In our regular series, our Community Manager Daisy interviews new arrivals at Sussex Innovation about their business, why they joined, and their plans for growth. Today she chats with Michelle Peel from Complete Community Care.
So tell me about Complete Community Care and why you decided to set up the business…
We set up the business because we came across a group of housebound individuals who were struggling to read the daily paper and watch TV, which was having a huge impact on their quality of life. Their confidence was being eroded, both in their ability to live independently and also their desire to socialise. Updating their glasses significantly improved their quality of vision, allowing them to watch TV and read in comfort. Their self-worth and confidence increased dramatically, completely changing their outlook on life. This inspired us to specialise in offering a flexible and responsive home visiting optical service. We wanted to provide a really ethical service because there's lots of companies in out sector who take advantage of the fact that our clients are quite vulnerable.
Are you an optometrist?
No, not at all! I started off as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley. I went in as a graduate and effectively worked my way up. I had an aspiration to hit Vice President by 30, I got it when I was 26, I was one of the youngest ever to get it. Morgan Stanley’s building was right next door to Lehman Brothers; Lehman Brothers were packing up their cardboard boxes because they were closing down due to the financial crisis. I was in risk management, there was so much uncertainty in the market, it got to a point where I felt I had achieved what I'd wanted and I'd quite like to try something else. My brother had set up a domiciliary opticians which he had been running for about 10 years at that stage and he wanted to franchise out his business. I set up the first franchise in Brighton not knowing anything about optics, not knowing anything about the care industry, the only thing I could do was drive! I set it up from scratch, I hired an optometrist, I hired an optical assistant and I ran all the other aspects of the business. It was really good fun, it was really exciting and we grew really quickly. I demonstrated that the concept could work so we decided we'd template it and launch around the country. What makes us different is that we only service clients within a 30 mile radius of the office. Our clients put their glasses through all sorts, such as putting them through the washing machine, or sitting on them by mistake. You have to be able to respond quickly, in with another pair of frames the same day, because for that person not being able to watch the television that evening or not being able to read the newspaper or not being able to do the crossword or their cross stitch, that's huge for them.
Do you only have elderly clients?
We're contracted by the NHS to visit people who are housebound for some reason; it could be a mental or physical disability that means that they can't get to the high street unaided. Our clients generally tend to be elderly but we might also have a 30 year old who suffers from agoraphobia. Visiting the optician can be a stressful experience, even simply accessing the equipment (getting in and out of the testing chair, using the pressure machine where you have to put your chin on a chin rest which may be difficult and time consuming if the patient is elderly or on the spectrum or has a learning disability). The benefits of being in the comfort of their own home, it gives us a less anxious patient, which means we tend to get better test results, and can give the patient more time to choose frames.
What have you learnt from setting up the business?
In the first 5 years we grew from no franchises to 14 across the UK and what I didn’t appreciate was that actually, to make a successful business, you have to have the right people around you. We had chosen people that were great at interview but once they were in the thick of it, for whatever reason, weren't a good fit. For us to become nationwide we need to have 25 franchises, so we were halfway there, but beneath the surface we were spending so much time concentrating on getting 2 or 3 of these failing branches up and running, in the end, we had to close them down. That was really difficult. It felt like we were taking a step back but actually we weren’t, the business has grown more successfully and we’ve grown with people that have the same passion and ethos as us.
How do you identify those people?
We had an HR consultant come into the business (I would recommend that for anyone who’s running a small business) and she went around all our branches and did appraisals with everybody. At the heart of Community Care Opticians’ training is the "Grandmother Test"; a policy whereby all staff are trained to treat every patient as if they were their own grandmother. Whether you're on the end of the phone booking their appointment, doing the eye test or delivering the glasses, each element is treated with this compassionate approach. One thing [the HR consultant] said to me was she'd never come across a business where all staff, from the optical assistants to the directors of the business, had this ethos about the Grandmother Test. It's not something you can teach people, it’s just something that you either have or you don't. What we've really learnt when we take on new franchisees is that actually it's not so much about their expertise as what character they are, because actually if they fit in then everything else can be taught.
It can be really hard to judge people's character in interviews…
Yes absolutely, that's the problem we had. At the end of the day, when you buy into a franchise, it's a concept that has been proven to work if you follow the steps. We found that these people pushed against everything, silly things like "I can find pens for 3p cheaper than you're providing them for me, you must be making a margin on them." [You'd think] "Why don't you go out and win some business rather than worrying about the cost of a pen?" That's the kind of thing that we were coming up against.
That must've been difficult, how did you manage that?
I've learnt with our franchisees, don't be too friendly and too nice, there has to be an element of distance.
Where does Sussex Innovation fit in?
We wanted to come here because we're in a phase of growth again. We've decided to open our intake of new franchisees again, so we need to expand our team and support them in their growth journey. The first 6 to 12 months is obviously the crucial time, one of the things that appealed to me was the Catalyst Team and being able to tap into that resource on a short-term basis and help our guys get up and running. Also, to potentially look at other areas of our business. In Scotland [and in Bournemouth] we've started looking after quite a number of homeless shelters. In order to make it happen we have to commission the NHS to fund the service. Currently, if you are homeless, bad luck, if you don't have an address you are not entitled to an NHS eye test. It's ridiculous, these are the kind of people that are most in need. There is general agreement on the presence of a correlation between poverty and impaired health. If you're homeless you're far more likely to have issues and go blind because of quite routine things. So that's definitely an area I want to explore more and use the Catalyst Team to do some research for us. [Also] the only paper we have in our offices is NHS paperwork (and that's going electronic by the end of the year). Our online system is completely bespoke, so it's really exciting to work in this environment where there are people that have got creative and tech companies. We could have gone to a traditional office space, but I think it's more inspiring to work somewhere where there is that energy and enthusiasm to grow.
Where do you see the business in 10 years time?
I'd love to be nationwide at that point and to be a household name in terms of being able to help people that are housebound, to be the "go-to". There are some big companies out there, for example Boots, that are very [well-known] amongst the elderly, to become that kind of name, that would be amazing.