20 QUESTIONS WITH MIKE CUNDIFF

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Mike Cundiff is CEO of Kenmark Eyewear, a Louisville, KY-based employee-owned company that designs, markets and distributes eyewear and sunwear and accessories. Joining the company directly from college, he’s been with Kenmark Eyewear for 38 years.

1. How did you end up in eyewear? I was going to school, at the University of Louisville, playing music. I used to play music six nights a week while working at McDonald’s too. I graduated, and the placement office sent me to a place called Kenmark Optical, which is now Kenmark Eyewear. I had an interview with Don Howard and Mark Kerman, they’re both since gone now, but Don had also been in the music business with a lot of mutual friends. I don’t know if I got the job because of that, but if it was between me and somebody else that might have been the deciding factor!

2. What’s your position with the company now? I’m the CEO. It’s an ESOP company, so everybody in the company owns part of it. They get their ESOP statement at the end of the year, and it’s better than any 401K.

3. What is your management style? Treat people like you want to be treated, with respect. I always listen to everyone’s ideas and make sure people feel included in decisions. Jack Welch, previous CEO at General Electric, advocated walking around talking to employees at all levels. You can get a lot of insight and a glimpse into reality about what is actually happening and what the successes and challenges are.

4. How long have you been with the company? 38 years. I’m one of the rare people who have stayed in one place.

5. But now I bet a lot of the people want to stick around because it’s an ESOP. When did it turn it into an ESOP? It was Mark Kerman, the owner. He was trying to sell the company but couldn’t come to terms with equity groups. Then his lawyer said, “Well, you know there’s this program called an ESOP.” It’s really a win/win for everyone.

6. What plans do you have for the company? Expand us first, internationally and domestically. We’re looking for new distributors, trying to add a few more sales reps in the United States to build our sales force, we’re at about 70 now. We want to continue to grow as well as try new things, such as our new brand launching this year.

7. Anything else? We’re also starting to create a digital team that helps with our website and analytics, which has been really interesting, seeing how people buy and being able to meet them where they are and service them. Customer service is really important to us, so being able to know what the customer wants and needs more quickly is helpful for us and them.

8. What is your overall strategic plan? I want to continue to strengthen the company, we’re always looking for interesting new brands. We’ve spent the last year trying to brand our own name as well as our licensed brands. We’re launching our own brand later in the year, which has been really fun and exciting to work on.

9. What marketing goals are in store? The main thing is branding us as Kenmark Eyewear. We do an amazing amount digitally. We have a lot of followers on social media, and we’re working to grow and build that more within this year. We have our customer portal online set up for doctors to order from. We also focus on having a nice end consumer website so they can browse our product and see where to buy at optical shops. We probably get 35% to 40% of our orders on a daily basis by doctors buying through the website instead of calling on the phone. Most are re-orders. The reps still go show product, especially, new product, but it’s good to get those re-orders in between visits. We do some private label brands, we work with a Philippine designer named Monique Lhuillier. We also did a really cool collaboration with Gemma Styles, an influencer from London, and it ended up being really successful for us in a lot of ways. Those opportunities come through connections and building relationships; the person who runs our marketing department has so many connections.

10. What is your favorite aspect of the eyewear business? I like all the people I work with! Steve Jobs once said, “Hire smart people and let them tell you what to do. Don’t tell them what to do.” Just hire smart people and listen to what they have to say. I turned 64 the other day, and I can’t stay abreast of everything.

11. What are the biggest challenges in the eyewear business today? Consolidation. The ECPs are all confounded by the equity groups. They’re wondering, “Do I want to sell? Do I want to be a part of this? Do I want to get bought up by one of these big groups?” There’s still a lot of opportunity, though. There are still 10,000 to 12,000 mom-and-pop pharmacies in the United States that you would never think exist. It’s the same in the optical industry. If you keep the focus on what you’re meant to do that no one else can provide the customer then you will stay successful. For example, there are good people in these shops who want to make sure your frames are fitted, and you can see, who just want you to be comfortable in the eyewear.

