Joint Venture Partner (JVP) becomes a UK Ops Board Member
Meet Matt Stewart who has had a fantastic career journey with Specsavers
What was your background before joining Specsavers?
I had been in Optics for seven years prior to joining Specsavers, I joined Dollond & Aitchison in 1989 as part of the first cohort of Trainee Managers also studying to become qualified dispensing opticians, this was a brand new initiative from D&A and we studied at Waterlinks in Birmingham and at City London & Bradford Colleges, that first intake produced not only me but also Nick Walsh, Pete Render & David Stockton, all of whom went on to have and still have incredibly successful careers with Specsavers.
From a Trainee Manager in Derby I progressed to be a qualified dispensing optician, assistant manager in Nottingham & Sheffield D&A Eyelands (who remembers those? Innovative at the time) a regional dispensing optician manager and then Manager at Crystal Peaks where I began fitting contact lenses and studying to become a contact lens optician.
Tell us a bit about your career journey at Specsavers?
Where do I begin? At the start, I hear you say… After several years of badgering, most of it from within our local village pubs, the late great Rob Hurdley finally managed to get me to join him at Chesterfield Specsavers as contact lens manager in September 1996, a move that I will be eternally grateful to Rob for. We grew up in the same village and I had known him since I was around 6 years of age, without his support and guidance and ever present mentorship I wouldn’t be where I am today, he is truly missed by all who knew him. Love you Dobster.
After 4 fantastic years in Chesterfield and after several meetings with the one and only Chris Howarth I decided to take an opportunity to become a Joint Venture Partner (JVP) in Bletchley, Milton Keynes. For a lad who had always lived in the village he grew up in this was a daunting prospect, where the hell was Milton Keynes, let alone Bletchley (or as Rob would constantly refer to it ‘Sketchley’ which he thought was hilarious). I signed my contract to join the group at Leicester Forest Service station (living the dream) in the presence of my new JVP, Bhavash & new business guru Simon Williams, both of whom are still with the group, Bhav is still at Bletchley and doing fantastically well. One piece of advice at this point, visit your intended Specsavers store location before signing, something I didn’t do. No offence to anyone from Bletchley, but for a lad hailing from an idyllic village 12 miles from Sheffield and surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful woodland, it wasn’t what I was expecting, far from it. That said, I went on to have 7 fantastic years at Bletchley working with Bhav, acquiring a second store in Leighton Buzzard 4 years in and becoming the Anglia Chair (as was) 3 years in, a fantastic honour and an achievement I look back on with great pride and humility. Bletchley Specsavers came before Milton Keynes Specsavers just in case you were wondering.
After 7 years of growing up and learning loads, building two great stores with the teams to match I was starting to get itchy feet (it’s who I am), so I contacted Chris Howarth and asked him to look for opportunities back up in God’s own County, Yorkshire, I had decided that I wanted to go home after 7 years down South (trust me MK is down South to a Yorkshire lad). At the same time, I was approached by the then RDC, Neil Hamilton, to consider taking on Bedford Specsavers, which due to the way it had been set up also came with the St Neot’s store, interesting….. After much debate and several meetings, I made the move, relishing the challenge and the discomfort it initially provides, becoming a JVP in Bedford & St Neots in July 2007 joining Rak Nanda who had just joined from Ipswich Specsavers. We are still the JVP’s in those stores along with Bedford Hearcare and a third store, Biggleswade, we have grown over the years and have expanded from 2 partners to our current 5 Partners, Aekta Patel, Dharshana Chauhan and Alpesh Mistry, all of whom joined as students, qualified with us, went through the Specsavers pathway program with us and are now very important and integral partners with us.
During this time I continued to be the Anglia Chair, stepping down in 2011 to concentrate on the re-location of our Bedford store following a CPO by our landlord who had decided to sell to Tesco’s, I couldn’t blame him, it made complete business sense. After a successful re-location which saw the business achieve incredible growth and become a top 20 turnover store in the group winning 3 Eyecare awards along the way, I was starting to need another challenge again.
I read that the group had taken the bold step to invite applications from JVPs with the requisite CV to become a UK Ops Board Member, there would be 2 successful candidates, I was fortunate enough to be one of those alongside an old friend and colleague of mine, Dave Stockton. This provided us with a fantastic and humbling opportunity to represent our JVP colleagues and really add weight to their opinions/thoughts at that level, we were incredibly nervous at first and really thought we were there just for PR purposes, we were wrong. Our opinions, challenges and ideas were embraced and supported by the whole Board immediately, how refreshing. This position led to surreal exposure like presenting to the Perkins family at the UK/Ireland annual planning sessions in Guernsey, an unreal experience for a lad from Sheffield who got thrown out of the Sixth Form. The experience I gained on the Board led to the opportunity for me to take on a secondment as Director of Product, followed by a full time offer to join the group as Director of Business Change managing the initiation and implementation of all store facing new technologies and processes and now I have just accepted the offer to become Director of Product UK/Ireland full time along with the role of Global Business Design Group Director for the Genesys & STAR IT programmes.
21 years ago, and even 2 years ago, I would have laughed in your face if you had suggested that my career would have taken the path it has, it has been a fantastic journey thus far.
How has Specsavers supported your development?
By providing and enabling the opportunities previously outlined. If you ask for or need support and you are trying to achieve the right goals in the right way then that provision will always be forthcoming and will be given in what ever way best suits your needs.
What makes you most proud of your time at Specsavers so far?
Many aspects of my time at Specsavers are both humbling and incredibly fulfilling when reflected upon, however, despite my own personal achievements thus far, the greatest pride I have is when I see a member of my team develop their career through hard work, dedication and belief with a little guidance and support from my Partners and myself. There have been many of those occasions as there have been throughout many stores within the group and there will be many more of those moments to come.
Describe the Specsavers culture in three words
What advice would you give someone looking to join Specsavers?
I stand by the old adage that “you only get out what you put in”, nothing comes easily, but if you are willing to roll your sleeves up, work hard, try to do the right thing, accepting that you will make mistakes along the way, display integrity and be driven to self-learn and develop others, then you will have an incredibly successful and fully supported career with Specsavers.
I have complete faith in and loyalty to the group, it’s not blind, there are always a couple of bumps in the road that’s part and parcel of the journey. That pride and belief in the organisation doesn’t just happen, it’s created by working with and for the greatest optical retailers on the planet over many years, however, if you have and display the right ethic and commitment that feeling is felt pretty early on in the journey.