All Eyes on Inspecs Group

The upstart brought fashion to the British optical market just as it was being deregulated. Wearing glasses has never been the same

Back when Robin Totterman and Chris Smith first got to know each other, just before they went to university, they had a plan. They were going to create a company together. Problem was, despite many late-night brainstorming sessions, they kept coming up against the same stumbling blocks: no money, no idea, and no experience. So they decided to go their separate ways, Smith becoming an attorney and Totterman an investment banker. "But," says 46-year-old Totterman, "we still wanted to start a business together."

Eight years later, in 1988, after stashing away a bit of cash, they hit upon a business plan—providing interesting eyewear. In the 18 years since then, they have managed to parlay this idea into Inspecs Group, a Bath-based company that has more than 600 employees and forecasts revenues of about €65 million ($83 million) in 2006, up about 24% over 2005. Profits should more than double this year as well.

One key to the partners' success was timing. When they came up with their idea. they both felt the British optical market, which had long been under the control of the National Health Service, was sadly underserved on the specs front. In fact, Totterman, a longtime glasses wearer, bought all his frames abroad. "When I traveled to many countries I saw amazing glasses," remembers Totterman. "In Britain, I could only find Harry Potter glasses."

Global Expansion

They also knew that then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was due to deregulate the market that year. "We realized that there was a gap in the market for alternative eyewear," says 45-year-old Smith. The pair managed to get a contract to distribute designer Jean Paul Gaultier's new eyewear line that year. They bought the high-end frames from Japan and shipped them back to Britain to be sold. During the early years of the company, Smith and Totterman slowly added designing and manufacturing capabilities.

Today, Inspecs designers are at work in Britain, Hong Kong, and India. Nowadays, Inspecs glasses sell in many of the world's top optical chains, as well as Wal-Mart (WMT) in the U.S. The giant retailer recently named Inspecs a supplier of the year. The company, which now moves about 6 million pairs of glasses annually, is working hard to develop operations in emerging markets. Meanwhile, Totterman and Smith are practically markets in themselves. Smith owns 40 pairs of glasses, while Totterman has gone up to 100, including a spiffy number that is bright green with checks. They're clearly in the right business.

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