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Top Industry Executives Take to 'The Power Hour' to Discuss Industry Response to COVID-19

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NEW YORK—In the first of two special online sessions hosted by “The Power Hour,” optical industry executives provided their recommendations on how to manage through these difficult times and how to plan for a recovery from the economic difficulties tied to the coronavirus outbreak. The executives expressed their sense that business will recover and that as leaders it's important to be “part of the solution.” The objective of the special Power Hour sessions, organized by Power Hour founder Gary Gerber, OD, was to bring together various executives to show their solidarity with eyecare practitioners, and unite to discuss and address the impact of COVID-19.

The sessions were held the evenings of Wednesday, March 25, and Thursday, March 26, featuring a different group of industry executives each night.

Gerber said one of the inspirations for the special Power Hour session was to help the independent OD navigate through this time of economic upheaval. One way to do this, he said, is for people to learn from each other about coping mechanisms and business strategies.

Marc Ferrara, chief executive officer of Jobson Medical Information, provided a framework for the online discussion with an overview of Jobson’s ongoing surveys of eyecare professionals about the impact of the coronavirus on their business. He noted that in the third wave of the ECP Coronavirus Survey survey, which concluded March 25, some 60 percent reported having to close their practice, 40 percent of respondents said they had to lay off some or all of their staff, and that two-thirds of respondents said their stress level stands at 7 on a range of 1-10. The Jobson Optical Research ECP study results were reported yesterday by VMAIL.

Tom Burke, chief executive of ABB Optical Group, said he believes communication is critical at this time, and that this communication must be transparent and frequent, especially with employees. He also noted that watching cash flow is important—“Your balance sheet is king,” he said”—and that independent ODs should not overlook consideration of “what [business] is going to look like on the other side.” This may require a reinvention of the business in order to recoup lost revenue, he said.

Jerry Warner, CooperVision’s president Americas, said it’s important for independent ODs to understand that they are not in these difficult times alone. “Manufacturers depend on you, patients depend on you and your staff depends on you,” he said. Warner also noted that this is a time to be “connected” with others in the industry and to make time for networking. “Plan now for when you are going to re-open,” Warner added.

Essilor of America's president, Rick Gadd, commented, "Certainly everone is in this together and no one is in a better position than anyone else. But leaders need to know that they might not feel comfortable to make the perfect decision, with so many variables right now. But making 'a' decision is better than 'no' decision now."

Gadd added, "And, let's remember, eyecare matters. The prospects for the future are so powerful. This crisis will impact us all in many ways, but focusing on the future is key."

Jim McGrann, chairman and chief executive of Healthy Eyes Advantage, acknowledged that this is a difficult time to make important decisions, but that should not keep anyone from making the decisions that need to be made. “Challenge your desire to be perfect,” he said. “And don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

McGrann also advised ODs to “stay connected with your patients now,” and he noted that there’s a strong likelihood that there will be “a run on [vision care] benefits” once the coronavirus epidemic is quieted, which is what happened in some of the recent past economic downturns. He noted, "Doctors of optometry should continue to demonstrate their leadership role in health care."

Thomas Swinnen, president North America, Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, said on the conference call that his parents were in Belgium and facing issues related to the coronavirus lockdown much as many people are in the U.S. (He is able to regularly communicate with them from his offices here in the U.S.) Swinnen noted that J&J Vision is now, more than ever, following its mission statement that challenges employees to put the needs and well-being of the people the company serves first.

“You need to acknowledge that these things are difficult,” he added.

Fabrizio Uguzzoni, president of Luxottica Wholesale, N.A. advised, "For all decisionmakers including ECPs, the priority needs to be how to navigate. Use the down time you have today to remain mentally clear as you can be. The strategy I consider is to ask 'When? How? What?' When is about making a plan, even if you don't know all of what will happen in this 'new' era when we emerge from the tunnel. Try to gauge plans for variations of that.

"How might have to do with how you will or can be organized, taking stock of what you have, keeping all the communications going up and downstream of your operation. Maybe the 'what' is to consider how things might be different. Is it to consider more digital? New systems? Be ready so that when things come back and they will come back, you will be the most prepared. And, finally, make sure your people know you are there for them, throughout."

Bob Schultz, president and chief executive officer of Vision One Credit Union, advised ECPs and small business owners to think through the decisions they are making at this difficult time. “All your moves should be thought out and not made hastily,” he said. Schultz said he believes the “consumer has been hit pretty hard” by this economic downturn and that it’s probable that eyewear purchases in the early days of the recovery will be within their vision care insurance parameters.

Another point to consider in planning for rebuilding a business at the end of this health crisis is to increase expenses at a measured pace and not too quickly. This is the best way to protect, and produce, positive cash flow, Schultz said.

VSP Global's Michelle Skinner, chief network officer, talked about the scope of change everyone is experiencing. She suggested ECPs consider a "three Cs" approach. First, she noted, "Community—looking at ways you can show up, even if your practice is closed and you are working remotely. Help others. Then, Communication—How can you be visible, share on social media, cross promote in your area with other businesses to amplify your message and theirs. And third, Consulting—with colleagues, employees, patients, people in your town, ask who can do that, how can I help?"

Bart Foster, managing director of the venture capital firm Sanitas Advisors, discussed his idea of creating a “Tiger team” for helping independent ODs get their business back on track quickly and efficiently after the pandemic quiets down. "This specialized team would include experts in a cross-section of business disciplines, and the team members would be “on loan” from the larger business entities within optical. Let’s put the best and the brightest [on solving this],” he said.

The podcasts of the first #Save2020Eyecare session podcasts are now posted on The Power Hour site as well as in MP3 format on Power Hour archives and are available on Apple podcasts. Podcasts of the second show held last night will be posted to each soon. Executives from Alcon, Bausch + Lomb, ClearVision, De Rigo REM, Eyemed, New England College of Optometry, Visioneering Technologies and Walman took part in the second show.

The Jobson Optical Research group's third wave ECP Coronavirus Study is available for free download from the Jobson Optical Research site here.

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