The world of optometry has changed and so too has ProVision. What began over 31 years ago as a buying group is today much more than that – it’s a fully-fledged membership organisation that solely exists to support the growth and success of independent optometry.
ProVision is in the process of rebranding in an effort to clearly communicate its proposition to optometrists young and old, who are looking to buy into an independent practice – or indeed sell out – and need the support of an advocate with strong business expertise.
mivision spoke to ProVision CEO Steven Johnston about the new brand and all that comes with it.
While COVID-19 has been good for noone, it has had its positives for ProVision. During the many lockdowns, the team at the Melbourne support office finally had a chance to take a breath and prepare for a different future.
In doing so they decided to develop a suite of services and tools to support optometrists through the specific stages they travel while on their ownership journey – from entering the profession through to acquiring, launching, growing and finally exiting a practice.
Ultimately, I would like to see ProVision play a bigger role across the whole independent space – so that all the independents, united, can take advantage of the systems and services we create
The result was the launch of three new products – LaunchPro, RecruitPro and SuccessionPro – wrapped in a new logo accompanied by the tag line: ‘Look Forward’.
Steven Johnston says he’s excited about the organisation’s new branding and what it communicates.
“There’s a lot more than a logo and a touchpoint to rebranding. It’s a lot to undertake and we didn’t decide to do it lightly,” he explained. “We felt it was necessary because a large portion of the market continues to think that we’re just a buying group. We wanted to make them sit up and take notice, to realise that we’re different – we’re so much more.”
ProVision partnered with a communications strategy agency, with experience in eye care, to help strategise and articulate the new positioning. The agency empowered the ProVision team to be bold and think big with its offering.
“They used the phrase ‘arm the rebels’ – the rebels being described as independent optometrists who want to do things their own way rather than following rules that have been set in a head office,” Mr Johnston explained. “ProVision’s role is to ‘arm the rebels’ with everything they need to be successful in their practice – that’s what we do every day that we come to work.”
And this is what makes ProVision, as a membership organisation, different from all others in the industry. It provides education and one-on-one support for every aspect of the business operation – from negotiating leases, customised marketing, streamlined account administration, staff recruitment, front-of house staff training, product purchasing, business coaching, through to the eventual sale of the practice – everything except the clinical practice of optometry itself.
“If we’re going to facilitate true independence it’s not for us to tell someone how to run their clinical operation, or whether they should or should not have a special clinical interest, that’s up to them,” Mr Johnston said. “We’re here to support them in whatever they choose to do and to provide them with systems and expertise to make life a little easier. Optometry Australia is there to provide clinical support and guidance.”
EASING THE BUSINESS OF OPTOMETRY
While the pandemic provided time for ProVision to create its new brand strategy, it also coincided with a slight reduction in practice numbers, from 467 to 450. Mr Johnston says this is the first time membership has gone backwards since he joined the organisation ten years ago, and it makes the success of this new strategy particularly important.
“The reason we’re here is because there is a need for a healthy independent sector to ensure that optometrists are free to explore their professional interests and look after the outliers in society. The corporate model is based on the efficiencies gained through everyone doing the same thing, while independents get great satisfaction from solving the difficult cases in innovative ways. ProVision was ultimately established to ensure that the profession did not become homogenised.
“Unfortunately, I believe, some optometrists have become fatigued by COVID and so they’ve decided to either exit the industry altogether or exit practice ownership. Their desire to do so has been fast tracked by a growing number of consolidator acquisitions with seemingly attractive offers that provide the financial security that some optometrists may be looking for.”
Consolidator acquisition prices tend to be based on four to five times normalised earnings and are usually negotiated with an upfront partial payment, followed by payment of the balance, three years down the track, so long as the optometrist continues to work in the practice and targets are met. Mr Johnston believes if optometrists chose instead, to spend those three years preparing their practice for sale with support from a group like ProVision, the financial returns could well be equivalent or in some cases better.
“In doing so, these optometrists would retain their true independence – the ability to choose their own hours, appliances, equipment, and practise in the way they wish – and they would leave the legacy of their practice in the community when they depart,” he said.
INDEPENDENTS EXPLORING OPPORTUNITIES
For those who do decide to sell to an independent, it seems there are plenty of buyers out there. In fact, at the time of print, Mr Johnston said ProVision had nearly 50 young optometrists currently exploring ownership opportunities.
