The independent sector is in a far better place today than it was a decade ago, Sight Care’s outgoing chief executive, Paul Surridge, told OT in an exclusive interview.
Mr Surridge is leaving at the end of April after 18 years as chief executive of the business support organisation for independents.
However, highlighting that the number of independent practices is still falling, he warned that the challenges ahead are going to be technologically driven, using as an example the advent of optical coherence tomography (OCT).
“We know that IT drives everything so I see over the next few years that technology is going to come on really at a pace. I think independents ought to be aware that the chains aren’t far behind when it comes to investing in technology,” he said.
Asked about the future for the sector, Mr Surridge added: “We’ve got to be able to evolve the business model to be more embracing. For example, I don’t think there are enough independents really engaged with the hearing care sector.”
He explained: “There are other community-based services where networking relationships could be built that would make life easier for patients. Working with other health-related professionals adds value to the independent offering.”
Asked about the highlights of his time at Sight Care, Mr Surridge said a key period was early on when he was discovering the dynamics of the optical market and the challenges that independent practices had.
“It seemed very obvious to me that independents really needed much more help than they were currently getting to make the transition from being clinicians to being business people too,” he reflected.
“I can remember the first presentation I ever gave which was in Scotland and I started talking about business plans and profitability and there was a wall of silence. No one wanted to talk about it,” he added.
Continuing, Mr Surridge said: “I just saw that the market was going to change dramatically. The chains were beginning to get a hold on the High Street and the independents were absolutely going to get left behind unless they started to change the way they thought about their businesses.”
Highlighting his love of “the challenge of business,” Mr Surridge added: “I love working with people that have with an open mind and are receptive to change.
“Not all independents over the years have been, I have to say, but more and more are,” he said. “It’s really refreshing when you see someone who has a closed mind but over time suddenly they become a sponge – they just want to absorb it all and then of course that translates into business success.”
Mr Surridge revealed to OT that when he first joined Sight Care as chief executive he thought the role would be for just two years.
Perhaps giving the possible reasons for his long time in optics, he added: “I have loved every single minute of it. Yes of course there have been challenges along the way, but that’s life. The reason I have loved every minute is because of the wonderful people I’ve been associated with.”
The independent future
Turning to the years ahead for the independent sector, Mr Surridge concluded: “The future looks promising for independents if they continue to respond positively to challenges as they present themselves.”
However, sounding a note of caution, he warned: “To be successful as an independent and long into the future requires practitioners to constantly seek differentiation – building a profitable model embracing technology along the way.”