Specsavers’ growth momentum will be reaffirmed when the opticians group announces annual revenues of around £3bn, reflecting its position as one of the best-known high street brands.
For Tom Buller, Specsavers’ finance director, the group’s rapid growth story reflects his own development trajectory. In April he will have been at the Guernsey-based firm a decade, of which three years have been in the top finance job.
His role encompasses group finance and risk functions, he leads a team of around 250 across all areas of finance, comprising FP&A, financial reporting, treasury, tax, and finance shares services.
In his tenure, turnover has doubled from £1.5bn to around £3bn (up from £2.78bn last year), a period in which Specsavers has grown internationally and broadened its product mix, diversifying into areas such as hearing aids.
Much of Specsavers’ success Buller puts down to the disruptive model that founders Doug and Mary Perkins put in place when they launched the group 35 years ago. It now operates in over 2,000 stores and employs at least 37,000 staff worldwide.
The Specsavers model has worked on the basis that each optician is run as a partnership. “The partners in stores own the profit of that store directly, and therefore they’ve got all the right incentives and they feel the benefits of getting it right in terms of customer service, in terms of quality of professional care they’re providing.
“When I speak to our store partners, they are keen to give feedback what’s adding value and what isn’t adding value. It’s great to get from them first-hand view on the information.
“From a support office perspective, our role is to make sure that we make it as easy as possible for them, so we provide all the central finance, HR, technology support to enable the stores or partners to focus on customers.
“It’s a model we took originally into the retail space, but now a lot of our supply chain is also run through the partnership model, right through to the canteen in the office. They just fundamentally believe that people should bear the rewards for their work and effort,” says Buller
Making an impact
Buller says some of the key ingredients for his role were proved by studying a law degree at Southampton University. “It offered critical thinking and the ability to take a problem and learn how to challenge it and look at it in a different way. It gave me the means to appreciate the various sides to an argument,” he adds.
A decade at accountancy firm EY provided Buller with a solid understanding of how different business models work during his time in audit and other functions there. “Working across a wide range of clients across the globe, and with quite a lot of senior people early on in my career, I got to understand where people at the top end of companies are focusing their efforts.
“The experience helped shape my understanding of how businesses work, and what I would need to think about in order to be successful, including hitting the right note with key stakeholders,” he says.
Part of the role at EY involved working in locations other than London including Australia, Jersey and Guernsey, where Buller would eventually be hired for Specsavers. “I got a lot personally and professionally out of working in different geographies. Setting up somewhere new, making new connections and figuring how things work in a new country helps to develop you,” he reveals.
Buller arrived in in Guernsey in 2008, working with mostly financial services firms, as the financial crisis erupted. “It was a very interesting time. It was the first time in my career I’d seen that sector struggle,” he says.
After a couple of years in Guernsey, the opportunity came to join Specsavers, as group financial controller, a role he describes as “a nice landing to come out of EY into a role that’s all about process, control and risk.
“When I joined Specsavers we’d just entered the Australian and New Zealand markets. At the time our global retail sales were about £1.5bn. We’re now close to the £3bn mark, so we’ve nearly doubled in size over the 10 years I’ve been there,” he says.
In 2015, Buller was made director of finance and then group finance director two years later. He describes his willingness to take on new responsibilities as a result of having an inquisitive mind. “If I see a problem I like to tackle and resolve it,” he says.
An example came when he approached group CFO at the time Paul Fussey when the group was experiencing “a disconnect with how we were reporting from a statutory perspective and a management accounting perspective. Bridging it was very challenging. I spoke to Paul and said ‘I can fix this for you, I can work with the team’, and offered to help,” Buller explains.
“That’s probably how my career has built, it’s about identifying things that can help the business do better and having open conversations around ways to seize an opportunity and working hard to deliver those improvements.
“It’s been great to have been part of an organisation that actually, because we are privately owned and our founders tend to take decisions for the longer term, rather than short term for the stock market, it also gives people more of a chance. It’s not about having to come in being the finished article.
“Having been there and done it they’ve really given me the opportunity to expand my horizons an experiences. The big learning for me is that you can’t be the expert in the room on everything, so making sure you surround yourself with a really great team of people with the skills and capabilities to drive the business forward is key,” he says.
Key to keeping Specsavers on a growth trajectory, Buller has been developing technologies to improve efficiencies. “We’ve still got a long way to go but we’ve now started to use RPA (robotic process automation ) in our shared services environment, and investing in our data product.
“Through these developments we are giving the individuals in the team the capacity to partner with the business and drive real insight and understanding to help move the business on, rather than just trying to get access to data, as we may have done when I first joined. Everyone ends up more and more involved in the world of technology every day now,” he adds.
“If you take for example Australia, the ability to see their results, the ability to have conversations on much more real time is absolutely helping drive the organisation forward. I’ve got quite a small team, here in Guernsey, so actually connecting those people and learnings to standardise the way we do things is bringing real opportunity to the organisation, says Buller.
Buller says what makes his role really interesting is that on any given day, he could be dealing with a really big issue such as the group’s hedging policy on the back of Brexit, through to a store partner calling on an issue.
“It might be in the hundreds of pounds rather than the tens of millions of pounds I was dealing with earlier, so the variety of things that come across your desk in the day is incredibly interesting and varied,” he says.
Given that Specsavers has been disrupting the opticians market for 35 years, Buller says the group is on a constant path of innovation, be it looking at new territories or product areas such as the sale of hearing aids. “Disruption has always been the name of the game here,” he says.
“We constantly look at ways to challenge ourselves, to do things differently. The whole business started from founders Doug and Mary seeing an opportunity to disrupt the optical market when you were allowed to start advertising in the space.
“As an organisation we are very much looking on the horizon to what’s coming down the line with technology and about how you can test people’s eyes and where you can test them. Can you do them in the home, can you do it via devices?
“A lot of that may be several years down the line, if not more, but making sure we’re at the forefront of that through the innovation and research that we’re doing, is key to ensuring our long-term success,” says Buller.
But he insists that the direction of the group is very much about making a difference to the lives of customers. “For me it’s very powerful working for an organisation that through the provision of hearing aids or glasses transform people’s lives in terms of improving them,” says Buller.
He describes Doug and Mary Perkins, who are both billionaires, as down to earth people. “After 35 years they’re still in the business every day, with loads of energy and still massively passionate about the business.
“They will ask are we doing the right thing for our customers, making sure we are providing the highest quality of product and level of care. I think an organisation that is motivated by that rather than the profit being the number one driver is a good place to be,” says Buller.