Becoming a business owner

Taking the reins where it all began

Optometrist Jaskiran Sandhu speaks to OT  about his journey into practice ownership and being a business owner during the pandemic

At the age of 26, in 2018 Jaskiran Sandhu became one of Specsavers’ youngest ophthalmic directors when he bought into the multiple’s Hillsborough, Sheffield, store.

That was three years ago and since then he has taken on a second store, based in the city’s Archer Road Sainsbury’s.

Speaking about business ownership, Sandhu, who qualified in 2016, told OT: “I always wanted to become a practice owner: it was always the goal.”

Growing up, Sandhu’s parents owned a fish and chip shop, where he worked from the age of 11 through to qualification and beyond. “I’ve only known business ownership through my parents. They taught me that the more work you put into your own business, the better the rewards, which is what I always wanted to do,” he said.

Therefore, five years ago when his pre-reg supervisor, Paul McGinty, sat him down and asked him where he saw himself in the future, his response was simply ‘In your chair.’ “It sounds cheesy I know, but it was true,” Sandhu said. Just over two years later that became a reality.

My initial response was that I felt it might be too early in my career, but she pushed me for it and I’m so glad she did


The journey

Sandhu completed his pre-reg period at Specsavers in Sheffield city centre where his directors were McGinty and Lorna Armitage. He now owns and runs the Hillsborough and Archer Road stores alongside McGinty and Armitage.

Prior to his placement, he worked in the city centre store during his university years and once qualified started working in the Hillsborough store. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to become a joint venture partner (JVP) in the practice it was an opportunity he felt he could not turn down.

Sandhu agrees that while the opportunity to venture into business ownership came earlier in his career than he anticipated, “it’s so rare for a store of Hillsborough’s size to come up that when it did it was either take the leap now or have to wait 20¬25 years until the others retired,” he explained.

“I knew Paul and Lorna, who were already directors, so it felt like it was the perfect fit,” he added.

Sandhu credits the practice manager of Specsavers’ city centre store, Anita Harrison, for giving him the confidence to take the leap. “I found out about the opportunity through Anita – she takes the time to get to know the staff and their aspirations. She was aware of my goals. My initial response was that I felt it might be too early in my career, but she pushed me for it and I’m so glad she did,” Sandhu said.

Sharing insight into why he opted for the JVP route into practice ownership, Sandhu explained honestly: “Specsavers is the only thing I know. I joined in the summer during university and chose to do my pre-reg with them because it’s a really structured and supported programme. They got me through it and I saw this as my opportunity to give back.”

Preparing and learning

Before Sandhu could buy into the practice and become a director, he was required to complete Specsavers’ Pathway course, a requirement for all directors.

And while Sandhu shared that as a young optometrist he initially thought that he knew everything, he admits that the course taught him so much more than he thought it would. “As an optometrist, you spend most of your time in a small room talking to one or two people – a patient or a patient and their carer. It doesn’t prepare you for how you have to deal with and talk to staff, for example, or customer complaints. Pathway really helped prepare me for that side of things,” he said.

For Sandhu, the biggest surprise, and steepest learning curve, of practice ownership has been dealing with staff.

The optometrist quickly realised the impact that his mood could have on the team. He shared: “Now, regardless of how I feel, I go in, put a smile on my face, and say good morning to everyone. It seems to lift everyone.”

There was a sense of pride and achievement. There was also a feeling that this is the start


COVID-19 changes

Speaking about the pandemic, the JVP revealed that while the business has now returned to ‘normal’ in terms of bookings, it was a “tough time” for all staff.

In February last year, patients began to cancel appointments stating that now was not the right time to come in, Sandhu said, adding: “It was strange as, due to the practice’s location, we are normally always busy and booked a couple of weeks ahead.”

The directors had to look at staff hours as a result, but before any changes were made the first lockdown was announced.

Recalling the moment, Sandhu shared: “I remember the first announcement from the Government at 8pm on that Monday evening. I had texts from the team asking whether they should come in the next day. I was reading the legislation and just didn’t know the answer. I told them to come in and that I would keep them updated if I heard otherwise. It wasn’t until the following morning when the exemptions came out that we had guidance from the GOC and College of Optometrists that we could open as normal.”

Not long after, due to changing regulations, the practice began operating emergency-only appointments.

“This was a difficult decision for us to make initially as we have always had an open-door policy, even in the middle of winter. That was a big step,” Sandhu said.

Staff at the store were placed on furlough, and the practice ran reduced opening hours on a skeleton crew of Sandhu and two other colleagues.

“We went from being clinical and retail to purely clinical and essential,” Sandhu said, adding: “I spent my time testing eyes, talking to patients on the phone and honing new skills, such as making the glasses in our in-store lab. Paul, Lorna and I also hand-delivered a lot of glasses and contact lenses across the area.”
As restrictions ease, while doors remain closed, today the business is back to a “new normal.”

“We’re as busy as we were before,” Sandhu shared. “Appointment times are longer as we have a lot more cleaning to do, and we’re wearing masks, but I think it’ll just become part and parcel of optometry these days.”

“It’s a great feeling watching patients come back in who haven’t had a check-up for several years, who’ve put off tests over lockdown, and providing them with some reassurance after they’ve gone so long without a test,” Sandhu reflected.