Established from humble beginnings in 2008, FYidoctors has blossomed into the largest and most trusted doctor-owned eye care company in Canada. FYidoctors provides its patients with the combination of highest quality of vision care and value under the direct guidance of eye doctors, while also allowing independent optometrists access to advanced diagnostic tools and newer product technologies that would otherwise have been well out of their economic reach.
By the start of 2020 it’s expected there will be at least 305 FYidoctors locations across Canada, including 260 that are doctor-owned. According to statistics from Health Canada, it is estimated that about 75% of all vision loss is preventable. FYidoctors provides complete eye care solutions that are customized to each patient’s individual lifestyle.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with FYidoctors founder Dr. Alan Ulsifer from the corporate head office in Calgary. He also serves as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer. Dr. Ulsifer grew up in Saskatoon and graduated from the University of Waterloo where he completed his Optometry Doctoral (OD) from the School of Optometry & Vision in 1990, and he was acknowledged for several awards in clinical achievement, including the Ontario Association of Optometrists Award for Excellence in Patient Management.
After graduating, Dr. Ulsifer became one of the founders and the managing partner of Northern Vision Centre, which developed into one of Canada’s largest independent optometric practices. Dr. Ulsifer has also been involved at the executive level within the Alberta Optometric Association, the Alberta Freestyle Ski Association and the Grande Prairie Chamber of Commerce. In recognition of his leadership in forming FYidoctors, Dr. Ulsifer was awarded the Ernst and Young Emerging Entrepreneur Award for Western Canada in 2008.
As an optometrist Dr. Ulsifer became profoundly involved in the Optometric Association as a council member and believed he had a sound read on what was happening within the profession and noticed radical changes in the industry and cites two specific examples:
“Instead of eyewear being generic devices the fashion world became interested in eyewear,” begins Dr. Ulsifer. “When I began practicing we didn’t have Prada, Versace and all these different designers. It converted from an appliance that you need to fashion and an extension of people’s personalities and that continued to evolve.”
Another notable evolution was that corporate consolidation had been mushrooming in other countries and the practice was having an impact on Canada as well.
“As optometrists we always put eye health first but when we saw consolidation happening, it was clear that eye care was not being put first. It was more about the products than the people,” laments Dr. Ulsifer.
Optometry is a healthcare profession that involves examining the eyes and applicable visual systems for defects or abnormalities as well as the medical diagnosis and management of eye disease. Optometry began with the primary focus of correcting refractive error in the eyes through the use of eyewear glasses. It has now evolved to the point where the advanced university educational curriculum includes intensive medical training in the diagnosis and management of ocular disease.
Corporate consolidation had not traditionally been a positive movement for the eye care profession nor had it been beneficial to the general public because the quality of eye care was typically diminished. Recognizing that reversing the trend of consolidation was impractical, Dr. Ulsifer and like-minded professionals determined they could form a dedicated team of optometrists to enter into this business realm and, as trained experts, be the ones to adeptly drive the direction of eye care in Canada and other markets.
“I had also done research studying a lens manufacturing technique that was revolutionary,” he says. “It meant you could create a specific lens for each individual with better optics and more customization of the design versus mass production, which had been the way lenses were managed.”
With the availability of excellent technology, Dr. Ulsifer knew if the optometrists had such access they would be able to change the narrative on what lenses looked like in the Canadian market as well as being vertically integrated as independent practitioners.
As Dr. Ulsifer explains, the core business model was fairly simple. Success would be determined based on efficient execution and creating economies of scale.
“If we could get together and join forces we would have resources that we wouldn’t have on our own. It would also provide an opportunity to vertically integrate, at least on the lens and on some of the frame side, our supply chain. That would lead us to be more competitive while improving the quality of lens brought to the Canadian market,” he says.
The advent of time has made it considerably more challenging for independent practices and, as Dr. Ulsifer points out, students don’t learn a great deal about business and the realities of running a practice while enrolled in optometry school.
“Independents don’t have big resources with respect to technology and marketing budgets, which are very important in today’s changing world,” he says.
Dr. Ulsifer identified an opportunity to create what he calls a service centre and leadership approach in ushering independent businesses into FYidoctors. The past 11 years has been a timeline of growth and an evolutionary journey.
“They merge with us; we grow and create economies of scale. We are a service provider and also a problem solver as an organization for those problems that face independent optometrists,” he explains.
“I was a founder, but there were other founders as well, including the people who had the courage to come onboard in those early days when everything was unknown,” emphasizes Dr. Ulsifer.
The focal point in developing a successful business enterprise has been rooted in human resources, and especially those people working at the clinics. FYidoctors has made a substantial investment on the development of its team through various coaching and training programs, detailing the corporate vision of what ideal patient care should be throughout every step of the process.
