Optometrist and Businessman – Mentor, Dr. Robert Zoellner
Dr. Zoellner is one of the most successful optometrists in the U.S. While he knew he wanted to be a doctor when he entered college, he also liked business. So he decided to become an optometrist where he could help people improve their vision as well as be involved in the sales and marketing of glasses and contacts. Two years after graduation, Dr. Zoellner started a practice where he was affiliated with Eyemart Express. His two locations were so successful that four years later he became the President of Eyemart Express when he was only thirty. After a year, he returned to Tulsa where he soon built a much larger office near a major mall to replace one of his smaller locations. His business has steadily expanded. He now has 72 employees at his two locations. The mall location sells more frames for the four major suppliers than any other single U.S. store. Dr. Zoellner’s business model is based on giving excellent customer service. He makes sure his patients feel their time is as important as the doctor’s. Besides eye exams, he has lab facilities in house where his opticians can quickly fill prescriptions. He is also involved in several other businesses and acts as a mentor to people who want to start their own companies. Dr. Zoellner’s article will be of interest to anyone considering becoming an optometrist or working in a related field and by people who want to learn more about how to manage a personal service business.
I grew up in a large family with not a lot of financial resources and went to public schools. I learned to work hard early in my life and got my first job as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant when I was just thirteen. I wanted to become a doctor because I felt that would give me financial security. So I took pre med courses for four years at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. When it came time for me to decide what part of medicine I wanted to enter, I chose optometry. People highly value their vision and being an optometrist lets me help people see better and is very rewarding. Plus unlike other forms of medicine where you might work in a hospital and be on call, you have more normal business hours. I also liked the business side where you get to sell glasses and contacts and solve
business problems. I find business fascinating and like everything about it. I felt that being an optometrist would allow me to be involved in the sales and marketing of eyewear and contacts. There was a school of optometry right there at Northeast State that also influenced my thinking about choosing this career. So I stayed and graduated from their school of optometry in1990.
Because I didn’t have a lot of money, I paid for my education using a combination of student loans and Pell Grants. A Pell Grant is money the government provides for students based on financial need. Unlike a student loan, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid. This program was begun under Ronald Regan and was a big factor that allowed me to go to college. Last year about a third of all college students received some form of a Pell Grant.
After I graduated, I was going to buy out another doctor. I worked all that I could seven days a week. But that fell though. So I got another job in a different city and worked there for about a year. I was then contacted by Eyemart Express, a commercial eyeglass store, and asked to open an office next to one of their stores in Tulsa. Back then you could lease from the store at a good rate. The idea was that after an examination, the patient would have a convenient location right next door to take any prescription I had given them for eyeglasses or contacts. Likewise people coming in to Eyemart Express might need a prescription and they would come to me because it was convenient. The concept worked well and I opened a second office beside another Eyemart Express. The two stores did so well that four years later I was recruited to be the President of Eyemart Express when I was just thirty and moved to Dallas. While I was there, I opened 24 additional locations for the company across the nation, doubling its size. But that job involved constant travel and being away from my wile and family. A year later I was let go and returned to Tulsa. I had kept my two locations and had hired other doctors to run them so I was able to get right back in business. When I returned I really worked hard. In six months I had transformed my stores. I put in a lab and displays for frames and starting competing with Eyemart Express.
There is a rule in Oklahoma that says if you have more than two locations you are obviously a commercial entity and you have to separate the optical from the doctor’s side. There is an advantage for me in having the two in the same store because of the way I market. I offer a bundle so you can get an exam and a pair of glasses for $99. Being able to bundle is the reason that I have not gone past the two locations. Because I was only going to be able to
have two locations, I wanted them in areas with the highest traffic. I saw the growing traffic around the Woodland Hills Mall. I found some land near the Mall, built my own building and then sold one of my smaller locations. It turned out to be a good move as sales grew steadily. There are four major suppliers of eyeglass frames and my Mall location consistently ranks number one in the sale of frames for all four companies compared to any other location in the U.S.
