Tunnel vision turnaround

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Nearly 60 years ago, Joseph E. Cole had a vision.

He believed that if he set goals and worked hard to achieve them, he could accomplish anything. So in 1935, he embarked on a career with National Key Co. He subsequently purchased the company and became head of the nation’s largest key blank manufacturer and retail key chain.

As Cole met his objectives, he set his sights on higher aspirations and altered the focus of his firm, literally speaking. Today, his legacy is known as Cole National Corp., which includes Cole Vision and Things Remembered.

Cole Vision in Twinsburg — one of the largest optical retailers in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean — is made up of Pearle Vision Inc., Cole Licensed Brands, Cole Managed Vision Inc. and Contact Lens Supply. Things Remembered is a nationwide retailer specializing in customized and personalized gifts.

A leader in the vision care and personalized gift industries, Cole National is a $1 billion company that’s traded on the New York Stock Exchange. But as a complex organization with worldwide operations, Cole National has seen its share of challenges in its vision divisions.

Joseph Gaglioti, Cole’s vice president and treasurer, says that in recent years, the numbers have fluctuated, causing shareholder concern. As a public company, Cole National must meet and exceed investor expectations. That’s why, in January 2000, chairman and chief executive officer Jeffrey Cole named Larry Pollock as the company’s new president and chief operating officer.

Pollock has a reputation for having a knack for fixing troubled organizations, as former president and COO of Zale Corp., a director of retail chain NewWest EyeWorks and president and COO of HomePlace Stores.

When Pollock came on board, he had a strategic turnaround mission in mind — a strategy that embraces a five-part formula, with an emphasis on “tunnel vision.”

Through the customer’s eyes

Pollock says that while Things Remembered has done well for several years, Cole Vision’s declining sales and profits mandated a different mindset.

“I believe the only way you can be successful is to see your business through the eyes of the customer and to satisfy their needs. So from a quality standpoint, my goal is to change the thinking of our optical people. I want them to do things from the customer’s perspective, and to think more like retailers,” he says.

So, touting a common goal for Cole, Pollock developed standards and initiatives to be practiced throughout the organization.

“What I tried to do is set things up in a logical format and to emphasize the features and the benefits,” he says.

Pollock started by focusing on specific areas — from store associates and doctors to merchandising and marketing, manufacturing to managed vision care. He posed questions such as, “Why should we, and how can we, do things differently than we’ve done in the past?” and “How does this affect the customer’s decision to buy?”

Pollock says that during his first week on the job, he asked members of the merchandising staff to show him the best-selling frames. They couldn’t, because they weren’t tracking results. In addition, advertisements developed by Cole’s marketing division didn’t focus on the best-selling items, because marketing and merchandising divisions weren’t sharing information.

Pollock says things are different now, but it will take time for everyone to adjust to the new focus.

“You can’t change the way people think and act overnight, so this will take some time,” he says. “It’s a matter of coaching them to see things from the customer’s perspective, repeating the same concepts and giving them positive reinforcement when they get it.”

Focusing on the task

When it comes to business management, Pollock says he practices a principle that works, regardless of the industry.

“I think the most important thing is to give business managers the structure and tools they need to run their divisions and hold them accountable for their performance,” he says.

One problem within Cole National was that managers had too broad a focus. So Pollock restructured Cole’s vision business into separate business units. (See sidebar.)

“I came on board on Jan. 18, 2000, and we had restructured by March 13. That helped our managers develop a tunnel vision — a focus on what they needed to do to drive their business units. Now that they have individual leadership in their own divisions, they’ll do better,” he says.

Pollock clarifies that while he works with division managers to jointly set goals and objectives, and he routinely reviews the results, he doesn’t breathe down their necks.

“I don’t look over their shoulders and second guess them,” he says. “I act more like their partner. I let them run their business while holding them accountable to their plans and forecasts.”

Daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly financial reports tell Pollock what he wants to know. Weekly, he meets with the business leaders as a group, so everyone can discuss goals and concerns. Quarterly team meetings with corporate staff keep everyone centered on the strategic goals.