12. Do you have any specific examples? A friend of mine in Louisville, he has a great shop, Korrect Optical, and he has a lady who works for him. I walked in the other day just to see him, and she said, “Mike, come here. I need to adjust your glasses.” I said, “Don’t worry.” She said, “No. It’s not right.” And she takes it, adjusts it, puts it back on, and I said, “Oh, my God. No wonder the progressive wasn’t working!” People like that will be here no matter what.

13. There are a lot more independent eyecare professionals left than there are independent pharmacies at this point. How will they survive? ECPs need to find a path for themselves, something that they do that’s different from the big stores and online. Carry some different brands, don’t carry the same stuff that everybody has. Believe in yourself, decide what you want to be and be it. Also, show what you can do within the shop that online and others can’t do, share information about yearly fit and exam, make the customer comfortable in the eyewear, and show your customer service. People can’t get that through other avenues, only you, so that’s how optical shops can stand out. 

14. What advice do you have for those ECPs to make their frame boards more appealing? Figure out who your clientele is, what you want your store to be about and concentrate on that. Make sure you have the right product for your customer and display the product nicely in the store. Have product that’s different and a good variety of brands and styling so the customer feels like they have a nice selection. Make sure your people know you love what you do.

15. How do you choose? What’s the first step? First you have to figure out what you want your store to be—look at the magazines, look at what people are wearing, check out brands and keep looking at new brands. Do you want all designer brands? Do you want all niche brands? Know what you want to be but have a good variety for your customer. There’s a guy in our town with nothing but European brands. He’s been in business for 25 years. Nobody touches him because people in town know, “If I want this, or this, or this, I need to see this guy.”

16. What advice do you have for eyecare professionals facing competition out there? It’s a mistake when people have all the same product as the big boxes. It’s difficult to beat their prices because they are so large. How do you differentiate yourself? How are you different? Is it the service, is it the product? Is it your location? Is it your advertising? Are you the first on the block to go digital?

17. Do you deal mostly with independents? We’re about 75% independents. We do sell to some of the big boxes too. We also started an online website (baxterandbonny.com) where we sell our high-end runway sunglasses and special collaborations.

18. What type of information do you think is most needed by eyecare professionals? How to stay relevant in the marketplace and how to use digital to their benefit. I think hearing about this more will help them differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Back to the lady who grabbed me and adjusted my glasses, she does it with everybody who comes in there if she thinks something’s wrong. The guy who owns the place says, “She’s the best office manager I’ve ever had. She’s the best optician I’ve ever had because she believes in this, and she wants it to work.” People have to find that within themselves or their employees and instill what they want to project to the community: “Here’s what we are.”

19. What about the American eyewear market in general? What are its strengths, its weaknesses, and where is it headed? It’s growing, the population is aging, and people are buying glasses. There are a lot of customers out there. There are a lot of big boxes, yes, and a lot of consolidation, but there are also a lot of customers out there. In Louisville, I don’t know how many independent guys there are out there. There are probably 20 if I drove around town, which is a lot for our population. But they’re all staying in business, and they’re all different. There’s potential out there for it to work just like there always has been. The reps that are very successful are the guys I call at seven in the morning, and they’re sitting in their car. They’re driving somewhere, and they’re successful because they get up and service their customers. Overall, I would say strengths are being able to provide a service you can’t get at the big boxes or online. For weaknesses, I would just say to make sure you don’t get left behind. As a shop stay up to date with technology and what is happening in the digital landscape, and be sure you are getting yourselves out there and evolving with the customers. That will ensure the customers keep coming back for the service you can provide at the shop that they can’t get elsewhere—it will ensure you keep being their trusted source regarding their eyes!

20. Anything you want to add? I think this is a great industry, it’s been really good to me. It’s always interesting, always changing. Contact lenses were going to kill the industry. Certain surgeries were going kill the industry. Everything was going to kill the industry, but yet we can still survive. And we’ll still be here 50 years from now because people will always be wearing glasses. Eyewear will probably all look different as time passes, but it always stays interesting and keeps us on our toes to evolve and change with it.

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