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Setting its sights further

Like the eagle, the co-founders are looking further ahead in plotting the group's next phase of growth
Friday, July 22, 2016 - 05:50
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'We can't upscale our business like McDonald's. We can only expand when we have good doctors. And the only way for us to expand is to have like-minded eye doctors overseas that we can work with or recruit.' - Dr Lim Wee Kiak (left) with Dr Julian Theng, co-founders of Eagle Eye Centre

BETWEEN themselves, the co-founders of Eagle Eye Centre, good friends from two decades ago, share a private joke: that one day, someone might turn up at their clinic carrying a pet eagle with an eye problem. Jokes aside, it is not difficult to guess where the idea behind the name came from.

Every doctor's name card and patient's appointment card - plus a wooden plaque on Julian Theng's shelf - bears an inscription referencing Isaiah 40:31 - "They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint". It is his favourite Bible verse, Dr Theng, a Christian, says.

The other literal reason of course, is that eagles have one of the sharpest pairs of eyes in the animal kingdom, reputedly able to sight their prey two miles away and perceive an inconceivable array of colours.

Like the eagle, the co-founders are finding themselves having to look farther ahead in plotting the group's next phase of growth.

While they have built up the eye clinic from a mere four-strong staff 10 years ago, to a 60-strong one today, from two doctors to 11 spanning a range of sub-specialties, they remain poised for further expansion, possibly even beyond Singapore - at the right time, and with the right partners.

It was a strategic reason not to name their clinic "Theng & Lim Eye Clinic" like most private practices would. Lim Wee Kiak says: "We started with the vision that this is going to be a multiple-doctor practice, a good platform for like-minded colleagues to join us later."

That was always the plan: to have the clinic provide a comprehensive range of specialties - from Corneal Services & Refractive Surgery, Medical Retina, Surgical Vitreoretina, Glaucoma, Uveitis, Ocular Inflammation & Immunology Services, Oculoplastics, Orbit & Lacrimal Services, Paediatrics, Comprehensive & Complex Cataract Services.

Dr Theng says: "We knew it was not just going to be a two-person practice. We needed to grow a bigger team. So that slowly came along. It was organic growth."

They chose a bigger practice over a solo one because it gave them economies of scale to acquire the latest technologies, which would have been difficult for a solo practice to, because of the high equipment and maintenance costs. A bigger group would have the volume to justify the purchase. Ultimately, the patient benefits.

In fact, Dr Lim believes that individual practices may be slowly phasing out: "The future of medical practices, what I call medical entrepreneurship, will be more common to enjoy that economy of scale. That's also why we started small but went on to recruit more doctors. We believe that no one can singly have monopoly of all the knowledge."

Today, the group has six clinics island-wide. It is effectively becoming the largest ophthalmology practice in Singapore, accounting for 12 per cent of all of Singapore's cataract surgeries even though it only has 5 per cent of the doctors.

"As for Lasik, Eagle Eye Centre is the leading centre in Singapore," Dr Lim says. The company does a third of the volume of all Lasik operations in Singapore, surpassing all the public and private hospitals. About 10,500 Lasik operations are done in Singapore each year, and the clinic alone does about 3,600. In all, the clinic sees about 3,600 consultations every month.

In its latest fiscal year ended May 31, 2016, Eagle Eye Centre's revenue grew about 20 per cent to hit S$24 million. Its profit margin also improved, as the last few years had seen it reinvest much of its earnings into technology and research and development. Eagle Eye Centre reinvested S$3 million in upgrading and acquiring new technology and machines in 2016.

Recently, its success has also begun to capture the attention of bigger medical groups eyeing a merger, finance companies wanting to help it get listed, interested franchisees, and even overseas suitors asking if it is for sale.

The world is their oyster; they can go anywhere in South-east Asia, or even China and India, Dr Lim says. But they are aware of their constraints. For one thing, they know their business is not scalable.

"We can't upscale our business like McDonald's. We can only expand if we have good doctors. And the only way for us to expand is to have like-minded eye doctors overseas that we can work with or recruit."

In his mind's eye, Dr Lim can already see the overseas expansion happening. "With medical technology nowadays, you can transmit the images to Singapore. Singapore will be the headquarters, the mothership; it will provide the technical support, the advice of diagnosis . . . We don't want to be myopic and just remain in Singapore."

However, he feels that the time is not ripe for an initial public offering (IPO), as the group does not need the money to catapult its growth at the current stage. "We would rather grow a little more first . . . There will come a time when we are ready for regional expansion. When our revenue stream is more stable, that's the time that we can share the fruits with investors," Dr Lim says.

Dr Theng, however, cites the danger of brand dilution if expansion is not done properly. "I do always believe this is all God's grace and God's blessings. I'm not going to deviate from that. Even though there are so many opportunities to expand, I do feel that we could fail if it is not God's idea of things for us," he says.

Besides geographically, Dr Lim says there are other innovative ways the company can grow. One way is to go downstream into consumer eye health products. Here, the company is in the process of setting up a new subsidiary to enter that space.

The other way is to add branches in Singapore. This, they need not actively pursue. Landlords are constantly offering them premises to expand their footprint. That was how their Parkway East and Mount Elizabeth Novena branches came into being. The sixth one at Westgate, which just opened this June is a similar story.

Through it all, the different parts of the business are built with the aim of seeing the group outlive and outlast their lives, the co-founders say.

For one thing, every doctor there is a partner and gains equity over time, which is rare for private practices. But Dr Theng says: "We know we won't be here forever, although we started this. And we want this legacy to live on."