“And on Friday mornings, I hold Q&A meetings with anyone who wants to show up. We usually get between 50 and 100 people, from secretaries to unit presidents,” he says. “You have to do this to communicate common goals and keep people focused.”

Restructuring a simplified strategy

Pollock also wanted to develop a simplified strategy for every aspect of the business.

Some strategies are far too complex. They might sound great, but they’re not executable,” he says. “I believe in keeping strategies simple, so they’re clear, concise, and executable.”

For example, in terms of merchandising, rather than having several frame assortments with thousands of styles, Pollock suggested offering three assortments with 1,000 styles. This made things less confusing for the customer. It also made it easier to replenish stock.

Pollock compares the strategy to the game of football.

“You hear football coaches talk about blocking and tackling in the game. In the trick plays, where it gets really fancy, there are so many opportunities for error that if you try to live on trick plays, you die. But if you have the basics down — blocking, tackling and running the ball — you can win.”

Those principles apply to his business, he says.

“I want our people to focus on the basics of the business, as opposed to trying to come up with convoluted strategies that sound great in a boardroom, but in practice, they’re too difficult to execute.”

In pursuit of profits

“The key to profitability is maximizing your sales lines and managing the expense side,” says Pollock. “So the strategy also involves getting the right merchandise in the stores and driving the top lines while managing the rest.”

That called for a new focus in six key areas.

Considering optical lenses can’t be purchased without a prescription, Cole Vision needed to draw more doctors into its stores and have the right doctors on hand at the right time.

“We also needed to focus on offering the right merchandise that’s both functionable and fashionable,” he says.

And since Cole manufacturers its optical products, emphasis was put on producing better quality product, with timely output.

“We also offer managed vision care, so we have to make sure we’re able to give our plan participants the service they deserve when they come into our stores,” he says.

Most important, store associates needed to focus on delivering premium customer service.

In all those areas, marketing figured strongly in the equation, and Cole must spend its marketing dollars in strategic ways that draw customers to the stores.

An image of perfection

To raise shareholder value, Pollock issued a challenge to the 13,000 employees of Cole National.

“We’re challenging ourselves every day to keep on raising the bar so we can provide better products and services to our customers,” he says. “It’s by accepting nothing less than perfect from ourselves that we’ll be able to exceed the expectations of our customers and our shareholders.”

Of course, employee incentives are always a motivating factor. With that in mind, Cole has incentives geared toward sales, division profitability and the overall performance of the corporation.

“As time goes on, we’ll fine-tune incentives so they’re more directly related to what people do,” Pollock says.

In the scheme of things, Pollock assures that Cole’s new focus will result in a reputation for excellence.

“Running a profitable business is an investment in our future, our associates’ future and our shareholders’ future. Obviously, we’re doing that in numerous ways,” he says.

“But ultimately, the name of the game is focusing on the customer.” How to reach: Cole National Corp., (330) 486-3000 or www.ColeNational.com


A complex corporation

Cole National Corporation (NYSE:CNJ) is the parent company to Cole Vision, one of the largest optical retailers in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, and to Things Remembered, the only nationwide chain devoted to celebrating “Life’s Special Moments” through personalized gifts.

As part of its restructuring, Cole Vision now comprises Pearle Vision, Inc., Cole Licensed Brands, Cole Managed Vision, Inc. and Contact Lens Supply.

Pearle Vision operates through more than 850 locations in malls and strip centers throughout the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Cole Licensed Brands has nearly 1,200 stores in the United States and Canada, including Sears Optical, BJ’s Wholesale Club Optical and Target Optical. Cole Managed Vision Inc. is the largest chain provider of managed vision care benefits to employers, HMOs and other organizations. Contact Lens Supply provides contact lenses at value prices via the Internet, mail order and by phone.

Cole Vision also holds a 22 percent interest in Pearle Europe, the third largest optical retailer in Europe. Through more than 2,000 retail locations, Cole Vision serves every sector of the optical market.

Things Remembered is the only nationwide retailer specializing in customized and personalized gifts for both individual and corporate customers, selling through about 800 locations, and catalog and Internet sales.