The business model has proven to be exceedingly successful with the primary focus always centring on superb patient care leading to an external environment where people then reference the company in a positive light, encouraging friends and family to choose FYidoctors.
FYidoctors uses monthly measurements based on metrics called Net Promoter Score. In its simplest form it is a measure of how likely someone is going to go out of their way to talk to others about the service received.
“We measure that and share the information across the company and even incentivize on it. I can tell you our Net Promoter Scores are off the charts – beyond world class, and that is really the secret sauce,” reveals Dr. Ulsifer. “The people that really made the difference for us are the people in the clinics. The people delivering the eye care and the service at the grassroots level deserve so much credit. We have an extensive training program, which I believe is the best in the business.”
Dr. Ulsifer and his team have created an inclusive culture of success where everyone understands the requirements on how to achieve maximum results. Taking shortcuts that would compromise quality are never an option. The company uses the very best in technology and high-quality lenses made in Canada. It’s a way of thinking that has been engrained in the corporate DNA from the onset of the company and permeates through the executive branch, management and grassroots levels.
In the early years it was somewhat arduous for FYidoctors to attract the very best talent because the fledgling enterprise was deemed to be an unproven commodity, and thus a high risk. But what began as a diminutive start-up soon began to gain traction with the addition of many highly skilled individuals who believed in Dr. Ulsifer and the business model.
“We now attract people from other industries that no longer look at us as this upstart but rather they look at us as a Canadian success story with still a great amount of potential to continue to grow and improve,” Dr. Ulsifer proudly says. “Getting to the point where we were viewed as credible has really created a huge opportunity for us to grow.”
It is not uncommon for founders and senior business executives to lose sight of what their collective strengths and weaknesses are and as such those self-imposed obstacles can slow the progression of a company’s maturation process. But Dr. Ulsifer has habitually been self-aware of what he can and cannot do. It’s that realization that has enabled the rapid development of a well-rounded executive team that is best able to deliver the corporate vision in its entirety, with the ultimate goal of maximizing the efficiencies of eye-care solutions.
“Getting your eyes examined is crucial and we have a responsibility to make that easier for people through technology. We have a chance to make it an experience they look forward to instead of dreading having to do it,” says Dr. Ulsifer.
Manufacturing and distribution of FYidoctors’ products was moved to a much larger facility in Delta, British Columbia a few years ago after originally being in Burnaby with an ability to serve nationwide requirements.
“We outgrew our old facility and built what I believe is Canada’s most modern lens manufacturing facility,” states Dr. Ulsifer.
Different people have different needs when it comes to eye care. Most of FYidoctors’ clinics have what is known as ‘edging’ and so for simple prescriptions there is an inventory of pre-finished lenses that the company is able to cut to fit the frame right on-site.
“About 35-40% of what we do we would bill at the practice level. These would be simple prescriptions we can do within the same day. Anything that is custom-designed we have to make out of a plastic substrate, which is done in our Canadian facility,” explains Dr. Ulsifer.
FYidoctors equips all of its primary locations with the latest, state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment including the likes of OCTs (Optical Coherence Tomography) – an eye imaging test that monitors nerve fiber in the retina – and Optomap Retinal Scanners, which allow eye doctors to have a much wider and comprehensive view of the retina (an 80% view vs. a 20% view with older technology). These advanced diagnostic tools allow optometrists to identify eye health complications, irregularities and disease at a much earlier stage, detecting the most subtle changes and thus helping early diagnosis of diseases such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and even some forms of cancer.
A common concern for a considerable number of independent practices has always been the high costs associated with acquiring the newest and most effective technological instruments, with many optometrists feeling they have never had the financial resources to invest. Now, with the doctor-owned FYidoctors in the mix, Dr. Ulsifer says the pendulum has swung back in the right direction. The advent of FYidoctors and its unique business model has served to enhance the confidence to invest in technology and thus it allows optometrists to perform at their highest skill level.
“I wouldn’t say eye care was poor in the past. I would say that in other markets where consolidation occurred the emphasis wasn’t on eye health; it was on products and so there was a deterioration of the eye care business,” he candidly says. “I don’t want it to sound like things were bad and we fixed it, but rather we improved upon it and created a consolidation model where it brought value both to the optometrists and most importantly to the patients seeking eye care.”
The basic fundamentals of optics remain but the technology that can determine optical abnormalities is evolving. A notable improvement is the ability to diagnose eye disease at earlier stages. That, along with evolving medication has made a prodigious difference in success rates.
“We’re seeing new techniques for treating such simple things as dry-eye syndrome. More than 30% of the population has some form symptoms of dry-eye syndrome, and unfortunately many people tend to underestimate the impact it has on their health. Previous treatment would consist of eye drops and compresses but now we have techniques and technologies that can get to the root cause and make a real difference in people’s lives,” notes Dr. Ulsifer.
