Growing a company and guiding regional economic development
Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design
I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood on Trewyn Avenue on the south side of Peoria. I was the oldest of four children born to Clay and Betty Barnett. My dad was a butcher and later was a truck driver; my mom worked as a lunch lady and homemaker. Without question, my parents were the biggest influences on me. They were truly special people who raised us to love family above all things.
I graduated near the top of my class at Manual High School. At that time, my parents didn’t have money for college, so I knew I would be entering the full-time workforce. By then I had been working at Weisser Jewelry and Optical as a clerk on a part-time basis. Following graduation, I got married and started a family. I continued to work at Weisser’s and began to take on additional duties. Over the next 20 years, I learned everything I could about the optical and jewelry businesses. Eventually I became general manager of the entire company, which included 68 locations throughout Illinois, running day-to-day operations under the owner, Phillip Hirsch.
How did you come to purchase Bard Optical? Did you ever plan to be a small business owner?
In 1981, Phillip Hirsch fired me. Without delving into the details, I was asked to bend my personal integrity to benefit the company and I refused. I simply could not ethically do what was being asked of me, and it cost me my job. At that point I had a son in high school and a daughter in middle school, and I needed to put food on the table. As a divorced mother who never received child support, I knew I had to prepare for the next chapter of my life. I was familiar with Dr. A. Arthur Bard, who had one location in the Metro Centre, and I reached out to him immediately. I had two partners early on, and we purchased Bard Optical in 1981 and ran that one office.
I had assumed I would work for Weisser’s my entire career, as I helped build that company into a major chain. But as I was figuring out my next career step, I knew I could no longer work for someone else. I needed to be the one who set the tone.
What inspires you?
I am amazed by people who go out of their way to help others. When you hear of first responders who run towards danger to save others, there is something inspiring about that. I am also inspired by dynamic leaders with positive attitudes about what can be done, as opposed to what cannot. The negativity that is pervasive in national politics right now simply doesn’t inspire anyone.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
If I could have one more family dinner with my parents, that would be what I’d want. They were funny and loved each other and our family more than I could ever describe. They’d want to talk about the accomplishments of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I’d enjoy sharing smiles and laughter with them again.
If you could swap lives with someone else for a day, who would you choose and why?
I’m very happy just being me.
What is your greatest fear in life? Greatest joy?
My greatest fear is that my children and grandchildren will not be able to realize all of their dreams and ambitions. I pray they will always be safe and healthy and live in a country that values all Americans regardless of our differences. My greatest joy is my family. There is nothing more fulfilling than watching my kids and grandkids achieve their dreams.
Describe the growth of Bard Optical under your leadership and some of the challenges you experienced.
The biggest challenge when I first took over Bard Optical was having plans that were much bigger than our bank account balance. I had a wealth of knowledge about the industry and how to run a large, multi-office regional chain, but I had only one office. I knew if we did things right, one office would become two, and two would become three, and so on. I was confident I could build a chain again and operate it successfully once we had the income to sustain growth.
I eventually bought out my two partners and Bard Optical continued on a steady growth plane. I abhor owing money, so I wanted to sustain growth using income from the company as opposed to borrowing. This meant our growth was perhaps slower than it could have been, but we always had a strong financial base. Too many companies borrow and borrow and dedicate large percentages of their income to debt service. I guess being raised by fiscally conservative parents taught me to spend what I had in my pocket and no more. Right now we have 21 locations, and our goal is to get to 25. At that point we can set another goal.
The proliferation of vision insurance has had a major impact on our industry. Early on we’d ask patients if they wanted to pay by cash, check or credit card. Now we must navigate the endlessly complex world of managed care. Luckily, the one thing our competitors cannot match is our commitment to patient service. Patients will continue to come back when they know our staff is dedicated to making sure they are pleased.
Our service territory is very large, from Rock Island to Champaign, and from Sterling to Springfield. This makes it difficult to visit the offices as often as I’d like. What we know is that our commitment to service “for the patient” works. But when you have remote offices, it isn’t easy to monitor and coach employees personally. We rely on the hard work and talents of area and district managers and our training director to help us provide exceptional service, regardless of the office a patient may visit.
Tell us about your work with the Focus Forward initiative and the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. Were you satisfied with the outcome? What lies ahead?
I joined Focus Forward Central Illinois (FFCI) as I felt the group was filling a much-needed gap by organizing regional economic development efforts. Prior to FFCI, each city and county within the region was competing with each other to attract new economic development. What we needed was a unified, regional approach because central Illinois can attract and retain more businesses and succeed as a region much more effectively than a single city or county. People who work at a company in Peoria my live in Pekin or Metamora, so working together as a region was crucially important. I became chair of FFCI and helped guide it through its early years. Eventually we determined that the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council was the best engine to continue our mission, and we turned over control to that group. I continue to serve as president of the Greater Peoria EDC to this day.
