Optometrist Melissa Hay went from university graduate to successful practice owner in double-quick time. Now ANZ, University of Auckland and Visique New Zealand are helping fast-track today’s new graduates into their own businesses.
Optometrist Melissa Hay went from university graduate to successful practice owner in double-quick time. Now ANZ, University of Auckland and Visique New Zealand are working together to help fast-track today’s new graduates into their own businesses.
Melissa Hay wanted be an optometrist from a very young age. Melissa had worn glasses since she was a child and still recalls the somewhat “invasive experience” of having her eyes tested.
She had long held a desire to both work in the medical field and run her own business – and optometry seemed like the perfect option. It helped that she had great support from her accountant father and her mother, who has a science background. “Often the conversations at home would be around business,” she says.
Melissa’s first job after graduating from Auckland University in 2003 at age 21 was at Visique Milford – a 40-year-old business that has been a Visique practice since the cooperative started in New Zealand 12 years ago, and a practice that in just two years time she would proudly own.
“I was actually invited to buy out the retiring partner in 2003, but that required building another examination room and some serious financial negotiations,” says Melissa, which was a little too much red tape when you’re just starting out.
“Finance was never a problem though because fortunately the retiring partner was willing to fund me in. I would simply drip feed the money, with interest.”
And that, two years later, was how it was eventually done. Melissa realised how lucky she was, because having the departing owner leave cash in the business is not exactly a common scenario. “He was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt really – it all came down to trust.
“This is why succession planning is so important,” she adds. “You limit your options much more if the transition has to take place over a very short time-frame.”
To many 23-year-olds business ownership would be rather daunting, but not, it would seem, for Melissa. “You need confidence to get into business and it is easy to be put off. But being young and somewhat naive was a real benefit,” she says. “As you get older you become more cautious – but fortunately I still had the confidence of youth on my side. My personal mantra was to just get on with it.
“I was also fortunate to have the previous owner mentor me over time, and have the support of my family.”
Another reason why Melissa has stayed with Visique, the country’s largest optometry ‘owner/members’ cooperative, is the pool of expert advice she has been able to tap into, both through individual relationships and the network of other practice owners. Learning by the example of others has been invaluable, she says.
For a young 23 year old just two years out of university, not surprisingly staff management was initially the biggest business challenge. She was soon seeking advice from books, her mentors and short courses at the University of Auckland Business School (where she met her husband). She also quickly learnt the value of talking through things with people.
Today her staff of four includes ‘newbie’ optometrist Logan Cooke, whom Melissa has taken under her wing. Whilst studying a BSc at university Logan had visited Melissa in a professional capacity and she encouraged him to pursue a career in optometry, backing that up with an offer of work upon graduation.
History repeats. Melisa recalls being encouraged to take up a career in optometry by her optometrist when she was still at high school. “I was amazed that even in his 50s he was still so enthusiastic about the industry.”
She can see the day when Logan will take on his own practice.
Her other management challenge has been marketing, a subject which, Melissa points out, is not taught at optometry school. This again highlights how valuable the support of the cooperative has been. Local marketing to their own database is the most valuable initiative, she says, but having the nationwide branding exposure of Visique’s marketing campaigns doesn’t exactly go amiss either.
Word of mouth referral’s are vital to any optometry practice and having been associated with Visique Milford for ten years, Melissa knows that her business is built , not so much on loyalty, but on “meaningful relationships”.
“It’s relationships that keep people coming back.”
She is also aware of the importance of networking with local businesses, and so involvement in the local Milford Business Association has been another priority.
Agreement supports grassroots growth
An agreement signed late last year between ANZ, University of Auckland and Visique New Zealand gets the big tick from Melissa because “it helps knock down those perceived barriers to getting into practice ownership”.
The initiative offers potential practice owners (just like Melissa in 2005, many relatively fresh out of university) the necessary financial support by way of ‘prearranged’ services and incentives to open a business – as well as ongoing assistance as it grows. Melissa describes it as a ‘best-in-market’ opportunity. The intention is to support business growth at the grassroots.
The University sees the opportunity as a way to retain talent in this country. As Melissa points out, of the 23 students who graduated in her class of 2003, only around half are still practicing in New Zealand. “There is a major concern around people going to Australia, and the difficulty in attracting people with optometry skills to rural towns.”
As for the future of her own practice, Melissa is focused on growing her business within the local area and remaining a ‘hands-on’ owner operator. She enjoys forging new client relationships and enhancing existing ones.
Her greatest satisfaction comes from improving the vision of her clients – like the lady who is now able to take up her quilting passion.
“There’s also satisfaction in knowing that you’re doing it for yourself – so you benefit personally from any extra effort or time you put into the business – not somebody else.”
Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.