The Story of Us……
The story of Crystal Vision and Better Hearing is a story about a family.
Our journey started out as two sons and their mom sometime in 1995. Actually, for me it started a couple of years earlier while I was attending University for my engineering degree. I was also taking a minor in economics and I had to do a business plan on something. I chose to do my project on a one-hour optical store. It is a weird concept to go from engineering to an optical business plan, but I always loved business and didn’t really care for working behind a computer all day. And Engineers typically spend their days in a room with a computer.
In 1995 I was laid off from my job selling sawmill equipment to sawmills in BC. My brother George was working as a correctional officer at Matsqui Institution and my mom was a Gold Medallion winning real estate agent in the Fraser Valley. My dad was also involved in helping us with our company and at this time he was a full-time gas service man at BC Gas which is currently Fortis BC.
When I approached my mom and dad about opening an optical store, they were both a little surprised. My dad agreed to help finance our new venture under one condition! My mom would have to quit real estate and help guide her two sons on the proper ways of giving good customer service. They also wanted to include my brother George in the new venture as he was not very happy working for corrections. So, my mom agreed to quit real estate and we all agreed to work together.
My wife and I started debating over many different possible names for an optical store. My uncles were also in the optical business and they were called Visions One Hour Optical. We tried many different names with vision, optical, clarity etc. Picking a name is always challenging. Finally, we decided on Crystal Vision One Hour Optical. We wanted the one hour in the name as it implies good service. And service is what we were going to build our whole future on.
My wife and I designed our logo on our kitchen table with an old computer that had about 50 different fonts. We tried many different ideas and finally settled on the Canadian maple leaf as a separator. Then we went to Staples and filled out our own incorporation paperwork. I remember we had to submit a $250.00 non-refundable application fee that we could lose if we filled out the papers wrong. Fortunately, we filled them out correctly.
Then we had our company – Crystal Vision One Hour Optical Ltd. It was one of the best moments of my life at that time.
So, we had a company – but we didn’t have a spot to put it. I mean how do you pick a location for a business that you have never ran before. What a great opportunity!
While I was working in the sawmill industry, I was always looking for locations for an optical business. Luckily there was a large sawmill in Maple Ridge as it brought me there a number of times during my time in the industry. But when we were seriously looking it changed everything.
We found an awesome location in Maple Ridge on Dewdney Trunk Rd. It was formally the General Paints building and it was right on a busy corner and had lots of windows. I remember walking in for the first time and seeing the windows covered in paper. General Paints used the corner for their storage area, so the windows were completely covered with paper. My mom and I pealed the paper down and we were surprised at the awesome natural light that immediately filled the space. We were very excited and started negotiations with the owner.
As a family we always had many different opinions on everything. At this time, I really wanted the old General Paints location for our business. My brother was set on the old shoe store location inside Haney Place Mall. Ultimately, we decided on the corner building where General Paints used to be. The owner was very difficult to negotiate with and forced us to lease the entire building from him. We only needed a little more than half and we couldn’t afford the rent for the entire space. So, we decided to lease out the smaller side to a company called Liz Jewellers.
Our doors officially opened January 16, 1997. Our original team was myself, my brother George, my mom Leona and Les Watkins. Les was a licensed optician with over 20 years of lab experience making eyeglasses in commercial settings. We learned a lot from Les – he taught us everything we know about making glasses in our one-hour lab. The first five years went by in a blink with our business thriving along the way. We were being told by our optical reps that we were becoming the top optical store in BC for a one location company.
During this time Liz Jewellers was starting to sell their products online with internet sales starting to become bigger and bigger. They decided not to renew their lease with us, so we were now facing finding a new tenant for our building. We were looking at many different options for tenants and could not find anything suitable for our business. We didn’t want anything that we felt would take away from Crystal Vision. Then George met a hearing specialist who was buying glasses in our store. George and I decided to open a hearing business on our own in the space right beside our optical. We quickly hired our cousin Jeff Martens who trained us during our apprenticeships and we both became licensed hearing aid specialists. Crystal Hearing was born in February 2002!
Our first five years were spent totally focusing on growing our optical business. Then in 2002 we sort of exploded. We opened up our sight testing room, contact lens room, our first hearing clinic and we opened our second location in Chilliwack BC that also had a one-hour optical lab, sight testing, contacts, and hearing.