“Some have worked in corporate optometry for their first few years out of university, and they’ve decided that’s not where they want to be. Others have been working in independent optometry and decided that’s the model for them, but they’re not sure how to move forward.”
To meet the needs of these young people, ProVision established an Associate membership – which is entirely free yet provides young optometrists with access to a mentor to help them get started, be that finding a job or buying into a practice. Associate membership also provides access to LaunchPro which unlocks a 100-step plan to opening a practice, again entirely free.
“Our objective is to match our prospective buyers with the right sellers and then we will support them through the acquisition,” Mr Johnston explained. “The dynamics of buying a practice are different to five years ago, before we had consolidators and suburban sprawl. We’re finding a lot of our Associate members are interested in opening greenfield sites, both in new and well-established suburbs, including regional areas,” he said.
the uniqueness of independence… challenges us to come up with new and different ways across the team to facilitate independence rather than homogenise it
Once an Associate member has acquired a practice, and having experienced the support available to them from ProVision’s team, full membership is anticipated.
As a fully-fledged member, practice owners have access to RecruitPro – which provides a process to follow and guidelines for making the right decisions when recruiting staff; ProSupply – ProVision’s stock management tool that enables frame and lens packages to be ordered direct from the warehouse/laboratory to minimise freight and handling and keep best-selling stock on display; and SuccessionPro – which helps optometrists plan their exit strategy. Additionally, members have continual access to targeted education, conferences, and coaches to help develop their business.
“No business grows in a straight line – there are cycles along the way which can be challenging. Unfortunately, optometrists get very little business management training at university, and from our experience, this is what eventually wears them down – managing the people and the financials, dealing with landlords and suppliers and IT.
“So we’re all about helping practice owners understand which part of the cycle they’re on, then providing as many systems and as much support and advice as we can to make that part of their journey easier.”
BROADENING THE REACH
It’s not only members that ProVision is focussed on supporting. In recent years, the organisation has offered Eyecare Plus, for instance, access to the efficiencies delivered by ProSupply. While there’s no doubt increased use of ProSupply will provide a stronger platform for negotiating with frame and lens suppliers, Mr Johnston says the primary motivating factor is to further strengthen the independent optometry community.
“We’re also trying to bring our supply partners along on a journey of sophistication that will ultimately benefit the whole independent sector, by making them more efficient, and reducing administration for optometrists and their staff. By finding more ways to make the business of independent optometry easier, we can free practitioners to focus on delivering the best patient experience.
“Ultimately, I would like to see ProVision play a bigger role across the whole independent space – so that all the independents, united, can take advantage of the systems and services we create. In doing so, they would gain greater efficiency to compete against the corporates and franchisors.”
THE CHALLENGES OF INDEPENDENCE
Coming up with a brand for a business is one thing, creating a brand that resonates with 400-plus independent practices – yet stands out from mainstream optometry – is an entirely different story.
“There is a similarity across the whole of the industry – not in a bad way – but everyone is dealing with eyes so virtually every logo, every piece of communication is a play on that piece of our anatomy. If you take the logo off the bottom of most eye care ads, you’d most probably have no idea who it’s for. So, our brief to the agency was to think differently,” Mr Johnston said. Having developed the look for its communication with practices, ProVision is now working on its branding for consumer-facing materials, and this is where the complexity of independence really kicks in.
“Occasionally, there is a misunderstanding that ProVision members have their independence constrained – that we dictate the way they do things or present themselves, but in fact our membership facilitates independence. We don’t tell anyone what stock to buy, the equipment to use, or what to call their practice.
“Neither do we tell them that they have to look the same – as independents, they are not the same and neither is their patient demographic, their mode of practice, or their area of special interest.
“So, when it comes to developing consumer-facing communication, while the overall messaging/theme will be the same, our members will always be able to choose, from a range of options, the overall look and feel that engages with their local community and positions them as the local independent.
“A lot of people get frustrated by the uniqueness of independence, but I don’t, it challenges us to come up with new and different ways across the team to facilitate independence rather than homogenise it.”
READY FOR GROWTH
Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, Mr Johnston says ProVision members are feeling buoyant and ready for growth.
“Our practice owners should be delighted by their performance over the past 18 months. Our members achieved like-for-like sales growth of over 17% in FY21, and we’ve built a wonderful team of support staff that I’m incredibly proud of. They’ve delivered more than what we could have imagined, and it’s only going to continue in one direction.
“I love what we do, who we do it for, and who we do it with,” Mr Johnston concluded.