“I’m glad I’m back, for my children’s sake”
Mehul Patel, AOP councillor and owner of Boots Opticians in Bexleyheath, reflects on his experience catching COVID-19 in March 2020 and the lessons he’s taken forward
22 November 2022
Can you tell me about your experience of COVID-19?My business is a franchise, one of the largest in the Boots Opticians group. On 24 March 2020, we were shutting down the store. We had thousands of pounds worth of orders of glasses, and the team were working hard to get everything out so our patients wouldn’t be struggling without their eyewear.
My immune system must have been down – I was really stressed out, and concerned for my 20 employees. I started getting COVID-19 symptoms. I think I caught it from a patient I’d seen the weekend before, who was –10 dioptres. At home I collapsed with a fever, and I didn’t end up going to work after that for 24 days.
My family are all medics, so I was treated at home. I was totally bed-bound; I couldn’t move, and that’s when I realised it was really bad. Oxygen spirometers and other things were brought in. I had COVID-19 really badly, when it was at its peak. Bags were packed ready to go to Guys Hospital, where my friends work.
So, the store shut down, and then I went kind of AWOL. My team thought I was having some time to myself. While I was ill, I was not reachable. I didn’t see my kids, my wife, or anyone, for three weeks.
I texted my personal assistant, without whom I wouldn’t be here right now, and said “I’m ill. Can you look after the place?” She had been on holiday, and she came back and, thankfully, looked after the business. I went off grid for three weeks.
What happened then?I was treated, and I recovered after losing six kilograms. By mid-April I was coming around. I don’t remember anything from that time. I don’t have any recollection of conversations or video calls; it’s all a total blank. I’m quite a switched-on person, so it was unusual.
I went into work on the 17 April. I drove from Croydon to Bexleyheath to see my personal assistant (PA), because she was in the store. We’re in a shopping centre, and only five shops were open out of 52. It takes me an hour to get to work, and the roads were empty. I thought “What is going on here?”
I went back to the practice, and was very dizzy and faint. I went into work too quickly: your body thinks it’s okay, then it crashes again
I hadn’t advertised how ill I was. My PA managed the whole business, sending out and couriering glasses, and taking over all the business operations.
I went to WH Smith opposite the practice, which was open because it’s got a Post Office. I remember carrying four bottles of water, a Lindt box and a Ferrero Rocher box, because that was all that was available, and giving it to her so at least she could eat. I went back into the practice, and was very dizzy and faint. I went into work too quickly: your body thinks it’s okay, then it crashes again.
Afterwards, I went back home to rest. I was at home for a week, locked in a room. I was trying to work out what I was going to do next. In that week, I made a plan for how I was going to run the store in lockdown. I had 20 staff, all on furlough, so I decided to run the store myself.
After a week I went back, and ran the business for eight weeks on my own, from the 30 April to the end of June.
How did you find this period of working alone?In May, I was one of the optometrists in the area who advised others on how to structure and run their business. I took hundreds of calls, locally, from independents.
I’m a dispensing optician and an optometrist, and after 10 years it’s the first time I’d used both sets of skills together. It was an eye opener. I could do an eye test and dispense glasses, or manage an eye emergency without needing anyone else.
That’s my story of COVID-19. I went through that big hurdle, and it has made me a stronger person. It’s changed my outlook on business. I’ve become leaner, and smarter in the operation I manage.
How do you deal with all that emotionally – with the fact that you were out for that long, and had a near death experience?From a personal point of view, I spend more time with my kids now. I’ve got three kids: eight, seven and four. I spend more time with them now, rather than working seven days a week.
It changes your outlook, when you’ve come through a near death experience
When I had COVID-19, I wrote a letter to my wife. In May, she said “What would’ve happened if you didn’t make it?” I said, “I wrote everything down for you, it’s in the bottom drawer – everything that needs to be done.” It changes your outlook, when you’ve come through a near death experience.
My cousin is a respiratory consultant, so I owe a big thanks to him. He’s the one who helped get everything through, via my GP, to rescue me in a way. I was 38 at the time. I was fit and well; I don’t smoke. It was just bad luck. But it’s changed my perspective, from a business point of view and in how I operate personally. It was a tough time.
How is your relationship with your practice staff now?We have a team that has turned into a family. Last Christmas, when we went out, I said to them: “If it wasn’t for you guys, we wouldn’t have come through.” Everybody was motivated, based on my story. I’ve got Saturday staff who have turned into my top dispensers, who are now going to be my optometrists in the next three years, because they’ve decided to go into optometry.