I am extremely proud of the work FFCI and the Greater Peoria EDC have accomplished for the region. Beyond establishing the necessary framework for successful development, the Greater Peoria EDC has helped our region secure over $2.7 million in federal funding in the last two years. It also successfully launched multiple programs for workforce development, startups and entrepreneurs, business attraction and business assistance. Each of those programs consistently delivers encouraging results.
Over the next couple years, there will be an update to the strategy to reflect the progress made, identify new challenges, redefine the goals and build upon that initial FFCI work. The Greater Peoria EDC will continue to fine-tune its programs, improve availability of economic data for its partners, and continue identifying opportunities for collaboration throughout the region.
Please reflect upon your major accomplishments in recent years.
My biggest accomplishment in life is my family. My son, Mick Hall, left a career as a trial attorney to join the company seven years ago. He is our vice president and general counsel, and will succeed me. My daughter, Kim Malone, was a successful high school teacher for many years, and she recently joined the company as well. My first grandchild graduated from college, and he is now at Dallas Theological Seminary studying to become a pastor. And all of my grandchildren will receive college degrees. Not bad for a woman who never had the opportunity to go to college herself! In business, I am incredibly proud of the growth of Bard Optical. We are annually recognized as one of the top 50 optical retailers in the nation, and that makes me immensely proud.
Describe some the ways you give back to the community and to causes that you care about.
Giving back to our community has been an important personal mission of mine. My earlier experiences were with the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Peoria Area Community Events, the Women’s Fund, Downtown Rotary and several other groups, which all remain important to me.
For the past few years, I’ve served as a board member for the United Way and on its Solution Council. It would be impossible to live in this region and not want to be involved with the United Way. I urge everyone to read the agency’s Community Assessment, which concisely describes the needs of our community in relation to education, financial stability and public health. These issues are incredibly important for all of us so our community can thrive.
Since education has always been important to me, my involvement with Alignment Peoria ignited a fire to help our public school students succeed. Alignment Peoria’s goals are to raise student achievement by aligning the community and stakeholders with District 150’s priorities to create a high-yield impact to solve complex problems by focusing on the whole child. We are working together and creating success for our district’s students.
What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
This is an area I have struggled with during my life. Because I built Bard Optical, it is like one of my children. If you were to ask my son and daughter and my friends, they would likely tell you I am a workaholic. It is hard to argue with that assessment. But I do always find time for my family, and if a family member needs me I will drop everything to be there.
What is your leadership style?
I am a very hands-on leader. There is no greater way to share your vision as a leader than to jump in and work hard. Your commitment sets a tone for your employees. In doing this, you can share the “why” behind your company’s mission.
What do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career?
There have been two pivotal points in my career. The first was being fired. That event motivated me to put integrity first above everything else in business. It sharpened my focus on the skills I had and the changes I needed to make to succeed. I wanted to be the best business leader I could be. I wanted to mentor those around me and build a culture of deep commitment to our patients, and I feel I was able to do that.
The second pivotal point was my son, Mick, coming to Bard Optical. For years we called Bard our family business, but I was the only member of the family in the business. We have 180 employees who depend on Bard for their income, and tens of thousands of patients who rely on Bard as their family vision center. So, it is important to me the company thrives for years to come. Now I know Mick will lead Bard Optical, and that makes me so happy. My daughter joining us this year and grandsons working in the business while they go to school also helped solidify that this truly is a family business.
Movie: Titanic. It is a sweet love story.
Song: The National Anthem still puts a lump in my throat.
Restaurant: 2 Chez is always great.
Artist: I enjoy so many local artists.
Hobby: Repurposing hidden treasures.
Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career?
My mentor was Phillip Hirsch at Weisser’s. He truly knew the eye care industry. His guidance allowed me to gain in-depth knowledge of how to own and operate a multi-location optical company. Phillip rewarded employees who were dedicated to the company. That is something I will never forget. Of course, he had his faults, but even those taught me about aspects of business to avoid.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
This one’s easy: life isn’t always fair. I’ve lost both of my parents and others I loved and admired to cancer. The indiscriminate nature of who gets cancer doesn’t mean just the “bad” people get it. Instead, cancer is the proof that life isn’t always fair. For a person who is a bit of a control freak, I feel helpless when people I love are suffering and there is nothing I can do to make things better.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
My parents used to tell me to believe in myself. Self-confidence can help drive you to succeed in many aspects of life. I don’t like being around people who are negative, but I do like being around people who are self-confident and exude a positive attitude.
What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
Don’t be afraid to fail. The fact is that you never know what you can accomplish until you try. Even if you fail, you can learn from that and apply the lessons the next time you try. You will never fail if you never try, but that’s a boring life.
In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
The pressure on young people in the workforce, women and men, is incredible. Thirty years ago when you were at work, you focused on work and when you got home, you handled the family issues. Nowadays everyone is constantly connected through their cell phones and pulled in several directions all of the time. The pressure to balance work with kids and their extracurricular activities can be overwhelming. It’s not easy for us “old school” bosses to appreciate that employees are balancing so much. iBi