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Reflection on a migration down under by a SA optometrist

Alan Saks

We left South Africa in 1993.

As soon as our daughter was born my wife wanted out. She saw a better future for our child overseas. In retrospect it was the right decision. It was heartbreaking to leave our beloved South Africa, family and the fantastic partnership of Saks, Taylor & Brauer (STB). It’s extremely difficult to move countries and start again, made harder by the exchange controls at the time that meant we had very little money when we landed in NZ. The advice I now give immigrants is that you must accept the fact that you’re a nobody. Your history doesn’t count and no one really gives a hoot. It’s a wake-up call but motivating in itself.

Some of the top practices I approached were all negative and complained about the economy and ‘commercialism’ in optometry. Many practices were bleak and it would have been like working in a damp, dark toilet.

Back then there were only one or two dispensing opticians challenging the status quo. Little did these whinging optometrists know that this was nothing compared to what happened when OPSM and Specsavers moved in. At any rate, I decided that working for low pay in a depressing practice was not my scene, as I was used to practising at the top level at STB. I said I’d rather sell lettuce in a market.

After looking at 100s of other businesses, including joining AMWAY, I woke one fine sunny day with my first interview lined up to install accounting computers for an accountant; remember this was 1994 and the beginning of the PC revolution. I cancelled my first ever interview, as I was too lazy to wash my hair and get dressed for the interview.  I’d been in NZ for three months at that stage and had read that if you remain unemployed for more than three months you become unemployable. That woke me up. The next day I went for an interview at Prudential to sell superannuation policies. A mate of mine had become super rich selling insurance for Liberty Life in SA, so I reckoned if he could do it, so could I. I got the job. The boss really liked my attitude and skills. He was a Canadian and taught me a valuable lesson on day one. He said that a strange accent helped and that; ‘anyone from five minutes out of town is an expert’.

It was a challenge. I’d always had secretaries and a full appointment book at STB and people called and waited a week or three to see me. Now I had to change my tune and cold call people – sometimes on the streets of Auckland and sell insurance. We had the best motivational teachers and I learnt a lot. It actually benefited me when I got back into optometry. What these guys essentially taught me was that most people suffer from Fear, Doubt and Indecision and that to sell insurance you had to do three things with the client: Relax, Disturb, and Commit.

While running around trying to sell superannuation to Bogans, I got to know Auckland like the back of my hand. I noted that Kiwi’s were not too worried about retirement savings and their attitude was ‘She’ll be right, mate’ or ‘Good as Gold’ or simply ‘No worries mate’.

Around the time I started at Prudential I’d also sent a letter to AUTONEWS magazine – NZ’s leading car magazine that became NZ AUTOCAR and was later sold for millions to the large publisher Fairfax.  One day out selling superannuation my phone rang. The publisher wanted to meet me. I got the job as associate editor and photographic director. I gave up the Prudential job and started at AUTOCAR. This was another valuable learning experience. A few months later my phone rang once again while out doing a car test. This time it was a dispensing optician who was opening a new style, more commercial optometric/dispensing practice in Hamilton, about 110km from Auckland. He wanted me to help set up the practice and be the resident optom. He was a good guy and savvy. I joined up and got back into optometry. I arrived at the practice as arranged one wintery Tuesday morning in September 1994.  The owner said they had a ‘small problem’. Basically the chair and stand was ‘in the air’, coming from Italy. He opened the consulting room door. It was an empty room. The first patient booked in at 11am, in two hours time. We mounted a projector on one of those spring-loaded ‘Giraffe’ stands that we used to use for old-fashioned computer monitors and screwed a screen on the wall. I got out my Hamblin Streak Ret, Keeler specialist ophthalmoscope, a table, two typist chairs and my grandfathers trial set. We assembled an AO non-contact tonometer and a slit lamp on tables. The first patient arrived punctually at 11am.

A -6.00D myope, she needed new specs by Friday as she was leaving to live in the UK. We did the job. Two weeks later I got a letter from the UK, thanking me for the best spectacles she’d ever had. Nice multicoated, hi-Index HOYA 1.8 glass, as we had yet to get hi-index plastic lenses.  We were fully booked within two weeks of opening the doors. The practice went on to become a great success – in spectacles and contact lenses – and was the first practice in NZ to turn over a million dollars in its first year.  The owner later sold, did his MBA and started an online spectacle website, way ahead of most. He developed algorithms to be able to setup and dispense progressives and other spectacles, online. He told me they had very low comeback rates. His technology was purchased by one of the now large, online spec websites.  Later he married and moved to Thailand and set up a successful business selling NZ vitamins to Thai’s. Alas he passed away in 2016, way too young. My other colleague from that practice, a skilled Austrian trained dispenser, is now a successful practice owner. We are still good mates.

Around that time I approached Maryanne Dransfield, publisher of NZ Optics magazine and suggested I continue my South African Optometrist column, IN CONTACT, in her magazine – the only one of its type in NZ. It was largely advertorial in those days and I suggested she needed clinical content. She gave me the job and the rest is history. My IN CONTACT column became widely read around the world. It became the longest, continuous, in print and online optometric column. It remains so, as my micontact column is now published in Australasia’s leading ophthalmic journal, mivision, where I did a stint as editor in late 2016 and early 2017. I am now a remote writer for mivision, which allows me to travel Australia in our 4×4 campervan when not at home near the beach, at a place called Smiths Lake, three hours North of Sydney – our little paradise.

