More Efficient Optometrists Lead This Regional Retailer Toward Expansion

By
 
  Allan Barker, OD.
 
  Eyecarecenter's Charlotte location.
 
  Eyecarecenter's Chapel Hill, N.C. location.
ROCKY MOUNT, N.C.—Even in the face of slimmer margins and reimbursements, 60-year-old regional retailer, Eyecarecenter has been able to maintain a successful growth strategy by making only a few minor adjustments that have had little impact on its medical model.

“Margins are getting slimmer, and the larger managed vision care plans are going to the lowest reimbursement,” Barker told dba when asked what the major changes are that Eyecarecenter is reacting to in the field. “Trying to see more patients” is one way he said that his practice, with 64 locations throughout the Carolinas, is responding. But they’re not just squeezing more patients into the available time on the schedule; they’re making doctors more efficient.

Introducing technicians, such as refracting technicians, is one way Eyecarecenter has freed up its optometrists’ time. Using scribes to document doctor-patient consultations into electronic health records has also helped the practice’s optometrists see more patients. “EHR can slow doctors down,” said Barker. “Scribes for extremely busy doctors makes them more efficient.”

The factors that have forced Eyecarecenter to become more efficient, smaller margins and larger numbers of managed care patients, are also causing “angst” among other eyecare professionals, Barker observed. This has resulted in dramatic growth in Eyecarecenter’s franchised locations. The company’s franchise “affiliate” program enables doctors to hand over their practice management concerns to the corporate Eyecarecenter entity while still being able to continue to care for their patients’ eye health and vision needs. Eyecarecenter’s affiliate program is a step-by-step process for an independent practitioner to first become a franchise location and then decide whether to remain a franchisee, be bought out completely, or leave the program after a few years.

This has the potential for being a win-win relationship for both the franchising doctor and Eyecarecenter because it enables the affiliate to operate as a franchise as long as it wants until deciding to sell to Eyecarecenter, if at all.

What began as one practice in Rocky Mount, N.C., started in 1954 by Rocky Stroud, OD, Barker’s father-in-law, has grown to 64 locations under the management of Barker and his business partner of over 30 years, Blair Harrold, OD, FAAO. Eyecarecenter started on its road toward expansion in the early 1980s and began franchising in the late ‘80s. Today, the company operates throughout North and South Carolina, with somewhat less than half of its locations as corporate “core” locations and slightly more than half as franchise “affiliate” offices. Affiliate growth has been particularly expansive this year. “We just signed up four new franchises with eight more talking to us,” Barker told dba.

Franchising activity has gotten so prominent for Eyecarecenter that it hired Jeff Bright as its director of franchise development. He had been a franchisee himself until Eyecarecenter bought his practice.

Another unique aspect of Eyecarecenter’s business philosophy is a strategy toward owning the real estate in which its offices are located. Because experience has shown Barker that “landlords have no loyalty to tenants, owning real estate is an important part of the equation,” he said. The company owns a piece of 30 commercial properties along with some of the doctors the company is operating in partnership with, “so they have skin in the game,” said Barker.

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jsailer@jobson.com