The Dame Mary Perkins episode

In the ninth episode of The OT  Podcast, we speak to co-founder of Specsavers, Dame Mary Perkins

In episode nine of The OT Podcast, we speak to Dame Mary Perkins about her career in optics and the founding of Specsavers, as it marks its 40th anniversary this year.

Five things we learnt about Dame Mary (and Specsavers) through The OT Podcast.

1 Mary was on a career break working at Citizen’s Advice Bureau when she and her husband, Doug, co-founded Specsavers

“I was on a bit of a career break; I wasn’t physically working as an optometrist then,” Dame Mary told OT. “I was working with a charity organisation called Citizen’s Advice Bureau, which was very interesting. Then, along comes Margaret Thatcher, and she was going to change all of the rules for professions on advertising and whether you could use people in the business who were not fully qualified. She said [the professions] weren’t open enough about what we were doing.”

As a result of these changes, the husband and wife duo saw an opportunity to re-enter optics in the UK with the aim of “letting people know it [eye care] was affordable.”

2 Specsavers was founded on 14 February 1984, which is also Dame Mary’s birthday, with the ambition of opening 100 practices across the UK

“We did intend to spread right across the UK, and we thought that maybe 100 practices might be a good number, for the simple reason that if you are advertising it’s very expensive for one store or even three stores to advertise on television or in a newspaper or a magazine. You have got to be able to spread that advertising because a newspaper would span such a wide area and people were not going to travel 20 miles to go and see an optometrist, so that was the reason for expanding.”

Today, Specsavers has almost 1000 practices across the UK.

3 When Specsavers was founded, in the early days Dame Mary would travel across the UK to support with training and merchandising

In “the early days” of Specsavers, Dame Mary and Doug would have different focuses within the business. While he concentrated on business leases and the development of the company’s joint venture partnership, she would focus on training and merchandising.

“I used to go and put the frames up how we wanted them. This is initial days, very early days, I used to take a couple of people with me supporting, and we had t-shirts reading ‘MMM,’ meaning ‘Mary’s mobile merchandisers’.”

4 Dame Mary doesn’t have an official job title any more

“I don’t actually have a job title anymore. Most people laugh about that, but I’m here every day – not always in the office as I could be out visiting a practice, going to regional meetings, etc. What I do is a lot of really looking after our people,” Dame Mary told OT.

“I’m the person who writes the cards: birthday cards, condolence cards, birth cards, we do congratulations cards, get well cards, long service cards,” she shared. “I’m kept fairly busy,” she laughed.

5 Mary has had her eyes tested at least 50 times in Canada

Extensive research is performed when Specsavers is considering entering a new country. When learning about the Canadian optical market, Dame Mary had her eyes tested frequently during visits to the country. “I love Canada – I did quite a lot of research out there. Going back about eight years, I must have had my eyes tested in different optical outlets about 50 times at least. I was seeing how the system works as it’s quite different there,” she said.  

The OT Podcast

OT will release a new episode of The OT Podcast bimonthly. You can listen to The OT Podcast on our website, or via all the main podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Castbox. Be sure to catch-up and listen to other episodes, featuring experts including Professor Nicola Logan, Ian Cameron, Keith Valentine, Dr Peter Frampton, Dr Stephanie Campbell, Lisa Donaldson and Peter Greedy. 

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