By Kristy Dorsey

He joined his father’s firm in West Dunbartonshire in 1976, right around the time when eyewear was beginning its transformation from the correction of a physical deficiency into a statement of style. Whereas William Wilkie’s dad kept seven or eight spectacle frames in a drawer and “more or less” told customers what they wanted, the wall displays at today’s Wilkie & Rider shops in Alexandria and Dumbarton present customers with hundreds of options.

The evolution of opticians from “rather dowdy” storefronts into far more glossy venues also increased the appeal of the market, leading to the growth of major multiples such as Optical Express and Specsavers. Smaller businesses such as Wilkie & Rider that have fended off the encroachment of the national chains now face the added concerns of returning to “normal” trading once the pandemic subsides.

“The problem we all have is that uncertainty,” Mr Wilkie said. “No one, unless they have got a lot of capital behind them, is assuming they are going to go out there and grow right now because we don’t know what the impact of things like future job losses will be.

“But I think most optical practices will survive, certainly in Scotland, because we are part of the health service.”

That has been the case since the 2006 adoption of the General Ophthalmic Regulations, which Mr Wilkie believes to be the most significant of many professional developments he’s been part of during his 45-year career.

HeraldScotland:

“All of that has put optometry where it is now,” he said. “You have now got the situation where if you phone your GP, they say if the problem is with your mouth, you go to the dentist, if it is your eyes you go see your optometrist, if it’s anything else, stay on the line.

“It has made the job more medical, and it has made it more interesting for people who are focused on health, and not just selling – though selling is still a part of it, because the health service still never quite covers all your costs.”

Now aged 67, Mr Wilkie isn’t quite retiring, but he is cutting back as he hands over to his daughter Sian, now managing director of Wilkie & Rider, and son Willis, now senior optometrist. He says his goal is to go down to three days a week for the time being, working towards complete retirement by the age of 70 when he will bring a close to a long and eventful career.

“My take on this is that my journey has been optometry’s journey, and optometry’s journey has been the interesting journey over the last 45 years,” he said.

Born in Penilee, Glasgow, he studied at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School before moving with his parents to Dunbartonshire where he finished at Vale of Leven Academy. He went on to study optometry at Glasgow College of Technology, now Glasgow Caledonian University.

READ MORE: Optician expands with new practice

His father, who bought the business in 1956, wanted his son to join him immediately in the family business. After briefer stints than he would have liked in Larkhall and Falkirk Royal Infirmary, the younger Wilkie returned.

“What I brought with me was my ability to do contact lenses, which my dad couldn’t,” he said. “That was a booming business.”

As he grew into his role and eventually took over the business, Mr Wilkie became involved in a variety of seminal develops for the wider profession. After being appointed lead optometrist in West Dunbartonshire, he then became chair of the lead optometrists across Greater Glasgow and Clyde, a position now held by his son.

In that capacity and alongside people such as Colin Black of Black & Lizars, he worked to further integrate the working relationship between optometrists and the medically-trained ophthalmologists working out of the country’s hospitals. Mr Wilkie also formalised the NHS triage system which is still in use today, whereby front of house staff are trained in a series of standardised questions that give optometrists the information to judge whether a patient needs to be seen urgently, or as a routine appointment.

READ MORE: Clouds darken over the high street as retailers shed thousands of jobs

The other major change has been technology. Mr Wilkie notes that when he was qualifying, it took 45 minutes of testing to confirm that a patient had a tumour in their eye. Today it’s possible to diagnose this in just a few moments.

With 16 staff including six optometrists, Wilkie & Rider has some 40,000 people in its database, about half or more of whom would be considered regular patients.

The business was able to continue operating throughout last year’s shutdown, albeit predominantly in a remote capacity largely at odds with the operation’s focus on personal customer care. Mr Wilkie says this will have ramifications for the profession which his son and daughter will need to prepare for.

“While it was commercially uncomfortable, it made very clear what could be achieved with remote consulting,” he said.

“A photo, a phone call and a conversation might mean that, of five patients who previously would have come into the consulting rooms, you would only actually need to physically see one of them. This has long-term implications for the way we, and many other parts of the medical infrastructure, operate.”

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

Mauritius because it is home to all my wife’s family and where we had our honeymoon.

Italy – we all love the food and lifestyle.

New York – so alive and so much to absorb.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I really do not remember thinking of doing a job as a child. I was so interested in sport: football, cricket, golf and athletics filled my thoughts. Working with people in a caring profession was always where I was likely to gravitate.

What was your biggest break in business?

Either in the 1970s when fashion and contact lenses fuelled a significant increase in revenue, or the 2006 contract to deliver optometry as a service free to all and become the ”first port of call” for all eye complaints – this gives some guaranteed income and a more secure base for our enterprise.

What was your worst moment in business?

The depression of the early 1980s – both my father and I had to increase the mortgages on our houses to make the investments required to survive and prosper.

Who do you most admire and why?

At this moment it has to be Sir Captain Tom Moore – dogged determination, a positive attitude and him emphasising it is people that make the difference. Martin Luther King and Gandhi for similar reasons.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

Michael Connelly’s The Black Box – a Harry Bosch crime thriller – and Stehen Fry’s Mythos.

For music, Bruce Springsteen, Boz Scaggs, the Beatles, Weekend, Rudimental, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Eurhythmics, Prince, James, Aretha Franklin – I love all sorts.