My entry into the industry was as the first telephone salesman for a small mail-order frame importer. I had worked for the owner, an optometrist, as his yard-boy for several years, taking care of a large property that he’d purchased in the village in which I lived. Dr. Bill Lusk was an entrepreneur…an idea guy…, with whom I spent many a day working side-by-side on his beloved property. I had been introduced to his successful optometry practice some 20 miles distant by the usual method…I washed his building’s windows, cut down trees for a planned garage, mowed his lawn. I also saw his small warehouse where a couple of employees packed and shipped frames to potential customers “on approval.” Through several years of manual labor, we talked. I have always had an affinity for business. Even at age 13, when I started working for Dr. Lusk, I was already eating, sleeping, and living business. I loved numbers and ideas. But, as the son of small-town grocers and antique dealers, my world was very limited. My vision for my future was that of a gardener, taking care of the estates of the rich in my tiny community.
While the exact incident is lost in the fog of memory, I do remember him showing me a beautiful picture postcard of one of the frames he was importing. His method of sales was to send out the postcards offering a specific frame with a reply card seeking an order. It was a successful program, I was told. I’m also told that I asked a question of Dr. Bill. “I wonder what might happen if you followed up the mailing with a phone call,” I asked? Well, the rest is history.
At age 16, my only credential for any job other than yardwork was a pathological gift of gab. I could talk. I liked to talk. And, thus, selling by telephone came
naturally to me. And I was successful. Before leaving high school, I had several salesmen working under my direction. I was with Brillen International Optical until I turned 23. By then, the entrepreneurial bug was deeply implanted, and I simply had to strike out on my own. It was on December 1st, 1979 that I, together with a partner, started the first national optometry buying group, the grandfather of them all, Co-Optics of America.
Now I could go on and on about my business adventures over these many decades, but this message isn’t about me. You see, 50 years ago, someone gave me a chance. The door was opened for me to prove my worth. Certainly, providing the opportunity for a 16-year-old to mess with customers was a risk. Certainly, there were plenty of people around in the early 70s who were more mature and had more experience in sales than I. But Dr. Lusk, my dear friend to this day, gave me a shot. And for that I’m eternally grateful.
Now I have many, many people to thank who have helped me along my unique journey. I’ve been blessed with great relationships with mentors, colleagues, employees, vendors, and clients. But one stands tall and that is Dr. Bill Lusk. Optometrist. Entrepreneur. Gambler. Bill made a bet on this 16-year-old for which I am forever in his debt.
So, on this, my 50th anniversary in the industry that I love, I extend a heartfelt “thank you” to Dr. Bill Lusk…and all the many customers that allowed this 16-year-old to convince them to try our product.
Over these many years, I have never forgotten what it meant to have someone believe in me. I have done my best to give others the same shot that I’ve had. And today, I ask each of you to do the same. Ours is a challenged world. It’s time-honored to be cynical about the generations that come behind us. But, when given the chance, make a bet on a young person. At worse, you’ll provide an incredible learning opportunity. At best, as did Dr. Lusk for me, you’ll change a life and provide the foundation for an entire career.