The Vision Clinic furloughed 83 employees on April 2, 2020. It was the same day the practice had planned to open a new business center, an innovative customer service facility renovated, designed and staffed after 18 months of planning and 15 years of dreaming. Instead, the 53-year-old business was instructed by the CDC to cease primary care and take care of urgent and emergency cases only.
“I feel like as a leader, you have to portray calm and confidence, and that day, I took on the persona of a duck: Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath,” says Dr. Stephen Rice, who is CEO/managing partner of Vision Clinic. “That was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in 34 years in this industry.”
In 1989, two years after earning his Doctor of Optometry degree from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Rice was excited to join Vision Clinic as a co-managing partner. He became CEO in 2015.
“I’ve always believed that if we do what’s right for our patients and do what’s right for our staff, things will work out,” Rice says. “In the spring of 2020, that was very high on my list of ‘must-do’s.’ As a business owner during that time, though, there was also the extremely pressing need to keep the business afloat. We only made it through because of our amazing Vision Clinic team and our strong relationships we’d built with our community and business partners.”
In April 2020, Vision Clinic furloughed 12 doctors/optometrists, 10 managers and 61 support staff team members. This staff served five thriving clinics; since 2010, Vision Clinic had doubled the patients it was serving. It was a full-scale health care and customer service operation, and it had to be consolidated in a number of days. Dr. Rice made a personal call to every employee to share the news, providing support and promising updates.
Three of those calls went to his own kids: optometrists Dr. Kevin Rice, Dr. Stephanie Rice and daughter-in-law Dr. Sandy Rice. Their hours were being reduced, just like the rest of the team.
“People always ask how both of my children ended up in the profession, that my son married an eye doctor, but I think it’s that my kids always saw that I was passionate about both my profession and the Vision Clinic,” Rice says. “They knew growing up—and always have known—that the office is just as much a part of my family as my actual family is. So for them, it wasn’t difficult to be treated the same as everyone else, because that’s all they’ve ever known.”
Together with Vision Clinic’s Director of Human Resource and Finance Lori Melton, Vision Clinic leaders creatively worked to consolidate five clinics down to one centralized location for emergency eye care. Thanks to a culture of cross training, the managers were able to handle all patient needs during the six-week shutdown. The doctors rotated shifts, including Rice’s own children.
With every decision, Rice, Vision Clinic’s owners and its leadership team were mindful of the financial impact on employees. And every week, Rice shared a video message directly to his team to provide guidance, reassurance and updates on returning to work.
“I know it was tough on him to do anything like that, but he understands from a business side and so do his children and his family,” Melton says. “Our company talks about how we’re a family, but during that time, we saw it in action.”
In fact, it became a time of rapid innovation. Together, the Vision Clinic team made a series of changes to its business model and daily operations. Managers took glasses orders over the phone and figured out how to calculate and facilitate shipping in days. Phone calls were made to patients to keep them ahead of contact prescriptions before their expiration, and outbound calls were made to set up appointments for after re-opening.
“We had to do some things differently than we’ve done before, but that kept our team working,” Melton says. “Our managers are well trained, and our staff knew we were working to find solutions to bring them back as quickly as possible. We kept them informed. We were honest and open with them, and it paid off.”
After six weeks and some critical guidance on government financial support from Chrystal Irons at the Small Business Development Center, Vision Clinic reopened five clinics and full operations on April 30. Every single Vision Care team member returned.
“As an employer and owner, I take it very seriously that I want to treat my team with dignity, compassion and fairness,” Rice says. “I feel that I’m partially responsible for my team and their families, and we’ve grown this business as a family. But when people believed it, when they really trusted us and knew we valued them, they came back. That was pretty powerful, and I’m grateful that they’re my family.”