By John Sailer
ELLISVILLE, Mo.—At 33 years of age, Clarkson Eyecare is in the midst of a growth spurt but doesn't seem to be experiencing any growing pains.
Headquartered here and centered around the St. Louis region, the optical chain opened its 57th location in October of 2012 and plans to add even more locations throughout 2013.
Clarkson is currently at work on three new locations and will have as many as six new locations by the end of next year. Some of this continued growth represents new launches while some is through purchases or mergers of other eyecare providers. There have even been some instances where another provider has come to Clarkson and asked to merge.
Clarkson Eyecare, now named for the road on which the first office was located, was originally named Jehling-Lui Eye Associates after its founders, Lawrence J. Jehling, OD, and Lynette S. Lui, OD. That changed in 1987 when Jehling moved the practice one block north to its current location at 217 Clarkson Road and renamed the practice Clarkson Eyecare.
Eight years later, the company began the rapid growth that still continues today. In 1995, the Clarkson Road location and a subsequently opened second office in Pacific, Mo., merged with Osage Eyecare in House Springs, Mo., and The Eye Institute of St. Louis in Clayton, Mo., and all were renamed Clarkson Eyecare.
New COO Among Optical's Most Influential Women
The company's chief operating officer, Amanda Ditch has participated in much of Clarkson's growth since she joined the company while still attending school in 1996. At that time, there were only six locations. Having been named COO earlier this year, she now helps oversee its current expansion.
As Clarkson Eyecare expanded over the last 16 years, Ditch also grew with the company, first learning about the contact lenses and eyeglasses the company sold, then moving into central billing and returning back out into the offices as front office manager. Clarkson launched its own Lasik center in 1999, and Ditch managed it from 2001 to 2005, after which she was promoted to operations manager. She earned her MBA with an emphasis in health care administration in 2007. In 2010, Vision Monday named Ditch one of the Most Influential Women in Optical.
A Doctor-centric Optical Chain
During a recent tour of Clarkson's facilities, Ditch told dba that she enjoys the "business side" of things and that she likes this company because it's homegrown and local with great people and great doctors. It's this doctor-focused philosophy that she cites as a reason for the company's steady growth over the years. "I'm happy to be a decision maker, but this company is driven by our doctors," she said. "The key to the success of Clarkson Eyecare is our doctors." Clarkson Eyecare was founded by doctors and is majority owned and directed by doctors.
Not only are the doctors instrumental in providing the services necessary to lead what Ditch describes as "a doctor place first and a retail place second," but they've also put their mark on some of what makes Clarkson unique. This includes participating in the selection of the diagnostic equipment in use as well as creating the company's own proprietary electronic medical records system, long before the use of this type of software was incentivized by health care reform.
Developed with input from the doctors themselves, this software electronically manages appointments, insurance verification, billing, inventory, eye exams and everything necessary to be certified by the Drummond Group for "meaningful use" by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The doctor-developed software was so effective that Clarkson began marketing it to other practices under the name of Grow|CMS in 2006. While the company is no longer actively marketing the software, it does occasionally still field calls from interested parties.
One important function Clarkson uses its proprietary software for is to track sales in a variety of ways. "We track everything, sales, month over month, by location, frames sold by location, percentage of contact lenses sold, AR, second pair, high index, poly, Transitions," Ditch said.
One area in particular in which Clarkson excels in is the sales of anti-reflective lenses. The company started producing them in-house 18 years ago, and now about 70 percent of patients get AR. Ditch said it helps to promote AR by saying, "Do you want your glasses with or without glare?" She added, "Our patients deserve the best in eyecare and eyewear, and since glasses are safer with AR, we educate them about it. Once they get AR the first time, they never get it without again."
Education and Communication Are Key
Patient education is prevalent throughout all of Clarkson's dispensaries, and, just as the company relies on technology to track its business statistics, it also uses the latest technology to educate its patients as well. For example, all dispensing PCs feature Eyemaginations LUMA, patient education software that is used frequently, according to Ditch.
Further education and communication are accomplished with the company's own in-house marketing department, which not only maintains relationships with Clarkson's existing patients but which develops new ones as well. Advertising covers the media spectrum and includes local newspapers, a new radio ad on six different stations, and six new television commercials. One promotion that worked particularly well offered a $50 invitation/discount for new patients. The in-house marketing department is also responsible for search engine optimization, ensuring the best possible rankings for the company's website.
A collaborative effort between the marketing department and an outside firm,
Clarkson's website features the basics such as scheduling an appointment, a patient welcome form, finding a location and online bill paying, to the sophisticated such as patient education videos, lens information, and a catalog of available frames.
While the website offers patients the opportunity to buy contact lenses online at
ClarksonContacts.com, the company has not yet started to sell eyeglasses online. "Contact lenses online is a convenience, and while we've talked about having eyeglasses online, we have not seen a need to do that," said Ditch. "We have done our homework and purchased glasses online. We will monitor it and keep our minds open," she added.
A Team that Covers All Positions
Of course, it takes more than just software and doctors to make Clarkson's 57 stores run smoothly. It takes a large support staff, an entire division to run the company's own optical laboratory, the doctors and employees needed to run two Lasik surgery centers, and a management team that includes not only Ditch, but also the founder's brother, Jerry Jehling, president and chairman, who joined the company in 1995.
Clarkson's management team is a proponent of cross-training as a means of enabling all of its employees to understand the responsibilities of other staff members who are in different positions. For example, optometrists, operations managers and opticians are all encouraged to visit the lab, while lab employees are invited to tour Clarkson's various locations. "Understanding the lab helps opticians know what's possible and what's not possible," said Ditch.
Soon after she was named COO, Ditch made a point of spending a significant amount of time at the lab, which averages 500 jobs per day or about 150,000 jobs per year. Almost 30 percent of those jobs are in the company's own digitally surfaced Clarkson Precision Lenses. "I developed a profound appreciation of the lab product," she told dba after spending a couple of months in the lab. And even though she's trained four regional managers to keep an eye on things in the field, she also makes a point of visiting each location "at least every couple of months."
At the End of the Day 'We Help People'
Along with the company's growth has come the opportunity to give back to the community that has brought it success. Eight years ago it formed the Clarkson Eyecare Foundation. Through three vision care clinics, doctors and staff volunteer their time to give eyecare and eyewear to people who would otherwise not have access. Foundation employees also visited the Dominican Republic where they performed 1,800 eye exams in six days.
This community outreach reflects the basic philosophy of the company itself, which Ditch cited when she said, "The first three, and most important, words of our mission statement are: 'We help people… Everything we do centers around this."
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