Perkins and her husband Doug have ensured that, in spite of a difficult economic climate, Specsavers not only expands and prospers but remains privately owned by its founders.
She talks to Director magazine about how her dream became a £1.5bn business, now ranked 27th in the Top Track 100 of Britain's private companies, sitting among other family-owned heavyweights including Laing O'Rourke, JCB and Wilkinson.
Surprisingly Mary describes herself as "quite ordinary, just an optometrist who knows what it's like to examine someone's eyes day in, day out in a small room with dimmed lights".
“You can only know what customers want by being out there”, Perkins explains. “You get people like Philip Green; he goes in store. It's bloody hard work. You've got to know what it's like: people coming at you and having to smile all day and take care of people and be nice. What you might be asking a store to do might be the last straw that makes them cry."
Perkins started Specsavers in 1984 so that other optometrists could succeed. As it happens, this selfless ambition has helped her company amass a turnover of £1.5bn this financial year (total sales in the UK alone were £906.6m) with more than 1,500 optical and hearing aid stores around the world.
She explains: "Every store is a separate limited company, a 50/50 joint venture with myself and the people in that store. And every store has to succeed for that director to make a profit and a good living."
Specsavers remains a private company run by the founding family in Guernsey but with two other large hubs in Southampton (for IT, supply chain, manufacturing and property management) and Nottingham (where the call centre is based).
"It was always going to be a private company," she says. "What we wanted was to
have a company where all the stores were owned by optometrists, not a big corporate or a manufacturer. That's the dream we had, that's the way it's structured and it will stay like that.
"That the company remains private means we are not at the beck and call of outsiders, especially as we know the optical market inside out and they wouldn't. We have also been able to go at our own speed and have not had to look at short-term gains. We've had a much longer vision, and not worried about returns on our investment."
Mary’s husband Doug, chairman and joint managing director of the business with son John, is now based overseas, tasked with expanding the market in Australasia. Specsavers is the fastest-growing retailer in Australia and New Zealand and in 2010 it reached the number one position in New Zealand's optical market. "Over the last three years I've spent about 40 per cent of my time going there because if I don't go, I don't see my husband," she says.
"We have a video-conferencing meeting with them once a week. They take the knowledge out of the UK but we learn a lot from them," she adds, describing the sharing of information between partners as a real positive. "They're not in competition with one another, their jobs aren't dependent on whether they can stab someone in the back and crawl up the ladder. It's that complete equality; you can say what you want with no recriminations."
She says of new the consumer: "They want a lot more, don't they? I'm one of those people who think: 'You're a retailer, you want my business, delight me'. I don't have a problem with that because that's how it should be, but it means you've got to be on the ball and go the extra mile. And that means you can't cut staff."
Interestingly, the company relies on its partners for direction. It employs more than 30,000 people but it still thinks like a small business. "A board member will go around the whole country every eight weeks to meet with the optometrist and sit down and have a real brainstorm about what works and what doesn't. So it's like one massive board. There's a lot of interaction: I wanted it like that," says Perkins. But strategy is not just "let loose", she points out. "The actual strategy comes from the Specsavers Optical board, of which I'm a member. But we listen. We go out and explain the strategy – what's the best way, how it can be executed, once it's executed how it's measured… It's a continuous circle of information."
"Numbers don't mean that much to me. What I like to know is that I can go to any town, get in a taxi and say, 'Can you take me to a Specsavers please?' and he'll take me there. I like that."
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016