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Investment in high street store helps independent optician take on giants

Name: Sian Wilkie and Willis Wilkie.

Age: 34 and 31.

What is your business called?

Wilkie & Rider.

Where is it based?

Dumbarton and Alexandria High Streets.

What services does it offer?

We are opticians and jewellers. We offer personalised eyecare, orthro care lenses and a range of designer brands where we have local exclusivity. We also service and repair watches and sell fine jewellery items. Our USP is that we are local and have operated in the area for decades, long before some high street chains were formed.

To whom does it sell?

To the good people of Dumbarton and Alexandria as well as those from further afield, including Glasgow, Killearn, Balloch and Helensburgh. A good portion of our customers and patients includes those who grew up around here and have moved away but see us as “their” eyecare specialists and return regularly for attention.

What is its turnover?

It is currently £900,000. We noticed a sharp uplift in sales last year after we refurbished and upgraded our Alexandria practice. Giving it an entirely contemporary look has really paid off and our recent turnover has reflected that investment. It’s a big factor in retailing: provide a bright, stylish environment and people will be attracted to it. We are looking to undertake a similar upgrade to our Dumbarton practice early this year.

How many employees?

14 including six professional staff, one of whom is a former university senior lecturer in optometry.

When was it formed?

The business started in 1923 as a jewellers’ watchmakers and opticians trading as Hudson’s.

It was bought in 1956 by my grandfather, William Wilkie, who operated as an optician and rented space to a watchmaker/ jeweller called Bill Ferguson. When Bill wanted to leave in 1968, we employed one of his watchmakers, Gordon Rider, and my granny Jean Wilkie ran the jewellery. A partnership was formed and Wilkie Opticians and Wilkie & Rider jewellers then ran in parallel. After my dad, William, joined the business in 1976, Gordon left to set up on his own. Thereafter, the two businesses became one as we were all family. We are still known as Wilkie Rider and so far, have felt no need to revert to Wilkie.

Why did you take the plunge?

I grew up in and around the business and it had never occurred to me that my own career lay within it. I fell into the business when my dad asked me to lend a hand with marketing its services to existing and prospective patients. Quickly, I realised there was a lot of opportunity to get involved in driving forward in lots of different areas of the business. That was seven years ago.

My brother, Willis, first gained work experience as a trainee mechanic in a haulage company owned by a friend of our dad. Later, having helped out in the practice, he chose to study optometry at Glasgow Caledonian University, and qualified as an optician in 2010. He worked for one of the big multiples for a few years before deciding to join the family business in 2015.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

I studied law at Aberdeen University and decided early on I couldn’t be a lawyer. I did a variety of jobs after graduating and had been working in Edinburgh in a sales and marketing role when I got the call to join our family business.

What was your biggest break?

For me, the biggest break, probably, was my grandfather being asked to be a locum in Dumbarton in 1956; everything else followed from that. For Willis, it was being asked by our dad to “help out”. He started doing minor but important tasks, found that he loved it and decided to sign-up at university to train as a fully qualified professional optometrist.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

What I enjoy most about running a business is the freedom it allows you. It’s basically problem solving with people. We have known many of the staff since we were children and it seemed like a natural progression as we moved into senior roles.

The challenge lies in creating an environment where both you and your staff can excel, whilst giving the patient or customer a place to browse or be treated where they feel totally at ease. Competition within the optometry sector is unrelenting, but in my view, that pushes you to deliver above and beyond what patients and customers expect.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

Review business rates and redevelopment proposals to draw people into the town centre. Better parking is a must.

The funding the Scottish government has provided to optometrists to allow everyone the right to a regular routine eye test has transformed the sector in Scotland. More importantly, it has meant that optometrists can detect eye problems earlier than might have been possible when the period between tests was much longer. This, in turn, is saving the NHS in Scotland a great deal of money each year.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

An understanding that everyone is different and that treating everyone as a unique individual is the best way of building and retaining a loyal base of patients.

How do you relax?

Going to the gym, holidays, eating good food, spending time with family and friends. Willis is into comic books, music and football.

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