We now had two locations and one brother in each location. Two brothers working together can be difficult and this was supposed to help us get along a little better.
Chilliwack and Maple Ridge both got busier and busier. We were learning how to manage and hire great staff. Good staff are the most important part of any business. And at Crystal Vision and Better Hearing we feel like we have the best staff in the world. We are committed to hiring the best people and providing them with excellent training. Sometimes this takes going through quite a few candidates before we settle on the perfect person for us.
Let me jump back in time for a moment if I may. While I was in school, I did a business plan on a one-hour optical company. When I had finished it, I sent a copy to my friend Tom and told him we should start a business together. I was so excited about it and I wanted my friend to be part of it. Tom was and still is a plumber/gas fitter. A couple of years after Chilliwack opened Tom approached me and indicated that he wanted in. So together, George, Tom, Leona and I opened up our third location in Langley BC. This was a huge change for Tom who was confronted with a large learning curve. He enrolled in the optical program and hearing program. Tom worked as our partner for a few years and then decided that this career was not for him and he returned to plumbing and gas fitting. He has since also added a refrigeration ticket to his name. Tom is an over achiever!
Langley was a struggling location for us, so we eventually moved it to the downtown area where the hearing did quite well but the optical never grew into anything.
We also opened our first hearing only clinics in White Rock and Abbotsford. Both of these locations were inside of busy malls. I believe we were the first or one of the first companies to build a hearing center inside of a mall. At the time most hearing clinics were in a more medical environment. We wanted to help take the stigma out of hearing aids and we wanted them to be more available to the general population. We totally disliked the idea of becoming too medical as we always felt that we wanted to provide exceptional customer experience.
We now had three optical centres and five hearing centres. We had officially changed from an optical focused company to a hearing focused company. So, we opened another optical store in White Rock. This was our first inside of a mall optical store as well. We couldn’t get space side by side, so we opened with another store between optical and hearing clinics.
By 2015 we had opened hearing clinics in Abbotsford (One in the mall and one stand alone), Chilliwack, Langley, Maple Ridge, White Rock, Broadway Street, Vancouver, Denman Mall Vancouver, West Vancouver and North Vancouver. We were also managing four optical stores in Chilliwack, Langley, Maple Ridge and White Rock. We had grown to 4 optical stores and 10 hearing clinics.
A family business is never easy. There are usually differences of opinion that are too easily shared. The same can be said of the relationship between my brother and I. Our poor mom was always caught in the middle. George and I had completely different visions for our company. I wanted to grow from coast to coast. I didn’t see why we couldn’t apply our formula for great customer service all over Canada. I mean why not? Customers want good service everywhere and good service is seriously lacking in most clinics these days.
In 2015 we received an amazing opportunity to sell our hearing clinics to a larger company and we did it. At the time we thought it was a good time for us to start the process of parting ways as partners. It’s never easy to split up an enterprise as complicated as ours so selling all of our hearing to a third party made sense. Both my brother and I had to work for the company that purchased us for a period of three years. This was our “buy out” phase.
After the three years was up in 2018 George and I divided up our assets. It was similar to a divorce in that we each had legal representation and we were represented by a top-quality accountant who determined values on all of our remaining assets. It’s tough to split something that we both put our heart and soul into. There is so much emotional attachment to our “baby” that is not able to be monetized. But in the end, we reached an agreement that I would take over the remaining three optical stores and he would get cash and assets.
In January of 2019 we signed a lease to open a new concept optical and hearing center in Abbotsford. This would be our first warehouse sized location and it was formerly the Greyhound bus depot. We wanted to have a large front end to showcase 100s of frames, a full one-hour lab for building glasses and controlling costs, an optometry center including a pretest room with the best equipment and a full hearing center. These services take up lots of room and in Abbotsford we have it in spades.
Over the years my personal family has grown too. I have two sons and one daughter and while the company was growing my own family often helped in the stores. When my kids were very young, they were helping at special event days and some weekends. By the time the boys were 12 years old they were already skilled at helping clients pick out frames and edging glasses. My daughter was usually manning the ice cream stations or delivering coffee to our clients while they were picking out frames. I love working with family.
Today my son Luke is working in our Abbotsford location as store manager and sales trainer.
Crystal Vision and Better Hearing is still a family business and we still value customer service as our number one priority!