Article Date: 8/1/2005

career
What We Learned from Corporate Optometry
Immersion in corporate locations provided footing for our future.
BY TRAVIS ADLINGTON, O.D., F.A.A.O. AND CHERYL ADLINGTON, O.D., F.A.A.O., Reno, Nev.

When we graduated at the top of our class from Southern California College of Optometry in 1989, we had our dream practice well-defined in our minds: a high-end practice, grossing between one and three million dollars with a high net. We had our academic credentials to back us up, and we had each taken advanced courses in business management. Quickly, we bought a private practice and set out to make our dreams come true.

Although we were able to grow the practice, it became apparent that the demographics of our town could not support the kind of practice we ultimately wanted to own. So after five years, we sold the practice and moved to Reno, Nev., an area where the population was growing rapidly and where we believed we could build our future.

Doing the unthinkable

However, we also decided that we were not prepared to saddle ourselves with the debts and potential headaches of buying another practice. So we did something rather unexpected for the class valedictorian and salutatorian — we went into corporate optometry. For the next seven years, we immersed ourselves in corporate practice, first with Sears and then with EyeMasters. We learned a great deal about what makes corporations successful and about our strengths and weaknesses.

We also found that those practitioners who throw stones at corporate optometry most often live in glass houses themselves. Many private practices are run inefficiently. We heard from optometrists who complained vociferously about the competition from corporate locations but took little to no action to improve or differentiate their own practices. They stared at us in disbelief when we told them that service and quality of care depend on the practitioner, not on the location or the marquee hanging over the door.

Dreaming bigger

It was during this time in corporate practice that a second dream began to take shape — to run a practice management consulting business. By then we were in our third practice and had developed strong business acumen. All of our practices had run like Swiss watches, efficient and on time. As corporate-affiliated practitioners we had the tremendous benefit of studying from the inside, so to speak, how this practice mode worked. For our future practice and clients, we took every opportunity to learn what works and what doesn't. Here's a rundown of what we gained from our seven years as corporate practitioners.

Money. It's no wonder that newly-minted O.D.s with school debt are attracted to corporate practices today. Corporate optometry offers practitioners a chance to make money from day one. Under some corporate models, practitioners can focus almost exclusively on patient care. Other corporations allow franchise options, which can provide the practitioner the feeling of running a contact lens practice, complete with his own staff, while the corporate location next door handles the spectacle sales.

Sharpened clinical skills. Corporate O.D.s see many patients. We saw this as our chance to learn to handle patient exams efficiently and gain the clinical confidence that comes from seeing many patients and looking for occasional disease or problem diagnoses, even when patients present with no complaints.

Inventory management skills. As practitioners in a corporate setting, we weren't in charge of the optical lab, yet we watched it carefully. Corporate locations are the wizards of lab inventory control. Any practitioner who wants to improve lab management can learn a lot from corporate locations.

 

Not All Corporate Optometry Is Alike

 

Opportunities in corporate or affiliated optometry go further than just employment. Some include:

Leasing: Some leases only provide the O.D. all revenues from clinical exams. Some leases also include revenue from contact lens sales. Some make hiring and firing optical staff the responsibility of the O.D. Leases can run from one to three years, or longer.

Franchise: Many more O.D.s are indirectly affiliated with corporate locations as associates of leaseholding O.D.s or as fill-in or part-time employees of corporate retailers.

Those corporate O.D.s who are leaseholders or franchisees and not employed should review pros and cons of owning your own private practice as they might apply.

Creating a plan

We had our hearts and minds set on our ultra-high end practice — and finally, in 2002, we had saved enough money to buy an existing practice. In 2003, we bought land and built a new building. It had been more than a decade since we first dreamed up the practice, but with a plan as our blueprint, we saved and worked to make it happen. So for us, corporate optometry provided a means to an end.

Most importantly, we had a plan. Too many O.D.s, whether in corporate or private practice, lack that fundamental guide. Without it, the practice and practitioner can lose purpose.

We can say with pride that we worked hard to provide the same level of professional attention, expertise and service as corporate O.D.s as we do now as private practitioners. So when we talk with young O.D.s who say they're interested in working in a corporate setting, we tell them we don't need to hear them rationalize it. Go for it. We encourage them to find the corporate setting in which they are most comfortable. Being employed by a corporation is hardly different from being employed by a private practice O.D., although the former typically has better benefits and higher salaries to offer.

There's a place for it

Corporate optometry can play a role at the beginning of a career, in the middle, at the end — or even throughout. Those who aspire to a private practice can follow much the same path we did. Because we gave our heart and soul to helping the corporate practice grow, we can look back on that experience with satisfaction. But we can also understand how many O.D.s would choose not to follow us. Our days now are about 90% administration and 10% patient care. In corporate practice, those numbers were reversed. Practitioners who consider practice management a burden might find great relief in the increased patient contact offered in corporate settings.

O.D.s who seem most dissatisfied, whatever their practice setting, are those who feel stuck in their situation. We've seen this with private practice O.D.s who feel overwhelmed by the financial obligations and corporate O.D.s who had hoped that corporate practice was a step along the road but can't get out. In most cases, these O.D.s didn't have long-term plans. For example, the young O.D.s who say, "I'm going to work in corporate optometry until I've paid off school loans," may find themselves quickly living beyond their means. Paying back school loans with income from a corporate employer is very possible — and there should be money left over. O.D.s who start spending that, rather than putting it toward the next goal, will find themselves always playing catch up to their debts. A better plan could be to pay off debt in a stated number of years and save 15% or 20% of each year's income toward whatever the goal is.

Creating your future

Our advice to O.D.s is to develop a long-term plan. Plan 10 or even 20 years into the future. Plans can be modified as needed, but in the meantime, they'll provide a focus for the present. Then find the practice setting that allows the plan to unfold. Whatever that setting is — your own practice, a corporate location, employed by another O.D., M.D., etc. — give it your all and learn from it. There are rewards in every experience.

Drs. Travis and Cheryl Adlington are owners of the Adlington Eye Center and EyeGlass Gallery in Reno, NV. Contact them at eyeglassgallery.net.

Pros and Cons of Major Practice Settings

Owning your own private practice

PROS:

   Independence — the ability to do it your way

   Learn all phases of business

   High income potential

   Develop long-term patient/staff relationships

   Schedule flexibility

   No bureaucracy

CONS:

   Large up-front investment

   Latest equipment may be unaffordable

   Revenue may grow slowly at first

   Few on-the-job training opportunities/long learning curve

   Income depends on cash flow

   No paid "benefits"

   Administrative headaches

   Need for business training

 

 Working for another doctor

PROS:

   On-the-job training from experienced associates

   No investment

   Immediate income

   Learn all phases of business

   Entry into professional circles

   Steady income

   Existing patient base

CONS:

   Opportunities may be limited geographically

   Salary may be modest initially

   Must conform to senior doctors' methods

   May get "undesirable" patients of senior doctors

 

Corporate optometry

PROS:

   Excellent starting salary and benefits

   Opportunities across the country

   May offer flexible hours

   Freedom from administrative chores

   Exposure to broad range of patients

   Latest technology

   CE provided

   Access to managed care contracts

CONS:

   Evening and weekend hours required

   Large patient load, busy schedule, depending on location of practice

   No choice in hiring staff

   Patient care protocols may be dictated

   Peer review required



Optometric Management, Issue: August 2005