HOUSTON—There’s really no secret sauce or magic ingredient that goes into Texas State Optical’s (TSO) formula for success, according to president John Marvin. It all comes down to a “pretty basic” approach to managing a business on the foundation of sound core values and a resolute mission statement. And, perhaps most importantly, serving patients as effectively as possible—with plenty of emphasis on meeting the patients’ needs even as they evolve in a digitally driven marketplace.

“It’s our constant focus to make life more convenient for the patient,” said Marvin, who has been president of the 80-year-old TSO organization since 2001. The result is that TSO has built a strong and growing business and consistently ranks high on the Top 50 U.S. Optical Retailers list compiled annually by Vision Monday. (TSO ranked No. 14 this year, with annual sales of $120 million across its network of 120-plus locations.)

“Our successful ability to remain in the Top 50, in some ways, is basic,” Marvin said. “We successfully opened eight new offices in 2018 [and] we got them off the ground and made them successful within a short amount of time.” The new offices were all start-up locations (TSO does not acquire practices at this time) and were opened in both new and existing markets for TSO. The group is working toward expanding in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, San Antonio and the central Texas corridor, or what is referred to as “The Valley” and includes the McAllen, Brownsville and Harlingen areas.

Amid this expansion, though, TSO will not lose sight of its core principles, according to Marvin. “As theoretical as this might sound, you have to have vision, values and a mission statement,” he explained. “We took that to heart. Had we not been an organization owned and directed by doctors, we might not have felt the need to go through the discipline of that process.”

Work on building a vision for TSO began in 2012, when about 40 of its leaders spent two days in introspective discussions. “Out of that came a set of core values, a vision and a mission,” Marvin said. One of these core values is to commit as an organization to the value of visionary spirit. “We can’t look at the future with our nostalgic past in mind. We have to be more forward thinking,” Marvin said. “When you commit yourself to that, you realize the same wind blows on us all—winds of opportunity, disaster and change.”

Still, Marvin said it is not the wind that determines one’s direction, it’s the way the sails are set. “I want to be someone who helps set those sails,” he said. “So in times like we are dealing with today, we are constantly looking for opportunity and every wind that blows affords us the chance to set our sails for opportunity.”

Evolving Over 80 Years
TSO traces its beginnings to 1936, when the Rogers family of Texas opened the first practice location in the town of Beaumont. The founders planned a cycle of continuous growth and expansion of services for TSO, but not “without first building a foundation of eyecare and quality eyewear that result in loyalty and return visits by hundreds of thousands of patients over the years,” according to the company’s website. This philosophy, along with the motto “Caring for the Eyes of Texas,” have been part of TSO’s core fundamentals and have remained unchanged since the beginning.

According to Marvin, TSO operated within a business model similar to a traditional franchise structure over its first 60 years. In the late 1990s, however, a group of “visionary franchisees led an effort for the franchisees to purchase the company from the franchisor,” Marvin said. “They were successful and structured the company as a member-owned cooperative, with each location being a shareholder in the company.”

Today, TSO Inc. is a corporate entity that holds brand license agreements with its members, with fees paid in exchange for the right to use the Texas State Optical brand. This structure has been in place since the doctors purchased the company in 2001. Marvin began working with the franchisees in 1993 and became president in 2001.

The group is in the midst of a successful run for its members, more than one-half of whom report annual sales of “well over $1 million,” Marvin said. Almost 20 percent of TSO locations are “well over $2 million,” he added. “A lot of that is through operational development. We have in the field [a] staff who works with optometrists and their managers to grow the revenue in their office. That’s our entire focus.”

Typically, new TSO practitioners under the TSO corporate umbrella come from diverse backgrounds and have been out of optometry school for three to five years. Many have been in leasehold relationships with retail optical chains, while others have been employed by ophthalmology or optometry practices. Several even held associate positions with other TSO members, but yet they all share a desire for private practice and ownership, Marvin said.

When opening a new office, TSO trains new employees using a set of standard operating procedures that have been developed over time using best practices from its most successful practices. This includes procedures related to customer service and communication, effective use of communication software, and digital connections with both current customers and prospective customers. These programs are available to all of members on a voluntary, opt-in basis, according to Marvin.

Finding Success Online
One key component of TSO’s recent success is its online strategy, which Marvin said he believes provides TSO a competitive advantage. “Obviously, you can only grow by selling more product to the same people or selling to more people,” he said. “Our online strategy gives us access to more people. As we attract more and more people and use our online presence to make it even easier to have people make appointments with us, we maximize our opportunity to help patients in the office.”

The effort to take the lead in the online space began about 10 years ago, when Marvin met in the TSO conference room with Daniel Rostenne of Toronto, who was the young chief executive of the nascent EyeCarePro at the time. “We talked about the future of online, and we talked about the importance of having a true, robust online presence,” Marvin recalled. “We have that presence [now], and we are forever improving and growing it. Daniel may be 10 years older, but EyeCarePro has evolved and kept us ahead of the industry and partnered with us to enable us to be visionaries online,” he added.

Marvin said TSO’s online strategy can be summed up with the word “transactional,” with the primary purpose of all online interactions to generate transactions. “We measure our success by the number of successful transactions,” Marvin said, noting that transactions are both booked appointments and the sale of products. “We have an e-commerce platform that was built to offer our members the ability to extend this offer to their patients and prospective patients. The use of the platform is on a voluntary, opt-in basis. We constantly are testing messages and optimization methods to optimize the exposure that each of our members receive.”

In addition, the utilization of EyeCarePro’s leading online scheduling tool is just one of the ways TSO practices work to make the eyecare process more convenient, he said.

Marvin also noted that TSO knows exactly how many people are searching for services and products it sells by geo-targeting specified communities surrounding each member’s location. The organization sets targets for exposure and conversion of these prospects, and uses all platforms, both social media and conventional web search, to present its message to prospects.

“We have tried to utilize not only online, but all of aspects of what we do with the single minded focus of, ‘How can this be utilized for the value of the customer?’” Marvin explained.

Looking ahead, Marvin said he is optimistic about what the future holds for TSO. “From the standpoint of having individual, independent optometrists opening brand new, cold locations and reaching $1 million in three to five years, we have done a great job of making that happen,” he said. “I don’t know many organizations that have that track record. That is one of our areas of expertise.”

Marvin noted that many of the other optical groups in the Vision Monday Top 50 are growing via the acquisition route, while TSO is growing organically through opening its own stores. “If we bought 50 practices and pulled them together, [then] we’re taking 50 cultures and trying to mold them into one,” he explained. “Whereas we have one culture that people grow up in. We feel that we are contributing in a positive way to the idea of private practice optometry because we are creating more private practices.”