Today’s world of staring at computers and mobile devices is creating what would best be described as a myopia epidemic. Vision for many people is deteriorating at a faster pace but FYidoctors possesses new techniques in being able to manage the strains that are brought on by these digital devices. Yes, there is a cost to technology but optometrists use it to provide the very best eye care for each individual.
“It’s important to keep up with technology while allowing consumers not to have to bear the burden of the costs. Quite frankly our business model effectively does that because we are able to be efficient in other areas of the business, which allows us to make those needed investments in technology,” explains Dr. Ulsifer.
Proactive on eye care
Humans have pain receptors in the front of our eyes but not in the retina. It’s often an area where disease can creep in, sans feelings of pain. Oftentimes symptoms reveal themselves so slowly that people don’t even realize there is a problem and when action is finally taken, it can possibly be too late to reverse the damage. Regular eye care is absolutely crucial in detecting eye abnormalities at an early stage.
“We’re very diligent about dental care and yet with the precious sense of sight, we aren’t as diligent,” laments Dr. Ulsifer. “We’re trying to send a message that eye care and eyewear isn’t about just about pretty people wearing glasses and promotions and sales, it’s about regular eye care and the impact it can have on people’s lives.”
The FYidoctors business model creates added awareness about the importance of eye care. Dr. Ulsifer says there is still plenty of work to do, but he and his colleagues have willingly taken that on as an important challenge. The good news is that more people are receiving the message about the necessity of taking care of their eyes.
“I think we’re making progress but we want to pick up the pace and move faster. Our associations have undertaken some campaigns,” Dr. Ulsifer confirms. “We’re doing a better job of reminding people to make appointments and then educating them more at those appointments as to why it’s so important.”
At FYidoctors more people are now having their eyes examined at shorter, more preferred intervals. External market research conducted on the industry has revealed FYidoctors is recognized for that top-quality eye care component, supported by outstanding public opinion.
From the consumers’ perspective they want competitive pricing for eye exams and eyewear but first and foremost they want high-quality eye exams. The cheapest eye exam isn’t the most comprehensive and as such eye exams are not created and expedited equally. Optomap Retinal Scanning, OCT and visual field mapping are three technological advantages offered by FYidoctors that isn’t available at many of its competitors. The best endorsement is when people experience the difference for themselves.
“There is going to be a difference in price, but it’s clear which has the better value,” notes Dr. Ulsifer. “At FYidoctors we are winning that battle in having the high comprehensive value eye examination.”
“The beauty of us owning our own manufacturing facility is that we have economies of scale,” continues Dr. Ulsifer. “We’re the world’s biggest doctor-owned eye-care provider. We are competitive in the marketplace. We are bigger than many of the names people may recognize in the box stores and larger than virtually all of those in the Canadian market.”
Looking to the future
FYidoctors constantly strives to create the most preeminent products and optimal dollar value for both frames and lenses. The company has managed to expand the corporate model at a rapid pace without compromising its integrity and brand quality.
Dr. Ulsifer and his team have never sought accolades from the public or industry insiders, but the company has generated a great deal of organic recognition and acknowledgements. One of the most prestigious of the many honours that have been bestowed on Dr. Ulsifer and FYidoctors was winning the 2012 Ernst & Young Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
“Winning that E&Y award was a pretty big deal. It was a thrill for me personally because I got to stand up and be the one to accept the award. It was a great honour. I didn’t necessarily like the spotlight because that’s not my nature,” laughs Dr. Ulsifer. “I really felt proud of my role in the organization but the biggest thrill was having the team there. It was a proud moment for our shareholders and the management team. It provided an absolute boost of energy.”
Dr. Ulsifer’ s name carries a great deal of weight within the industry and it’s reflected in a number of industry committees he sits on and a number of public speaking engagements he provides. He also serves as a judge for the Ernst and Young Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year Awards and has served as a mentoring coach for country winners at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year event.
At FYidoctors being continuous learners is engrained in the DNA.
“I’ve managed to surround myself with very skilled and talented people,” he says. “It’s amazing to watch as we grow as an organization. There is no way I could have a pulse on everything and know what is going on in all areas but I know that the team we have is out there doing their very best to constantly improve things.”
It is Dr. Ulsifer’s desire to continue to expand upon the success of the FYidoctors business model and bring high-quality eye care to a greater number of Canadians. He says it’s less about size and scale – but rather he wants the organization to stand for something and be dedicated to people and their eye health.
“We want to be able to bring our business model elsewhere. We do plan to launch FYidoctors in the U.S. with an official announcement coming by the end of the year,” he confirms.
“I want to see continued growth and a high level of satisfaction from our patients,” concludes Dr. Ulsifer. “In Canada I’d love to be able to say we receive the best eye care in the world and to be able to say we played a part in it.”