be doing three days at the new practice.”
There’s also an easy way to bring the two businesses together, which is likely to benefit both of them: treating all of the practice’s domiciliary patients through Freedom Eyecare, as “we don’t want to be booking a whole clinic to do a home visit when we've got a service we can use already.”
There’s no doubt that the next few months will be busy, but that’s something that Lipsey-Liu is used to – during the pandemic, she also made a foray into publishing children’s picture books.
“I have to always be doing something,” she said, “or I get bored. I love optometry. I think because I do domiciliary and I like to change things up, I'm not bored of it. I literally love when I can make someone see better. It still makes my day.”
Lipsey-Liu’s advice for new practice ownersIf you're starting from scratch do not expect it to be a quick process. It's so difficult to market, especially when you're competing with people who have got multi-million-pound advertising budgets.
Work with people you trust. Our accountant recommended the solicitor. I trusted her already, because she’s the accountant we use for the domiciliary business. Having a good solicitor, to tell us what kind of sale it was and what was involved, has really helped.
Be appreciative of your staff, because they run the place. They're not replaceable. You've got to pay your staff what they're worth, and you've got to look after them. Run your business like you would have wanted when you were an optical assistant.
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