Alberto Oculista: a dream with vision
The customers’ trust reflects the success of this optical group born in a small shop, in central Funchal. Nowadays, from Madeira to the rest of the country, José Alberto Caires, together with his son and son-in-law, focuses his business on other sectors.
How did the idea of opening this business come about?
The Alberto Oculista brand first appeared in 1984, under Mr Alberto Caires, my father. Working at the time for someone else, he decided to take the step towards becoming an entrepreneur: he was confident that the hard work that he’d carried out up to that point would also pay off in a project of his own. And so, 35 years ago, he started to see the fruits of his labour, opening a second shop in Funchal, and then 20 years later he found himself with a chain of 10 shops all over the island of Madeira, a chain that made it possible to lead the autonomous region’s optics market.
Your company is originally from Madeira, over the years expanding to the Azores and later to the Continent. How was that expansion process implemented?
Correct. Sometime around 2004, work began to provide Alberto Oculista, Lda with increasingly professional management structures and procedures that are more suited to professional management. With a considerably sized chain, and around 60 people on the team, it was important to ensure that this happened. At the same time, the world was changing. We were seeing an increasingly closer, more open, borderless world. This fact led us to think a lot about how the island of Madeira had stopped being a market solely for Madeirans, like many other markets had, due to the increasingly obvious effects of globalization. So, we found ourselves with a problem: what should we do?
Should we take the easy, “comfortable” route, remaining in the market and on the island that we know and see what happens, or should we anticipate what’s coming, be proactive, and take the route towards the unknown, the uncertain? After a lot of indecision, the opportunity came to enter the Algarve region, through the acquisition of a chain of 10 shops. We went ahead with the deal, and we signed the contract to buy the chain around two weeks before the International Monetary Fund intervened in financially assisting our country, and that’s how our adventure beyond Madeira began.
How have the balances been over those 35 years?
Of course, it’s a positive balance. Apart from some difficult periods, particularly in the first four years of managing our Algarve chain, which coincided with the largest known economic and financial crisis in the world, we never gave up, we fought hard for our space, we focused on our customers and ways that we could meet their needs, and we always believed that, as long as we did our job well, our customers’ trust would come with that, and we would be able to overcome any hurdles (and there were a lot of them).
How many shops do you have in total?
We are currently on our way to having 70 shops. The Alberto Oculista brand operates on the archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores, the Algarve (now has 16 shops), Greater Lisbon (24 shops in this area of influence), Coimbra, Figueira da Foz, Castelo Branco, Viseu, Torres Novas, Santarém, and Abrantes, amongst others.
Do you believe that the service you offer is what sets you apart?
Of course. Our philosophy is how we have managed to win our customers’ trust. For us, it is essential to establish long lasting relationships with our customers. Our loyalty rate is staggering (around 90%) and that’s enough to make any company stronger. And we want to continue in this way, focusing even more closely on our clients and making them feel that Alberto Oculista is part of their lives.
And so you’re committed to the idea that a visit to one of your shops “delivers an experience” to make it part of people’s lives?
Exactly. We make sure that’s the case. On average, a prescription eyewear user makes a purchase every two years. Now our aim is to counteract the statistic that we only talk to our customers once every two years. It’s doing things the hard way, we know, but we believe that it will be better in the long run.
What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced on this journey?
There have been some huge obstacles on our journey. As I mentioned before, the first few years were really tough when we entered the Algarve. It led us to difficulties that we didn’t even know could exist, it led us to look for strengths that we didn’t even know we had. I believe that this period of time might have been the most difficult in the company’s history.
However, there’s another one that has been revealed. It wasn’t so much an obstacle in terms of day-to-day life, the way that the beginning of our Algarve adventure was, but I believe that it has become the biggest challenge that our company faces: I’m referring to the extensive restructuring that was implemented throughout our organisation, so that we could move from a family structure to a professional organisation, albeit with strictly family capital. The remarkable growth that we experienced in a relatively short space of time, the focus on diversity through the group’s entry into new areas of activity, the huge growth of the team (today the group has around 420 employees), was only possible due to the enormous work carried out at a foundation level.
You’re concerned with social responsibility. What kind of actions do you take in this direction?
We do a few things. The majority of them don’t become public knowledge. For example, a few years ago we financed a cornea transplant for a 45-year-old woman with two children. Thanks to this surgery, her vision returned, which means that today she has a very similar quality of life to all of us.
We have campaigns underway every year. For example, we currently have a store-wide campaign in which, through the sale of optical lens cleaning spray (5€ per unit), we aim to raise enough money to bring the dreams of a group of 10 sick children to life: with a trip to Disney in 2020. This campaign came about through a partnership with the charity “Terra dos Sonhos” (“Dreamland”). It’s amazing how much the world can change when we all come together and give each other a hand.
What is your communication strategy? Do you have an ambassador?
Our communication strategy comes from how we want to place ourselves in the market. If we want proximity, to be part of people’s lives, then we have to communicate with them. It’s very important that we manage to get the message out to people about what we do and how we do it. The Alberto Oculista brand, also at this level, is a fighter, being born on an island and taking an organic route, entering the Portuguese continent completely unknown, and the only way to make yourself known is through your work, through your ability to adjust your services to meet your customers’ expectations.
With the work that we have been developing in recent years, with our focus on scaling revenue, it has been possible to introduce a series of investments into our communication strategy that aims to do what was, by all means, previously impossible: communicate via mass media, through major channels, on a national level. This year, in 2019, we had a surprise for the country: we invited actress Juliana Paes to participate in our project, an invitation that was promptly accepted after getting to know us and our story. Juliana Paes identified a lot with our story and was very happy with the project.
Needless to say, we’re also very happy to have “embarked” upon this challenge. There are two people who we will always remember and will always have an immense gratitude for: Juliana Paes and our dear national football coach, Fernando Santos. He was the face of one of our first nationwide campaigns, and this project could not have given the country better results, since a month after the campaign was launched, Mr Fernando Santos led Portugal to become European Champions (laughs). It’s safe to say that his vision was sharp!
And what caused you to expand into the natural food industry?
It’s due to the diversification strategy of our group. In the same way that we thought it was important to move the family business out of Madeira, 3 or 4 years ago we decided that it would be very important to enter into other areas. Today the group consists of 6 areas of activity, of which three are strategic: optics, real estate and healthy eating.
What projects do you have in store for the future?
The projects that we have are aimed at strengthening and consolidating our diversification plan. We are continuing to invest in the core area, optics, but we are also concentrating a lot on solidifying our real estate investments, and, more recently, with our acquisition of the “Bioforma” brand, we will be working towards creating value for the company that today has 11 shops in Madeira and two in the Azores.