Anne Gill’s story is rather like a morality tale for the early 21st century. It’s a tale of triumph over adversity and provides hope in these straitened times for all those of a certain age.
For she is an example of how, in economically-depressed Britain, it is quite possible for someone from the generation which still retains the ‘job-for-life’ ethos to bounce back.
The fact that 56-year-old Anne is a dispensing optician is neither here nor there. It’s her determination not to be downtrodden by the vagaries of modern corporate life which is inspirational.
A dispensing optician is the all-important person who sells you the frames for your specs – ones which will not only be suitable for the lenses prescribed, but also suit the shape of your face and the personality behind the frame.
Anne, had been doing this for 36 years; for the same firm – the old Batemans empire which had branches all over the south – since she was 18.
She joined the company as a receptionist at the branch in London Road, North End, Portsmouth, in 1975, eventually became the manager of the Fareham outlet and then returned to run the North End practice.
Everything seemed fine. She was comfortable working for a company which had built its reputation over many decades and was a familiar presence on so many high streets.
But about six years ago it went into administration and in 2008 was acquired by one of three major players in the spectacles and contact lenses world of retail.
And then, in July 2011 Anne’s world collapsed when she was made redundant.
‘It was totally unexpected – a complete bolt out of the blue,’ she says.
‘I had been there since 1975 and it was now 2011. Mentally, I was in that job for life. That was the mindset for my generation. I don’t think people have it any more, but I did.
‘I was on the floor. My confidence disappeared overnight and then came the anger.
‘It was all over in just four weeks – 36 years of employment wiped out overnight. I was unemployed and I just thought I was worthless and unemployable.’
But Anne admits she was lucky. She had a husband, Kevin, and two teenaged children who refused to let her slip into a slough of despond.
She adds: ‘All I wanted to do was mope, but Kevin and the kids simply wouldn’t let me.
‘I told Kevin I thought I’d have a few weeks off over the school summer holidays. He said ‘‘oh no you don’t. You’ll go and find some work’’.
So Anne decided to test the market as a locum. ‘Within a fortnight I’d found work and gradually it built up and I travelled around the area working for opticians in Aldershot, East Wittering, Felpham, Waterlooville, Havant, Portsmouth and Southsea. This made me realise I wasn’t finished; that I was still an employable and useful member of society.’
Meanwhile, an old colleague approached her and asked if she would consider going into partnership with her. ‘ I thought about it. It didn’t happen, but it put the idea in my head that I could, perhaps, start my own business.’
She knew she wanted to find premises back at North End where she not only felt comfortable, but had good local knowledge and an excellent professional reputation.
With her powers of persuasion she eventually managed to secure a lease on premises in London Road and get financial backing from HSBC.
She continues: ‘I had been told so many negative stories by many people who had applied to the banks for business loans and been turned down. I spent many days sweating over business plans and paperwork but when it came to the meeting it was so straightforward and I was approved.
‘It was at this point my confidence was restored and I truly believed I could make my business work.’
Anne Gill Eyecare in London Road, North End, Portsmouth, opened on January 16 this year and Anne took on a receptionist and optometrist.
But she was then chosen as a niche provider to Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust to provide specialist services for users of contact lenses.
She then invested in pioneering technology from the United States which has revolutionised the assessment and diagnosis of irritable eyes. People suffering from dry, irritable or watery eyes can pop into her practice and can have the cause identified through the examination of their tears.
Hers is the only opticians in Hampshire to have invested in Tear Lab, which measures the osmolarity, or content, of human tears to aid the diagnosis of Dry Eye Disease.
Anne says: ‘Dry Eye is the most common eye problem out there, but it usually goes undiagnosed when people put it down to tiredness or stress.
‘There are few things more distressing than the constant discomfort of itchy, sore or painful eyes and now we are in a unique position to help manage it.’