BLOOMINGTON, Ill.—Things are beginning to feel more like normal to Nick Williams, chief executive of Keplr Vision, the management group formed in 2019 just nine months before COVID-19 upended what normal looked like. And this is not just because the Keplr Vision practices have been showing positive trends for months or that the rollout of vaccines has gained momentum across most of the country.

Williams also is pleased because he’s finally moved into his new office at the top of the remodeled former State Farm headquarters here in Bloomington. He had been sharing an office with chief operating officer Adam Rosengren for the past few months while others within the new Keplr offices got situated in their own workplaces.

“The building is phenomenal,” Williams told Vision Monday, noting that the 13-story building stands out in the Midwest because of its Art Deco style. “It’s the iconic building of Bloomington.” Williams also is happy, though, because he believes Keplr Vision performed well during the height of the pandemic and is positioned well as it heads into 2021’s second half. He said he believes the medical model of the Keplr practices allowed the group to “recover fairly quickly” from the initial shutdown across the country of most eyecare and optical retail practices.

Yes, Williams acknowledged, the Keplr practices felt the initial hit of the pandemic like other ECP groups, but then adapted with a different approach in terms of response. “Because of our heavy medical focus, our practices did not shut down for very long,” he said. “The vast majority of our practices were available for emergent care pretty much non-stop.”

Keplr also continued to make acquisitions during 2020, with 40 practices (representing 65 locations) added. The group finished 2020 with 191 total locations. Williams credited a robust pipeline of practice prospects for the pace of 2020’s deal making. (Keplr Vision was formed when two portfolio companies of Canada’s Imperial Capital of Canada—Total ECP and Visionary Eye Partners—merged to operate as a combined entity.)

“When I think about the deals we did, I can’t recall off hand any deal that we did with a distressed seller that said, ‘I want out,’” Williams said. “We didn’t cherry-pick deals based on seller urgency; the deals were already available.”

Keplr has added about 20 practice locations as of March 2021, and oversees roughly 210 locations now. (In the Keplr model, the majority of ODs who “partner” with the group continue to run their practice, and their name remains over the door. “It’s extremely rare when the selling OD leaves,” Williams noted.)

“As it stands right now, I feel good about what we see in our own practices and I feel good about the recovery in our practices,” he said. “We have a system that allows us to responsibly continue acquisitions. [And] I am pleased that vaccinations are proceeding at the rate that they are and the indicators within the Keplr practice group are that we will continue to perform well in 2021.

“The indicators that I see in our pipeline of acquisitions are that most practices are going to meet the guidelines that we need to have them meet for us to move forward with the acquisition.”

Business Plan for 2021

Williams said Keplr built in “a little softness in the first two quarters, assuming there will be some slowness” in eyecare. He noted it’s also key “to do things at the appropriate pace, which probably means seeing a few less patients. But we are hopeful that the trajectory we are seeing because of the vaccinations that by Q3 and Q4 we can go back to traditional patient loads, although we are pretty close to that point right now.”

Mindset of Independent Practices

Keplr Vision is seeing “no short supply of interest from private practitioners looking to join Keplr,” Williams said. “We have a significant level of interest from selling ODs.”

Significant 2020 Development

In September, Keplr announced the formation of a Medical Advisory Board (MAB) and the appointment of five inaugural members. They are: Dr. Ben Gaddie, Dr. Alan Glazier, Dr. Paul Karpecki, Dr. David Nelson, and Dr. Eric Schmidt. The board planned to meet regularly to evaluate and advise on enhanced clinical protocols and innovations in the practice of optometry.

Full-Scope Model of Optometry

Williams said he sees positive trends for both private practice optometry with full-scope medical services—which is how he views the Keplr model—and the retail-type optometry model, which also has a number of growing groups, both publicly and privately held. “I think what we do is distinct from what they do … but I can’t say that I see the industry making up its mind and leaning more heavily in one direction or the other right now.”

Still, he said he likes where Keplr sits in this comparison. “We continue to see that patients seem to gravitate toward a private-practice setting that offers full-scope medical, which is consistent with what we do.”