From Ireland to Australia – Liddean McKernan’s Specsavers career
April 26, 2017
Author: Sam Reed
A new job and a new life in Australia
Adelaide? Why? Where exactly is that again?…and the questions went on for weeks. Both my family and friends were baffled why I’d chosen to move to Adelaide, South Australia for a new job at Specsavers instead of the bright lights of Sydney or Melbourne. The only response I had was, “You have to go there, then you’ll understand.”
I grew up in a small rural town called Coalisland in County Tyrone in the North of Ireland. I went to school locally and studied at the University of Ulster and then spent my first year working as a pre-reg for a Specsavers competitor in England.
I’d always been apprehensive about joining Specsavers. In fact, I recall making a bet at uni with my friend Paul that I’d never work for Specsavers in my lifetime (I still owe him the 5 pound winnings!). I always thought that working for such an expanding business meant my professional work would be compromised, that clinically, I would be forced to make decisions to make money as opposed to helping my patients. I was convinced that I didn’t want to become a spectacles saleswoman.
After 18 months of working for this large corporation I realised I wasn’t content with being another number on the payroll. I didn’t enjoy having a faceless boss from a far-off head office and so I decided it was time for a change.
I had looked at the Specsavers Joint Venture Partnership model, and realised the benefits of each store being owned individually. Most of my friends were already working for Specsavers at this stage and I realised that clinically, they were ahead of the game; they’d already had access to so much more CPD and online learning than I had. I realised it was time to take off the blinkers and perhaps swallow a little bit of my pride.
I was offered a job at a Specsavers store close to home in Craigavon in County Armagh and moved back home a few months later, and it was here that I would spend the next 5 years of my life. It was here that I learnt the true meaning of team culture at Specsavers.
I tested alongside my actual boss daily and became best friends with my store manager. We all worked together for our store. Patient care was our priority – it reminded me of my local GP practice, gradually getting to know most of my patients and testing their families as well. If the store succeeded, we all did, and we certainly celebrated these successes at every opportunity.
I knew this couldn’t last forever. I’d always yearned for my own store and although I had completed all the necessary assessments to do so in Ireland or the UK, because most of these stores are so well established and have been successful for years already, not only would I have needed to win the lotto to buy into these businesses – I realised I wouldn’t really feel part of the store’s success story.
I wanted to own a store in those early days, and build it up and watch it grow into something I could be really proud of. The answer was simple: Specsavers had just launched itself in Australia and New Zealand and were opening new stores, filled with opportunity.
It was time to move Down Under.
Life at Specsavers
There were a few obstacles to overcome. The OCANZ exam process took over my life for the first 6 months of 2013, so that I could qualify to work in Australia. It was then that the strength of the Specsavers support network really came to life. I was messaging and emailing people I had never met, other optometrists or ‘OCANZ veterans’ from all over the world who were prepared to give so much of their own time answering my questions and explaining things just to see another comrade succeed. Together we made it through and I passed the exams in July 2013.
A few weeks later, Specsavers had offered to whisk me off on a whirlwind tour of some potential stores in Australia. I couldn’t pack my bags quick enough, although at the back of my mind I knew that this decision was one of the most important I’d make.
I had friends in Sydney and Melbourne, and family in Perth. These seemed like the most likely options for me. I had heard of Adelaide before but knew no-one there, and when it was suggested as part of my trip, I genuinely just thought of it as a few extra days in Australia.
I visited numerous stores during that two-week trip. It was so exciting to see different sized stores in different states with different demography and teams, but when I landed in South Australia for the first time I wasn’t expecting the lasting impression it would leave.
The place really struck a chord with me. I wasn’t drowning in crowds in the city centre, the traffic wasn’t chaotic, and really, it wasn’t very unlike the cities in Ireland. You could sense that relaxed Australian attitude; people took their time to chat and supported everything local. I could travel from the rolling Adelaide Hills to the beach in 20 minutes, and knowing my appreciation for fine wine, food and festivals, Adelaide just kept ticking all the right boxes.
I couldn’t just make this decision with my heart – my business sense also had to prevail. The Specsavers local support team that are based in Adelaide were outstanding and still continue to be. I could sense that ‘South Australian pride’ in them all – you could tell they wanted all stores to be the best version of themselves. I already wanted to be part of their team!
I visited a store in the western suburbs of Adelaide in a place called West Lakes, and was greeted with all the opportunity I had ever dreamed of. The store had recently expanded and had endless potential. I felt I could make a huge contribution to this store’s success story.
A new career in South Australia
With much deliberation, and reassuring my family in Perth that I still loved them, I made the bold decision to take a chance on my gut feeling about South Australia and even working for Specsavers. Without a doubt it’s the best move I ever made!
South Australia, in my opinion, is the undiscovered gem of Australia. It’s certainly becoming a more worldwide destination, listing in the top ten places to live in the world and the number one place to visit this year. However, now that I live here, that’s the kind of publicity that I don’t want for my new home. The last thing I want is for this wonderful place to become another overpopulated and polluted city!
Adelaide offers something special in regards to lifestyle that the other cities can’t. I go swimming after work in the ocean and watch the sunset. I have Sunday lunch on a porch overlooking vineyards that are hundreds of years old. I plan to purchase my own home later this year. All of these things are a little more ‘out of reach’ elsewhere, but for me, it’s my new ‘normal’.
Becoming an optometrist partner at Specsavers
I’ve been an optometrist partner at Specsavers West Lakes for over three years now. I have a supportive retail business partner, Dilesh Chaudhary, who I’m also lucky enough to call my friend. We have an ever-expanding retail team and continue to break our own records on a monthly basis. We have established ourselves as a community practice, engaging regularly with local charities and sports teams, and I have rediscovered those patient relationships again that take years to construct, and are so very rewarding.
We have two other full-time optometrists who enjoy working alongside us everyday. We discuss clinical cases and any equipment issues/requests, and if anything, I feel they benefit from knowing they only have to pop their head into the next test room to speak to me about anything that’s affecting their working life. We want our team to enjoy the work they do here.
Who would have thought all those years ago when I realised that something had to change that it would lead to all of this. There is so much propaganda circulating about working for Specsavers, rumours that I accepted as truth when I worked for the competitor. Thank god I took those blinkers off and allowed myself to become educated on the reality.
In order to make changes you need to change your choices. This was certainly one of the best choices I’ve ever made.