Health Care and Retail

Slow and steady wins the race

Rx Optical vice president of marketing credits slow growth model for 70 years of business.

June 16, 2017
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Rx Optical
Rx Optical has 53 locations throughout Michigan and a handful in Indiana, adding approximately two to three new practices each year. Courtesy Rx Optical

A slow and intentional approach to expansion has been the key to Kalamazoo-based Rx Optical’s 70 years of success.

Rx Optical Vice President of Marketing George Jepson said for the company’s first 23 years, Rx Optical operated just one location. It has since grown to 53 locations throughout Michigan and a handful in Indiana, adding approximately two to three new practices each year.

Jepson said the slow growth model is unique in an industry that has been permeated by a recent trend toward practices funded by private equity investment.

“For us, we’ve been accountable to our ownership and limited resources — we invest where we can gain a return but also where we’ve got resources,” Jepson said. “The way we grow isn’t like some of the other businesses, because we know what we do, we have a caution and understanding of what works best for Rx Optical.

“We’re less concerned with our competition and what they do. It’s about understanding what we do and how we can create a better experience for our patients each day.”

That model has paid off so far, as Jepson said Rx Optical is the second-largest independently owned and operated retailer in the country and the oldest optical retailer based in Michigan.

Rx Optical continues to invest in creating a better patient experience and currently is in the process of building a new $6-million, 22,000-square-foot Kalamazoo headquarters that is expected to open in the fall. The new building expands Rx Optical’s corporate campus, which includes a medical practice area, retail space and laboratories, to 40,000 square feet and services each of Rx Optical’s retail locations.

“That platform will give us the foundation for our next 25 years of growth, whether that’s within our existing footprint or expanding outside of our current markets,” Jepson said.

Once those employees are trained and certified, Rx Optical places additional import on retention by making sure they have access to the best tools to do their jobs and rewarding them for a job well done. Across the board, Rx Optical employs about 200 opticians and 325 total employees.

Jepson added the majority of the company’s upper management has been with the company for more than 20 years, including himself — the senior vice president has been with Rx Optical for 28 years.

While Rx Optical does have an eye turned to possible expansion opportunities outside the state of Michigan, Jepson said the practice is primarily focused on in-state growth. Rx Optical has a number of locations in concentrated regions like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Detroit and Muskegon. In Kent County alone, Rx Optical operates 14 locations.

The company will continue to focus its growth in those markets, as Jepson said in the long run, it ends up being more costly to build brand recognition from the ground up when there’s already an existing base of competition.

By placing an emphasis on saturating its existing markets, Rx Optical has to take a more patient-centered approach to attracting new patients, Jepson said. So, the company has invested its resources in grooming opticians through its training academy, providing them with a path toward board certification.

“Our opticians sit for the same tests that an associate degree graduate would sit for, and we had a higher passing rate on our first time with the training program than Indiana (University) and Ferris (State University) did,” Jepson said. “And we have to invest in the resources to do that because it makes a significant difference to the patient experience to have the most highly qualified opticians. We’re trying to raise the bar.”

On the retail side of the business, Rx Optical takes a leaner approach to its merchandising than most optical retailers, using market research to determine the most popular frames and styles and whittling its inventory down to only those brands. While the idea of limitless options might sound appealing to a customer, Jepson said in most cases, an endless supply of styles and frames can be overwhelming.

“We’re very relevant with our frame selection. We try to simplify the process with our patients to make it as uncomplicated as possible,” Jepson said. “And you can’t do that unless you understand the products and what works for our patient profile.”

As Rx Optical celebrates its 70th year in business, the company will stay the course in years 71, 75 and beyond.

“We like what we do, we like being in the optical business and being in Michigan,” Jepson said. “There’s a great future here and a lot of potential for us to continue to grow in the way we know how.”

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