Getting Personal with Specsavers

Doug and Dame Mary Perkins are two of Guernsey’s most well-known entrepreneurs having founded Specsavers in 1984. Today, the business is a global brand supported by hundreds of staff at the company’s office in Guernsey. In a rare interview, the couple spoke to William Green about challenges facing the island – such as the cost of living - as well as Brexit and keeping Specsavers in the family and in Guernsey.

WHEN you meet Doug and Dame Mary Perkins, you are struck by their modesty and their friendly down-to-earth attitude as well as their love for Guernsey. Sitting in Specsavers support office off La Villiaze Rd in St Andrew’s, which has recently seen a multi-million pound refurbishment, their business acumen is also clear to see and came to the fore during our extended interview – both in terms of Specsavers and the island’s future.

Brexit

Inevitably, Brexit crops up during conversation.

Mr Perkins stressed that the next few months would be critical. ‘I can’t think any sector in Guernsey is keen on a no deal. Everybody is trying to prepare for it. But it’s not always obvious how to prepare for it,’ he said.

‘With a transition deal you’ll get a couple of years to accommodate for that, so it has to be by definition, good for business. Whereas I have talked to loads of business people who would have to do enormous things to cope with a hard exit.

‘Specsavers is not in the enormous category, but we are in the significant category, and not knowing exactly what it is what we have to do means we will have to watch every single move. We have a team of specialists that are looking at all those variations on a weekly basis. It’s all taking time and whatever happens, it’s going to be hugely costly as it would be for the financial services industry.

‘It’s one of those disruptive changes that we definitely wouldn’t want but we will get through the outcome whatever the outcome is.’

Dame Mary was more sanguine about its impact. While the uncertainty was a potentially costly issue for business, she expressed confidence that the UK would get through the ‘huge shock’ of Brexit.

‘Obviously one picks up what is going on from the media, and they have a tendency to speculate on all the bad things that are going to happen,’ she said. ‘But I think in the end we will surprise ourselves about how it settles down.

‘There will be odd things that you will have a battle over no doubt. Then there will be some companies that will have to spend a lot of money doing whatever they have to do. But in the end I think it is going to balance out and I don’t think the world will come to a stop.’

Dame Mary added: ‘We can’t control it. It’s time to put our thinking caps on, have a good think and move forward and do what we can. Other than it becomes very miserable. But certainly by next March we are going to know anyway.’

Disruptive challenges facing Guernsey

The island was still an attractive place to set up a business but there were challenges, added Mr Perkins, who is joint group CEO with their son John.

‘From time to time there are disruptive changes as there were after the war, and in the 60s when the horticultural industry was in transition. And now again, these are forces that you can’t do anything about. They are about technology changes, political changes, economic changes. People’s retail habits are also changing. So you have to take that all into account.

‘It’s very easy to think: “Ah well, it’s all the fault of government”. I do not believe that is the case. So you have got to separate these external factors. It doesn’t matter what government is in, every country is having to face these changes.

‘There are things we can control. We can generally label those into infrastructure, travel and education comes into that category.

‘We are in transition at the moment on those issues. Lots of reviews are taking place and we hope that they will come to the right decision because it’s not always easy to balance the needs of business to the needs of the domestic market that live here every day – particularly with travel.’

YOU CAN READ THE FULL INTERVIEW IN DECEMBER'S BUSINESS BRIEF