Becoming a business owner

“To be given the opportunity is beautiful”

Donna Lowther, new co-owner of Peterlee independent practice, Sight Ltd, on why she never expected to succeed in her ‘pipe dream’ of business ownership


Six months after becoming co-owner of the independent where she had worked as practice manager and optical assistant (OA) for 18 years, Donna Lowther still has not quite come to terms with what she has achieved.

Her slight state of shock is understandable: after nearly two decades of working as a practice manager and OA at County Durham independent, Sight Ltd, 2022 saw her career move up a gear with a day release dispensing optician (DO) course via Bradford College.

Her results confirming her qualification as a DO came through on 30 September 2022, and on 1 October, she officially became the practice’s co-owner.

“I was practice manager and then went on to do the DO course so that I could go into directorship,” she explained.

“I put it off for years. I never thought I would be able to be a DO, ever. I thought I’d be an OA forever. But the previous optometrist said, ‘you can do this.’ He kept pushing me and I was like, ‘right, okay. I’ll give it a go.’

“I ended up with a distinction, so I thought, ‘Oh, I knew something then.’”

She shares the business, the only independent in Peterlee, with the resident optometrist, whom she had already worked alongside for nearly two decades.

“It was an opportunity: rather than [the previous owner] sell to somebody we didn’t know and lose our team, we got our heads together,” she said.

“My business partner bought into it previously, because the optometrist he was buying from had a stroke, so he wasn’t very well. My side of it only happened last year.”

In terms of branding and name, she said, “we’ve kept everything the same. We are such a good little community: everyone knows us, and our patients know us on first name terms. It didn’t make sense to change it to make it look like it was a new business, because it’s not: we’re just carrying on what they built. It was founded in 1984, so it’s got a good, personal patient base.”

Speaking about her route into ownership, she said: “It was a pipe dream, absolutely. I’ve still got impostor syndrome, massively. I feel like it’s someone else’s life that I’m living right now.

“It is the goal, when you go into optics, to do something like this. To be given the opportunity is beautiful. I just love it.”

She added: “I always knew I wanted to go bigger than what I was doing, so I could make the decisions on what was best for patients, like bringing in low vision. Since doing the DO course, I’m quite big on low vision. I think it’s the forgotten part of optics in our area.

“So, I’ve got together with [visual aid supplier] Associated Optical and we’re hosting events and things like that. It’s things that I wouldn't have been able to do before, because I had to answer to someone. Now, I can support the community in different ways.”

It is the goal, when you go into optics, to do something like this


The value of relationships

Her move into management has seen her make a conscious effort to prioritise relationships with her staff.

“If I’ve got a happy team, I know that patients are going to get looked after,” she said, adding: “Even out of hours, the girls know that they can text or ring, at any time. It’s a little bit tricky to go from friend to boss, but I’ve made sure that they know that I'm still me. They can still speak to me however they need to.

“If I’ve got any concerns, we’ve got a really good relationship where I can take it to them as well. It took a bit to get our heads around the change. It is a tricky one, but we’re working well together.”

Lowther also values the support of her business partner.

“We bounce off each other,” she explained. “If he doesn’t know something, then I’ll know it. We make a really good team. We cover all angles, because each of us does such different things – but then we can put that together and it works really well.”

Lowther explained that in the longer-term, now that she can make business decisions herself, she is planning to bring in MiyoSmart to ensure that she can serve younger patients, and will be focusing on ensuring that all her staff have the knowledge to talk about it with confidence.

For now, though, she is realising that minor tweaks – like putting lights in practice windows – can have a bigger impact than she had expected.

She explained a recent conversation that, based on the fact that the practice has been in its current location since 2000, surprised her.

“The first day I put the lights in the window, I had a guy come in and he said, ‘Oh, when did you open? I’ve never seen you before,’” Lowther said. “I asked, ‘Well, how have you seen me today?’ He said, ‘because you’ve got lights on.’ They are little things, but they are making a big difference.”

After a busy few weeks, December could easily have been a frantic time – but Lowther explained that she actually managed to have a proper break after Christmas for the first time in years.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to take a few days off. The staff were like, ‘you have to take some time for you.’ But now that I own the practice, I’m more inclined to be here even more. I work six days, but because I love it, not because I have to.”

She added: “It’s like my little baby now. I had a passion for it before I owned it. I’m very patient-focused. I love getting it right for the patient, and I love looking at different things like pathology with patients, getting a little bit more background and things like that. So, it was hard to take the time off.”

When I asked if her confidence has improved through her new venture, Lowther’s answer was clear: “Absolutely. Now, if I’m asked a question, I know the answer, I’m confident with my answer, and I’m confident to support somebody else with similar situations. My confidence is great now, because of this.”

She added: “The flexibility of becoming a business owner is becoming more apparent. Putting my own spin on our practice and being able to juggle work and family life is easier by the day. I’m loving this experience and I’m so grateful I’ve got this amazing opportunity.”