This week we are catching up with long-term Kingstonian Paul Bhalla, who on top of his busy role as Director of Specsavers Kingston is also on the Kingston First board, helping provide strategic direction for the work that we do.
We caught up with him to discover how he got his break in business and some of the challenges and indeed successes he has had in his time in Kingston.
This feels a little odd writing about myself and after 25 years of living, working and enjoying Kingston, it would be easier to write about all the great people and experiences that this wonderful town has exposed me to.
I am an Optometrist and Director of Specsavers Opticians in Kingston. It has been my privilege to serve the local community for most of my adult life, and that local community has supported my practice in ever growing numbers for just as long. Joining the board of Kingston First felt like a small way to give a little back to the community without whom I wouldn’t have a business.
I qualified as an Optometrist in 1991 and moved to London to complete my professional training. Specsavers was a relatively small company at the time but was looking to bring Joint Venture Partners into the business to own and run practices, particularly with a view to opening up in London. They approached me and the company ethos of value for money, genuine care for our patients and local ownership really excited me (and still does). I explored many towns and suburbs in London and eventually opened the first Specsavers practice in London in Wimbledon in 1995. Most of the people of London had never heard of Specsavers as our now famous TV adverts were not shown locally, so we were viewed as a new independent Opticians. Having sold my flat to fund opening the practice, I still remember the fear as on our 1st day of opening, the only person that came in was a tourist who was lost and wanted to find the station. Fortunately, we very quickly found our feet and within a year, the practice was busy and exciting. I never thought I would ever experience an empty practice and that fear again but Covid had other plans….more about that later.
After 2 years, the opportunity to open a new and much larger Specsavers practice in Kingston, which was already one of the most popular shopping destinations in Kingston, came my way. I had no hesitation as to be part of this great town was an opportunity that was too good to turn down. I can honestly say I have never regretted that decision. There have been many challenges along the way but this town is my home and I can’t imagine working anywhere else. Our customers and our team come from all backgrounds and represent the variety that Kingston is blessed with.
As the practice grew, I have taken on many other roles both within Specsavers and outside including representing Specsavers London practices nationally, Chairing the Local Optical Committee for Kingston & Richmond, and most recently, joining the Board of Kingston First. Throughout all of this, the role which gives me the greatest joy is helping patients in the practice.
During the first lockdown of the Covid pandemic, this was brought sharply into focus as, like most retail business, we had to shut most of our services down and furlough most of our team. Any business owner will share the fear at the time both for the health of our team and loved ones, but also that we may not have a business to reopen when the pandemic allowed.
We were asked to stay open specifically for emergency eye health concerns as local GPs and hospital departments were sending these patients to us (and still do). For the first 8 weeks of the pandemic, our skeleton team remained open and on duty every day to see the people in the greatest need. For most of that time, we had Kingston town centre all to ourselves, which while peaceful, is not something I wish to experience again.
As normality returned and our loyal patients returned to us, it was a real pleasure to see people back again.
Like most town centres, Kingston has seen a shift in customer habits but thanks in part to the great work of Kingston First, it has maintained its appeal as a great place to shop, eat and just spend time.
I count myself lucky that I made the decision to make this my home so long ago as there is nowhere else quite like it.
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