Birmingham-based company, Mainline Instruments Ltd, has expansion plans on the horizon, yet founder Simon Hawkins is not about to give away any spoilers. He speaks to OT about the company’s 20 years of innovating in the ophthalmic instruments and accessories market.
How did Mainline Instruments Ltd begin?
I started my career in optical solutions at the age of 17. I intended to complete a summer’s worth of work experience at Birmingham Optical, but ended up staying for 15 years, starting as a service technician and then shifting into sales.
Mainline Instruments was established after I met Paul Artley in the mid-90s. Paul was already a partner in Mainline Optical Connections – the first company to introduce scanning systems into the UK in 1988 when 28 machines were installed at Cambridge Optical.
Although a great company, we noticed a gap in the business and therefore an opportunity given that Mainline Optical focused on glazing machines and did not have an instrumentation arm to the business. It was this gap that was the catalyst for creating Mainline Instruments.
In July 1997, Mainline Instruments was formed. I had always enjoyed working with independent opticians and built Mainline Instruments with this market in mind. Although Paul is based in East Yorkshire, we have a close working relationship and I still see him as a mentor.
How has the company grown?
Mainline Instruments is a small, family-style business with big plans and a really low staff turnover. It started as a one-man band in 1997 with one supplier, Tomey, and a very small range of optical equipment. Today, Mainline has 11 staff and has expanded its range of products and services. We are now working with over 20 suppliers, which still includes Tomey. Other clients include Keeler, Neitz and Huvitz.
We have been in the current office at Lifford Lane in Kings Norton, Birmingham for two years. Prior to this, we started with one unit for the business nearby, before acquiring a second unit. But we still required more space and therefore decided to purchase our own premises rather than rent, with exciting plans to expand also on the horizon.
How has the industry changed during Mainline Instruments’ 20 years?
Without a doubt, the advances in technology and automation over the last 20 years is what stands out to me. There is now a digital version of almost every single product we supply – something I may not have considered when I first started Mainline Instruments.
Besides the digitisation of so many of our products, the stand out technology change that has had a major benefit for so many of our customers is the rebound technology used in the Icare tonometer, saving the patient from the unpleasant and widely disliked air puff. When I started in the industry this was unheard of, but it is now used by thousands of optometrists across the UK.
Has the focus or philosophy of the company ever shifted?
My philosophy is, and has always been, based around the importance of relationships. Our first employees, Garry Clarke, a service manager who joined in 1998, and Adrian Richards, who started in 1997, still work for Mainline Instruments today.
Mainline Instruments is all about products and its people. It’s very easy as a business to say this, but this vision isn’t always achievable. With the great team I have accompanied by the way we are doing things, we’ve managed to sustain our vision of providing the best products as well as the best personal service, and I believe it’s this service that sets us apart from others. As we have expanded and developed, I have continued to place the utmost emphasis on the importance of relationships both internally with employees and externally with partners and suppliers.
What are the company’s biggest achievements?
I would say that that the development and growth of Mainline Instruments is one of our biggest achievements. I started in 1997, just me on my own, and over the last 20 years we’ve grown and established ourselves as a trusted partner to our customers. To be seen as not just a supplier, but a part of their business, means that we can work closely to ensure they have the right instruments to do the job.
We’re an award-winning supplier too, winning Icare Finland’s Distributor of the Year in 2009 and again in 2014 at ESCRS. This award means a lot to Mainline Instruments as it’s based on the sales and service that we provide, which is something we pride ourselves on.
Our biggest and best campaign to date was the Don’t Have to be Puffed campaign in 2014, launching an innovative new instrument that eradicates the need for patients to have air puffed into their eye, something that can put people off from glaucoma testing. This campaign got great coverage and real traction in the market, and we won Best Marketing Campaign for it, that was a fantastic achievement.
What opportunities has Mainline Instruments identified going forward?
Many independents have specialisms in specific areas, such as glaucoma, myopia control or macular degeneration, and we want to work in partnership with them to provide the appropriate equipment and to help them differentiate from their competitors and High Street chains. Optometry is a very personal thing, patients build a relationship with their opticians, much like their GP, and we see the opportunity to support our independent optometrists to help them develop and maintain that trust with their patients by being able to offer a range of testing, advice and treatment.
Where do you see the company in 12 months? And in five years?
My wishes are to continue on the same path that we are on now – to keep doing what we do in the same style. Plus, we have some really exciting expansion plans on the horizon as part of our 20th anniversary this year.