DALLAS—Despite being almost totally shut down for a few weeks in 2020—and yet keeping its entire staff on board and involved in some way—AEG Vision finished the challenging year at or near the targets set way back in 2019, and has rolled into 2021 with continuing momentum, according to chief executive Eric Anderson.

“Things picked up a lot by Q4, and we had some goals set for the end of the year and we were basically right on them despite being shut down,” Anderson told Vision Monday. “We were able to pick up our momentum and really it hasn’t stopped,” he added, noting that AEG was basically shut last year for six weeks on the operations side and even longer in corporate development because of the pandemic.

AEG Vision, which was formed in 2017 by Riata Capital and subsequently received backing from funds advised by J.P. Morgan Asset Management, added roughly 50 practice locations in 2020 and closed the year with approximately 200 locations, Anderson said. (This is similar to the number of new locations AEG added in 2019.) Many of the deals in late 2020 involved practices in Texas, where AEG operates 49 locations.

Anderson said he expects the firm will add another 50 locations in 2021, based on current trends. Going forward, AEG is on pace to add between 50 and 70 locations per year, “which is sort of the glide path from here on out,” he added.

“There’s a lot of interest and there are a lot of very attractive businesses that think like we do, [and] that are doctor-centric and very optometry focused. We’ve had a real solid performance for the past 10 or 11 months now since we reopened,” he said.

During the March-April period in 2020, AEG used the down time to prepare for a reopening, and setting up COVID protocols and sourcing PPE. The group worked to improve its recall marketing programs so that it was able to maintain a full book of business upon reopening, Anderson said. “We used that time effectively,” he added.

Another area that AEG worked on, and invested in, during much of 2020 was its employees, Anderson said, noting that he tried to participate in calls or send video messages almost on a daily basis to staff and team members. AEG also stepped up its benefits package, he said. “The No. 1 investment in 2020 was people. Period,” he said. This also included additional training and development and onboarding processes, and work to fine-tune the integration process across AEG.

The results of these efforts include the recovery in top-line performance, Anderson said, as well as improved customer satisfaction scores. Initially, he said, the uptick in business was attributed to pent-up demand, but that strong momentum has continued since last July through the end of March. Not only is the top-line result good, but the net promoter scores on customer satisfaction are “some of the highest I’ve seen in the industry, he added.

Biggest Challenge of 2020
“In many ways, reopening was harder than closing, because you had to have all of the protocols, the training and the PPE in place before you opened the doors,” Anderson said. “And by June we were 100 percent open, but the corporate development [group] had slowed down.” Still, AEG managed to keep in the fold all of the practices that it had signed commitment letters with prior to COVID-19 and eventually closed all of those deals, Anderson said.

“We worked with the practices and in many cases gave them some help as well,” he said. “It’s very much a partnership, and we’re very doctor-centric, so we were doing whatever we could to help them along the way and [to get] results back up to where they were.”

Outlook for Acquisitions Going Forward

The climate across the eyecare market right now “feels a lot like it was before COVID,” Anderson said. He said he believes there is as much interest and activity in the optometric space now as prior to COVID-19.

“Everyone took some time off, but now that people are back and functioning well, in general, it is a very robust market.” He also noted that deals in the ophthalmology sector are outpacing optometry transactions, in part because of the number of investment groups involved. “It’s hard to compare optometry to ophthalmology because there are so many other PE players active in [the ophthalmology] space right now.”