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Optical chain eyes expansion after landing £5.6m funding

DUNCAN & Todd, the Aberdeen-based optical chain, is setting its sights on a major expansion after securing a £5.6 million injection of finance from the Business Growth Fund and has appointed corporate big-hitter Bob Brannan as chairman.

ambition: Frances Duncan retains a majority stake in Duncan & Todd and says the funding will reduce the firm's bank debt to a minimal level
ambition: Frances Duncan retains a majority stake in Duncan & Todd and says the funding will reduce the firm's bank debt to a minimal level

Frances Duncan, a qualified dispensing optician who retains a majority stake in Duncan & Todd after the funding deal which was unveiled yesterday, highlighted ambitions to increase the ­company's number of retail outlets from 23 to about 40 over the next five years. She declared that such expansion would be likely to raise the optical chain's annual turnover from about £10.5m to between £17m and £20m.

Ms Duncan, who took control of the business in 2007 in a ­management buy-out from ­founders Stewart Todd and Norman Duncan, her ex-husband, also plans to invest in a second production line at the ­firm's manufacturing facility in Aberdeen.

About two years ago, Duncan & Todd moved into manufacturing for other independent opticians as well as for itself.

Ms Duncan highlighted the breadth of experience which Mr Brannan, a former group ­managing director of Scotch whisky distiller Whyte & Mackay, would bring to Duncan & Todd.

He is currently chairman of Vets Now, the Scottish company which provides an out-of-hours accident and emergency service for pets.

He was formerly chairman of menswear brand Ben Sherman.

She said: "He has got amazing experience. I have got a lot of ­experience, but just with Duncan & Todd. I am not saying that is a bad thing. He brings a wider breadth of knowledge across different sectors. Although we are primarily retail optics, our ­manufacturing business has got huge potential."

The firm's manufacturing ­operation employs about 40 people. The company has a total workforce of about 182.

Ms Duncan, who became managing director of the optical chain in 1996, also highlighted Duncan & Todd's significant corporate client base, which includes banks. She also flagged its role in providing prescription safety glasses for people working in the oil and gas sector.

Duncan & Todd has outlets in Aberdeenshire, Moray, Inverness-shire, and Tayside, as well as on Skye and in Wick and St Andrews.

Ms Duncan cited the ­importance of the company's strong presence in market towns in which it had a loyal customer base, in the face of competition from the big multiple operators.

She said: "It has been a real strength in the last five years. A lot of the multiples have been expanding. We have held our own, really, on good old-fashioned service."

Ms Duncan highlighted ­potential for Duncan & Todd to add further outlets in the likes of Perthshire, Tayside, and Fife.

She added: "If we went to the central belt, it would only be if a small group came up (for sale), so we could expand quite rapidly rather than in ones or twos."

She also signalled an appetite to expand south of the Border in future, if the right opportunity were to arise in terms of a group of optical stores coming up for sale, highlighting potential in Wales as well as in England.

Regarding the timing of her 2007 buy-out, Ms Duncan said: "I bought them (the founders) out three months before the credit crunch. It has not been an easy road since then, but we have survived."

Ms Duncan said the finance from the Business Growth Fund, a UK Government initiative backed by the major banks, was a mixture of equity and a loan for growth.

She said it would reduce bank debt to a minimal level.

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