A change of direction into business ownership
Optometrists Ameerah Riaz Ahmed and Nasir Ahmed speak to OT about how the pandemic and having their first child during lockdown 1.0 led them on a career path they never intended
14 August 2021
Almost one year after the pandemic hit, optometrists Ameerah Riaz Ahmed and Nasir Ahmed signed on the dotted line and officially purchased their first practice, Cacoullis Opticians, in Halesowen, West Midlands.
“Our parents used to say that one day we would open our own practice and we would laugh it off. Both of us were dead against it,” Riaz Ahmed told OT, explaining: “That all changed when we had our daughter last year and we realised that we wanted to build something for her, while also having more flexibility in our diaries.”
We took our daughter with us and gave her a tour; it felt so surreal
A chance callTaking matters into her own hands, one day as her six-week-old daughter slept Riaz Ahmed picked up the phone and called the local practice where she and her family used to have their eyes tested when she was younger.
“I called the owner on the off chance,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t know that he was looking to retire and I hadn’t even told my husband about it. We had a general chat and he invited us to the practice to talk further. My husband came home from work and I said ‘We are going to see a practice.’”
Shocked by his wife’s admission when he walked through the door, Ahmed shared: “Even though we were going to see the practice, I didn’t think it was going to be something that we would go for. But we had a look around and when I came out I had a really good feeling about it. It just felt right.”
After that visit, the pair looked into the purchase more seriously. They gained access to the practice’s accounts and when the second lockdown was announced continued discussions with the then owner via Zoom. They also extensively researched the area and the patient demographic in order to inform their decision-making process.
Originally established in 1965, Riaz Ahmed had memories of the practice as a child and already knew the area “fairly well” having grown up there.
Speaking about the decision to purchase she explained that she had observed how the pandemic has caused a lot of people to stay and shop locally. However, under the ownership of a dispensing optician, the practice used locums to provide eye examinations and was not operating at capacity. “The practice turned new patients away during the pandemic,” she told OT. “I saw such potential in the practice and knew as optometrists we could build capacity, with demand already there,” she added.
Discussing the seemingly 360-degree turnaround into ownership, Ahmed said: “I felt like it really was now or never.”
“I have the mind-set of if you want to do something, just do it, and it felt right,” he added.
Sharing the moment they picked up the keys to the practice, the duo shared: “We took our daughter with us and gave her a tour; it felt so surreal.”
Going from being an employee to an employer is a big jump. You are not trained in any of this
Being preparedPrior to becoming business owners, the optometrists, who both qualified in 2016, experienced varied careers, practicing in a range of settings, from High Street and hospital clinics to domiciliary and academia.
“We wanted to try everything before deciding what we wanted to do long term,” Ahmed said. “For me, independent practice was probably the one area that I really, really enjoyed working in. It was the personal service, more time with patients and no sales pressure,” he added.
A couple of months into ownership, both optometrists admit that they are learning a lot. “As the owners, we wear a lot of hats and are still getting to grips with a lot of things,” Riaz Ahmed told OT.
“Going from being an employee to an employer is a big jump. You are not trained in any of this. For me as an employer now, it’s important that I take care of my employees,” Riaz Ahmed says.
Taking over an established business and inheriting processes, protocols and staff, the pair knew from the beginning that, while all staff would be retained, they wanted to use their experiences to simplify things. They also wanted to increase patient capacity by increasing testing days. “We have had to adapt and have learnt that openness and transparency is key when managing staff,” Riaz Ahmed said.
As a result, the pair have introduced monthly staff meetings to help keep staff informed and build relationships. “As we make changes, we want our employees to feel like they can come and talk to us – we are learning as much as they are,” she added.
We can’t wait to meet all our patients and welcome new ones to the practice
When speaking about the future, Riaz Ahmed is clear: “We really want to focus on building this practice and creating a high-quality, personal offering that reflects the potential that we see in it now.”
Within the next three to five years, the owners hope to have completed a refit in order to modernise the practice, while reviewing and refreshing the frame collection to best meet the needs of its patient demographic will be an ongoing process. “We certainly want to introduce some more eco frames, for example,” Riaz Ahmed shared.
Focusing on the next 12 months, the pair hope to introduce additional enhanced services, as well as revisit the patient journey to focus on providing a personal touch. Current patients will be sent a personal letter introducing the new owners with their recall notice, and the pair are using social media and local press to raise awareness of the practice.
“We can’t wait to meet all our patients and welcome new ones to the practice,” Riaz Ahmed said.
The path to practice ownership
How does it feel to be a practice owner?
Nasir Ahmed (NA): It feels like a great accomplishment to be able to become a practice owner at such an early age. It has rekindled my passion for the profession and I have been able to practice quality optometry at my own pace.
Ameerah Riaz Ahmed (ARA): The feeling is quite surreal, especially knowing that every single patient is taking time out of their day for your service in your own independent practice. It’s a feeling that I never quite want to take for granted.
What are your top tips for purchasing a practice?
NA: As cliché as it sounds, just go for it. It all seems very daunting, especially if it’s something completely new to you. It’s a big learning curve, but you will very quickly find your feet and wonder why you never made the jump sooner.
ARA: Don’t be apprehensive. If you feel something is right, do your research, look at the patient demographic, look at the location, and go for it. Try not to get too overwhelmed by the process. It is a journey. There may not be immediate gratification, but it’s about the complete journey and looking at the long-term vision ahead.