I called one member of the team in from furlough, and said, “I want to keep you here to make some phone calls.” She is now becoming an optometrist. She’s a first year Cardiff University student, and I’ve secured her pre-reg already, because of her loyalty and commitment for that one year to me. It’s changed people’s mindsets.
Aside from the weeks you were ill, what was your biggest challenge in this period?As an owner, you know what needs to be done, but you don’t always know how to do it. But I learned how to do it again, after being an owner for 10 years. That’s proven to the team that, actually, we’re not just bossing people around. It’s changed the level of respect.
It’s like I've learned a whole aspect of the business again. I did have to phone the team on some occasions, of course. I was on WhatsApp, asking: “What button do I press? How do I order Johnson & Johnson contact lenses?” They were laughing at home, but I got through it.
Without them, the business doesn't work. I can build the business by 25% in one year, but only through people
I’ve been around a long time. I’ve been a dispensing optician; I’ve been a manager and a regional manager at Boots. I used all those skills. I think it was some sort of adrenaline drive. I was having a lot of fun.
All our local relationships – the Specsavers near us, the Vision Express – we all talk to each other. We all worked very closely, and it’s changed the relationship between the practices in the area.
I think the AOP helped a lot. I’ve got a book of AOP guidance on my desk, and I just modified that. I rejigged it into Mehul guidance, and then made it safe for me and my team to come back. No one has had COVID-19 badly in my store, and I’ve got a big team.
That’s one of the reasons I became an AOP councillor for directors. I wanted to give something back to other multiples. There are a lot of things missing in our profession. People were phoning me, on 15 June 2020, asking how to open their practice. People who didn’t know me were phoning and saying, “Help me through this, because I really don’t understand how I'm going to open the practice.” We had to rejig the model, and people are scared of change. I’ve got videos online, on my Instagram page, with social distancing tips and how to do an eye test with distancing. We sent those to optometrists who were struggling.
Obviously, you must have had a strong team in place already...My foundations are definitely strong. Most of the team have shown loyalty and commitment, and they’ve understood what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
I’m going to be very different, and leaner, in my approach to the team now. We’ve got lots of new joiners at the moment. I always say it takes two years to build that loyalty. It doesn’t come overnight. If they show me their loyalty, they get that loyalty back. We’re a very long-standing team: 10 years, 15 years. I’ve just sent my supervisor to Center Parcs for a break. I said I’d pay for it, because of all his hard work. I always reward people, and I’ll continue to do that.
I’ve got one colleague, who has been there 25 years, and had cancer during COVID-19. We thought she was going to leave, but she’s coming back to work three days a week because she says it’s fun. It's a nice booster for me, to get feedback from other people.
Have you got any tips on building a resilient team ahead of something unexpected happening?Motivation is key. Reward and recognition is key. The bottom line is, I treat them like my family. You’ve got to reward and recognise the good and the bad, and have annual and six-month reviews. We spend two hours per employee, and I take them out every quarter for dinner. We’ve got our 10-year practice anniversary soon, which the mayor is attending. Without them, the business doesn't work. I can build the business by 25% in one year, but only through people.
If there's one thing that you could say now, two years on, what would that be?One is that bosses should lead by example. My team didn’t know that I could do what I did, because we delegate as directors. But I never ask someone to do something that I can’t do.
Secondly, I would thank my team. I had no resistance in people coming back to work. I’m really clear with setting clear expectations: I need you to come back three days a week, because of this, and this is what I require you to do in those three days.
We had one-to-ones with every single member of staff before they came back, and every two weeks we did a Teams call. That meant I could get all 20 heads together and explain what we’d do next week, because it would be different to last week, and the following week would be different again. We’ve adopted that, and we still do Teams calls now.
Is there anything else you want to say about the challenge and how you overcame it?
I’m glad I’m back, for my children’s sake. It was touch and go. If you speak to my children now, they’re really scared of COVID-19. We didn’t go out for six months. After that we were destroyed as a family: over the top cleaning; cleaning all the fruit and veg that came in. I was bringing the infection home, because I was seeing patients. My wife had COVID-19 from me; my son had COVID-19 from me after that.
I’ve got two family members who died from COVID-19, the same time I had it. One very good friend of mine, only 40 years old, was in intensive care for two months and he’s had multiple issues since. I’m under a consultant now, but it seems to be clear. I’m just glad I’m still here. I would do it all again, if I had to.