From Saturday girl to store director
When Trisha Patel was 15 years old and being fitted for contact lenses at Specsavers’ High Wycombe branch, a chance remark changed the course of her life. ‘The contact lens director was chatting to me about what I wanted to do when I finished school,’ says Trisha, now 33. ‘I told him I didn’t know and he said, “Have you thought about optometry?”’
The contact lens director, Bharat Gandhi, organised two days’ work experience, and Trisha was immediately hooked. ‘As soon as I watched an eye test, I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,’ she says. ‘I was particularly intrigued by the one-to-one aspect of it, the fact that the optometrist was responsible for the person’s eye health, and that it was life-changing.’
She was also fascinated by the clinical side. ‘I couldn’t wait to ask the optometrist, “When you‘re looking at the back of the eye, what can you see?”
Bharat Gandhi is now Trisha’s business partner. The optometrist was his business partner, Heena Thaker. Sixteen years later, she sold Trisha her share in the store.
Following work experience, Trisha was offered a Saturday job as an optical assistant. She did a BSc in optometry at Aston University, working in store during her holidays. The support she received from the directors, she says, was outstanding. ‘If I learned something at university, for example doing refractions, they would say, “Do you want to practise on the staff while you’re here?” Bharat told me later that Heena saw something in me and wanted to keep me on.’
The feeling was mutual. ‘I always tried to impress them so they’d give me the opportunity to do other things,’ says Trisha. ‘I hoped my future would be in High Wycombe; it was the store I imagined I’d have one day.’
She didn’t keep her ambitions secret. ‘They always knew! From the time I did my graduate pre-reg there, I was always joking to Heena, “When can I buy High Wycombe?”’
Her openness paid off. ‘Just after I’d qualified in 2008, Heena said, “I’m looking to move on in a few years’ time, so I’ll need to train someone. Would you like to be that person?”’
After 2 years as a newly-qualified optometrist, Trisha was promoted to senior optometrist. Two years later, an opportunity came up in the smaller Chesham store, also owned by Heena and Bharat. ‘Heena said, “My store manager has resigned and my optometrist is pregnant. Could you manage the store and test as well?’
Trisha managed Chesham for three and a half years. During that time, with Heena’s encouragement, she did Specsavers’ Pathway course – a six-month programme for optical staff hoping to be joint venture partners.
‘Part of my Pathway project was to increase the number of patients we helped, so I was looking for ways to do more eye tests without compromising on quality,’ she says. ‘I was also the in-store trainer and pre-reg supervisor and had a dispensing trainee. Every day was a challenge. But it was a small store with a really good team of eight, so I could cope. I enjoyed it.’
Despite the day-to-day pressures, Trisha still had her sights set on High Wycombe. ‘I’m quite ambitious,’ she says. ‘When I was doing the Pathway exams and managing Chesham I made sure there was no opportunity for someone to say, “You’re not ready to manage High Wycombe.” I was convinced I was the right person!’
In 2014, Heena announced she was looking to sell her share in High Wycombe the following year and asked Trisha to co-manage the store for a year – an opportunity to prove to Bharat that she would be a good business partner. The year went well, and on 1 August 2015, aged 31, Trisha bought Heena’s share of the independent High Wycombe store, with 45 staff on payroll and seven testing rooms. ‘I sold my London flat for the deposit and moved back in with my parents,’ she says. ‘I thought High Wycombe was a much better investment!’
Her dream may have come true but Trisha isn’t resting on her laurels. ‘My challenge now is growing the business,’ she says. ‘I’ve spent two years recruiting and training opticians, we’ve just become a hub store for hearcare, and we’re putting in two more testing rooms so I can hit better targets. I love the idea of another store one day, but High Wycombe needs all my time and energy right now. It’s a big store and I’d rather expand it and make it realise its full potential before buying a second one.’
Trisha is passionate about giving others the chances she had. ‘I always take on trainees. All the opticians here have been trained by us. I’m also training to be a school ambassador so I can talk to teenagers about careers in optics. I’ll always be grateful that I got my opportunity because Bharat and Heena saw something in me.’