Interview with Mark Ross – CEO, Black & Lizars

Black & Lizars is Scotland’s largest independently owned opticians, with more than 175 years experience in delivering outstanding eye care. Derek MacFeate, director of Michael Page Executive Search, asks chief exec Mark Ross 10 quick questions about his career, economic trends and views on recruitment.

1. Tell us about yourself and your career.

I initially trained as a chartered accountant at KPMG, but quickly moved into industry after qualifying. I have had a number of interesting roles including, for example, the financial controller of Kwik-Fit and the commercial director of Macdonald Hotels, the latter of which helped me cross into my current operational role as the chief executive of Black & Lizars, Scotland’s leading independent chain of opticians.

2. How are you facing the challenges of today, such as economic turmoil, smoking ban etc?

The current trading environment is certainly tough as consumers continue to be squeezed from high inflation and rising unemployment. As we expect this trend to become the new ‘norm’ for the foreseeable future, we have responded by questioning every cost in the business so that we can continue to offer our patients value for money.  
We have, however, recently invested over £1.0m in new shop-fits and the latest clinical equipment in order to secure our premium position in the market, whilst other competitors cut back on the quality of their services and products.

3. To what do you attribute your success?

A mixture of hard work, determination and, above all, flexibility. I have always thought that you can progress quickly in your career if you display the right attitude to your employer, even if it means working some very long hours from time to time! The challenge, as always, is to keep some form of work-life balance, as otherwise you can quickly burn-out.

4. What do you think is the perception of Black & Lizars in the market place and against others on the market place?

I think Black & Lizars has a well-earned reputation in the market for clinical excellence and a high-level of patient care, which helps differentiate itself from other high volume, low quality/service operators in the market who are mostly price-led. Whilst value for money is still important, our patients tend to assign a higher value to the quality of clinical advice and customer service they receive.

5. If you had a crystal ball where do you think the economy is going currently?

As I said earlier, I think this is the new ‘norm’ and so, for the foreseeable future, I don’t expect any real upturn in the economy.

6. What are your views on the Y generations?

Without a doubt, it is certainly more difficult for them now than it was for me. It is all the more critical, therefore, that are prepared to be flexible in the roles they take and then to go the extra mile in order to progress. Otherwise, they are likely to be disappointed with their employment prospects.

7. What do you look for in a new recruit?

Above all, the determination to succeed and a ‘can do’ attitude. Many new recruits, whether they are graduates or newly qualified accountants, have similar grades or qualifications, so it is important to send the right message to any prospective employer that you are enthusiastic and hungry to succeed.

8. What is the one question that you always ask at interview?

I tend to ask the open question: “What motivates you to succeed?”. It’s amazing the range of answers you will get back. I never ask what are your strengths and weaknesses!

9. What is the most disappointing thing a candidate can do at interview?

If they fail to research properly into the company/role. A quick internet search is not always sufficient – for example, I would expect the candidate to have actually visited one of our practices before attending the interview, particularly if it is a more senior position.

10. What is the funniest thing you have come across at interview?

Apart from the young man who turned up to an interview for a temporary position still drunk from the night before, I once had a lady who kept on losing her train of thought throughout the interview. It got so bad I had to ask her if she was feeling okay, which was a little embarrassing to say the least.