As my business became more successful, people were coming to me asking questions about business and also showing me other business opportunities. There is a television show called Shark Tank where people put ideas in front of four entrepreneurs who have the opportunity to offer advice as well as invest in the new business. I have people making similar presentations to me and have made several investments in new businesses:
1. DME – a durable medical equipment sales company
2. Z66 Auto Auction
3. Dr. ZZZ’s Sleep Center
4. Thoroughbred Horse Ranch, the Rockin” Z”
5. A company that purchases and rehabilitates homes and then sells them to people with low credit scores who could not purchase a home using a traditional lender.
6. Thrive15.com is an Internet mentoring program for entrepreneurs where I am the CEO.
Careers for Eye Care Professionals
There are three types of professional careers in eye care for someone to consider: Opticians, Optometrists and Ophthalmologists.
Opticians are like a pharmacist. They take the prescription and make a pair of glasses and then adjust them to fit your face. While the machines that grind lenses are becoming more computers automated, there are still basic skills an Optician needs to know to make lenses. You do not need a state
certification to be an optician in Oklahoma but in some states they do. I have trained people to be opticians myself. You can also get an associates degree from technical colleges.
Optometrists are medical specialists. Like a dentist who only works on teeth, an optometrist only works on the eyes. Optometrists are trained to deal with the health of the eye and do minor procedures, prescribe medications as well as do refractions where they take measurements and issue prescriptions for corrective lenses. They can also issue prescriptions for drugs related to treating conditions of the eye.
Ophthalmologists are either MDs or DOs who primarily do surgery of the eye. They require a full medical license and internships in their specialty.
It is also important to understand that although optometrists spend a lot of time in school learning how to gather data, it is more important as a doctor to be able to interpret the data. You might have noticed that when you go to see a doctor you normally spend more time with the nurse who gathers data and runs tests before you see the doctor. While gathering data is important, the skill in any kind of medicine is being able to interpret that data. Consequently, it is the people who interpret data not those who those who gather the data that I pay the most.
Basic Principals I Use to Run My Optometry Business
• I run my practice as a business and emphasize good customer service. I don’t want my patients to have to wait a long time to see a doctor. I consider the patient’s time as valuable as the doctor’ s time.
• I hire people who have good personalities and treat patients well. I will always hire someone with a good personality who likes to deal with people over someone with experience who I don’t feel will interact well with my patients. The technical parts of the job can be taught but good personality traits cannot.
• I am always looking for ways to advertise effectively and try to design promotional programs that will bring new people into our store. I enjoy marketing and stay personally involved in developing and launching marketing programs.
• Employees do not stay forever for a variety of reasons. You have to constantly identify people you can bring on to replace those who eventually leave.
• You must have good accounting systems to be able to manage your business and a CPA to do your taxes.
• You have to be willing to work hard, especially in the beginning. When I opened my first stores, I worked seven days a week. Owning your own business generally means you work more hours not less than your employees.
I have enjoyed my career as an optometrist as well as developing that business and the other business opportunities that followed. With a degree as an optometrist you can earn a good salary. But anyone with basic business skills has the opportunity to build their own practice, something that I loved doing. You will also get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping people see well. I have gone on a number of missions to third world countries where it is striking to see the difference good vision can make. I remember one older woman I fitted with a pair of glasses who never had good vision before in her life. If you can meet the academic standards, like serving people and want a career that can provide you with a good business opportunity, being an optometrist can be a rewarding career choice.
U S Bureau of Labor Statistics for Optometrists and Opticians
The median annual wage for optometrists was $97,820 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $52,590, and the top 10 percent earned more than $184,530.
Employment of optometrists is projected to grow 24 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Because vision problems tend to occur more frequently later in life, an aging population will require more optometrists.
The median annual wage for opticians was $33,330 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $21,030, and the top 10 percent earned more than $52,740.