Back to late 1994, I found myself enjoying practice in Hamilton but keen to get back to Auckland. I was head hunted by a progressive dispensing optician. I worked hard and built up the contact lens practice over an 18 months period. The then owner promised me all sorts of things, including a partnership but he turned out to be a snake in the grass. Around that time I was humbled by being elected as the first ever South African to serve as president on the New Zealand Society of Contact Lens Practitioners (NZSCLP), now known as the Cornea and Contact Lens Society of New Zealand.  The next two Presidents were also South Africans. Trevor Gray, an ophthalmologist from Cape Town followed me and in turn Greg Nel from the Free State, followed Trevor.

I had previously been President of the Contact Lens society of South Africa and conference chairman of Contact ‘90 at the Wild Coast Sun, which was a great success. In fact the recently reformed Contact Lens Society’s conference in Randburg, was largely funded by profits we’d made at that conference, way back then. These funds had sat dormant for over twenty years as the CL society had become dormant.

As President of the NZSCLP I was dragged into a legal battle: The aforementioned snake-in-the grass employer and a dispensing colleague of his were trying to change the law to allow dispensers to fit, prescribe and sell contact lenses. They lost. This guy also had another go using ‘consumerism’ to allow contact lenses ‘in a state ready for use’ (e.g. disposables) to be sold by mail order, which later became online, as we know it today.

Fortunately, I was head hunted by one of NZ’s oldest and most respected practices, Barry + Beale, established in 1902 and one of the first in NZ to prescribe contact lenses, in 1961. The contact lens division was actually setup by a British optometrist, Eric Sellers, who had worked for one of the large practices in Natal. He was a great contact lens practitioner and I took over scores of complex cases from him and his two colleagues that had followed him. The practice was a bit long in the tooth when I joined. The owners gave me carte blanche to modernise it, as well as offering me a partnership. We certainly did modernise, redoing everything from uniforms to the logo, business cards, and stationary while refitting the frame and dispensing areas. We also installed what was then one of the first fully integrated server-based computer systems with a laptop in each room. We installed a topographer, perimeter and fundus camera and integrated it all so that any optom could access all the records and images. We also developed one of the first optometric websites and integrated email for referrals and patient communication via one of the first ADSL communication networks in NZ. It all really paid off and the turnover grew significantly. We later asked Rob Allen, formerly of East London, to join the partnership, which he did.

Things were changing in NZ optometry over that decade. We also struggled to find younger optoms who wanted to buy in, for succession planning. Despite mentoring and training superb young optoms they all wanted to do the ‘Big OE’ (overseas experience), as most Kiwis and Aussies do. With the four partners being over fifty, with one in his sixties due for retirement, we needed to get our equity out.

Fortunately there were two players in the market buying up practices to form small groups with the ultimate goal to sell on to the big boys like Specsavers and OPSM.  The guy who bought us out paid a record price for our practice, that’s never been beaten in NZ. After two years battling through the GFC he sold out to OPSM. Our practice had kept consistent turnover but some others he bought had been hurt by the commercials. Working for OPSM was not something I wanted to do.

I was once again fortunate to be head hunted by Mortimer Hirst, the oldest contact lens practice in NZ, where the first hard lenses were manufactured and fitted in the mid 1940s. The first soft lenses were smuggled to Mortimer Hirst from Czechoslovakia by Otto Wichterle, to his old colleague Eugene Hirst.

I had a successful six years there with great colleagues.

My wife had always complained about the NZ weather and had wanted to move to Australia for about twenty years. When the editor role at mivision came up we sold up and left NZ, all in a matter of three months. We were fortunate to hit the inflated housing market at the very top, more than doubling our money in seven years. As a bonus the exchange rate to Aussie was near its historical peak so all went well. We lived in the superb beachside Sydney suburbs of Bondi and Maroubra for a few months, before leaving the big smoke for Smiths Lake.

Alan Saks with his custom built Camper Van.

In July 2017, after an 8 month wait, we took delivery of our custom built VW T6 Transporter, TRAKKA Trakkadu4-motion campervan. Fitted with the top end turbo diesel, diff locks and raised, heavy-duty Seikel Dakar suspension, we embarked on an absolutely fantastic trip through the outback. We started with 2,000km up the east coast, camping on beaches. We stopped for a few days so I could attend and present at The Australian Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery conference, at Hamilton Island. We then cut inland and crisscrossed the Tropic of Capricorn, visiting some amazing National Parks and camping under the big Australian sky, observing dinosaur trails and lots of fauna and flora. We then headed down through the ‘Red Centre’. Some highlights were the Devils Marbles, Finke gorge, Uluru, the amazing Flinders Ranges, Coffin bay, the Barossa valley and so much more.

Karen Saks – camping in the Australian Out Back.

We felt so at home. Sitting around a fire at night, burning hardwood, all alone, with no one for hundreds of miles, was just fantastic. It left us feeling like we were back in the bush in Africa. The only thing missing was the call of hyenas and other predators.

After 12,000km over about eight weeks, we were back in Sydney for me to attend and present at the International Cornea and Contact Lens Conference. We spent Father’s day and my birthday in Sydney with our daughter and then headed home to Smiths Lake. A few weeks later I hopped on a Jumbo and flew over to Jo’burg to present at the contact lens conference.

So it’s been an interesting and challenging journey. I am so grateful to my Dad, Sid Saks, one of the contact lens pioneers and a legend of South African optometry. He taught me so much in optometry, contact lenses and above all how to handle people and maintain ethical standards of practise. He’s a real mensch, as is my brother in law Peter Brauer, another stalwart of South African optometry, from whom I have learnt much. He was behind getting the (Contact Lens Society) going again and putting together a fantastic conference.

One of the things that impressed me the most about the Contact Lens Conference in Randburg was how racially integrated the audience was, with everyone getting on very well and some very sharp optometrists. When I left SA in 1993, this process of integration had barely begun. The current crop of students was also very impressive as were the industry players and supporters.

It was so good to see, as all one ever sees in the press are the negatives.