GVS CEO Myles Lewis recently sat down with Bill Holfeld, host of the Blue Collar Buzz radio show, to talk about RestoringVision, their work with New York’s unions, and also Lewis’ background in the business.
Bill Holfeld: I understand that GVS has just rolled out a new program called RestoringVision. Why don’t you tell us what that is and how it works?
Myles Lewis: Yeah, we’re very excited about it. The first of the year we rolled out a program in partnership with a not-for-profit organization called RestoringVision.org. RestoringVision.org donates glasses to the needy around the world.
BH: Wow! That’s a beautiful thing. And what are the mechanics of that and how does that work?
ML: Right, so in the New York market we service over 3 million union members. Every time one of the union members utilizes their member benefits at one of the GVS preferred providers, we donate a pair of glasses on their behalf.
BH: That’s really nice. Who decides where they’re being donated, and how it goes – how does it all shake out?
ML: We partnered with RestoringVision. RestoringVision has partnerships with about 14,000 not-for-profit charities around the country and around the world. If you’re one of the charities, and let’s say you’re going to Guatemala, and you’re doing flu shots. The charity will also take along with them glasses that we’ve donated. And through a 3-minute training video, we can teach them how to dispense glasses to the needy.
BH: Wow that’s really nice! How did this come about? Whose brainchild was this?
ML: So back in 2003, a gentleman named Mark Sachs – who founded RestoringVision.org – started working with a lot of frame and eyeglass manufacturers with excess inventory. You know, the manufacturer doesn’t want their stuff to end up on the grey market, or being sold online, so they historically destroyed it. So he started getting those donations from them, and finding ways to distribute it through these 14,000 charity relationships.
BH: So he actually took this concept that there’s always a lot of waste involved – especially in the richest country in the world, which we are, and unfortunately there’s waste – and he found a way, and not to disservice anybody, but to recapture that waste and make sure it got distributed to people who needed it.
ML: That’s right! And it’s life changing for people. There are stories – in the US [and] other places in the world – where people put on these glasses and it’s life changing. They can either work, or become productive members of society. There are literally situations of children staying home from school, because they’re the eyes and ears for their grandparents. You give the grandparents the glasses, now the kids can go back to school and learn. So there are a lot of positive things coming out of it. And to date, there’s been 6.5 million glasses distributed to people in need.
BH: That’s incredible! It resonates with me, because [while] it wasn’t anywhere as dramatic, I can remember my eyes – I’ve been an eyeglass wearer since I was 12 years old – and my eyes really started to change when I was around 12. And I realized I just couldn’t see anything that was written on the blackboard. It’s funny – when you have what you need, you take it for granted very often. So I went home, told my folks “I can’t see what’s on the blackboard,” and they took me to the optometrist and they got [me] a pair of glasses. The next day I came in, and I said, “Oh my god, look what I’ve been missing here!” But there are people, and not just in Guatemala, there are lots of people right here in the US who can’t afford to go to the optometrist.
ML: We work with those charities in the US as well. It could be a situation where there’s a national disaster, and people have lost everything. So the charities are down there working with that. Part of our donations are going to those people.
I have a very similar story as well from school. I remember they used to [ask], “Can anybody not see the board?” Of course I would raise my hand and they would move me to the front. But as dumb as that sounds, I just thought I couldn’t see the board, I never thought I needed glasses. You went home and told your parents … I never did that.
You don’t know what you don’t know. You presume you see just like everybody else sees.
BH: You guys just rolled this out. What’s the response been from the labor unions?
ML: It’s been fantastic actually. The members have an option sometimes, when we do business with them, that they can go to many preferred providers. It can be our organization or a competitor of ours. But if you’re a member selecting where you want to go and use your benefits, you might as well do some social good with it. So we’ve gotten really tremendous feedback.
BH: So what does the member do? They check a box, or they don’t even have to do that? It just happens automatically?
ML: The donation happens automatically, but we interact with the members where they can either schedule an eye exam appointment through our concierge line – most of our labor unions have a dedicated phone number, where they call in to General Vision’s service department, we answer on a Concierge line specific to that union. And they can also interact with us through our website. The website is specifically for the members. It’s not a sales tool or anything like that, and they can go onto the website, they can put in their account number, and they can look up their benefits. In many cases, [they can] check their eligibility, [and] find their location that’s convenient for them. Some people like to get their eyes examined when they’re near work or at home – they can find that location and actually schedule the doctor’s appointment right there through the website. It’s all done electronically. Once that claim comes in, that’s what triggers us to make the donation.
BH: Are your members just in New York [or] are they in the metropolitan area? How far reaching is it?
ML: That’s a great question! General Vision’s roots are in New York, [with] 60 years here in the labor market. But we are a national company [and] we have a national footprint with 40,000 preferred providers around the country. But again, our home base is here, our corporate office is right here in Manhattan, [and] our whole work force is here, so we’re very New York-based. But as the world changes, predominantly there’s members here, but there’s retirees in Arizona, or there are retirees in Florida, or if you’re an employer group, and you’ve got someone working out of a small call center let’s say in Phoenix [then] you need to be national. So, hence, we’re a national company.
BH: So if you’ve got 40,000 providers, how many actual clients are being provided for?
ML: The number of clients is about 600, most headquartered here. But we have to cover them nationally – so if someone’s traveling, of if they’ve got a retiree population, or some workforce of theirs not located in the New York metro area.
BH: That aggregate workforce, with all those unions, how many people are you actually providing eye care to?
ML: So not everyone needs a benefit every year. Some of the benefits are every two years, and not everybody wears glasses, so we position it as we have access to 3 million people, but not all 3 million are running out every year to get benefits. So we service about 300,000 members a year.
BH: That’s a significant portion of the population. So a lot of the people you do service are labor union people, so can you talk about your philosophy about dealing with working people and the unions?
ML: It’s really our sweet spot. It’s our niche. It’s what we love to do. So we’re constantly looking for ways to enhance their benefit and their experience. What we do is [when] a labor union sets aside a certain amount of money for [optical] service, then we build a rich benefit program around that.
BH: What’s nice is when you deal with the various labor unions, and I’m not sure if everyone out there understands that – is they can really customize that, because labor unions, and everybody [else], not everyone has the same eye needs.
ML: That’s right.
BH: You pride yourselves on being able to customize those programs…
ML: Yes we do. We have 600 different clients, and really 600 different programs.
BH: You also do some preventative stuff as well, don’t you – like preventative eye care programs that you have in place?
ML: Yeah, we do. One of the unique things we do in this market is we provide mobile eye care centers. If you can picture an RV in your mind – a recreational vehicle – we bring that to the worksite. It’s got an optometrist to perform the eye exam, and it has a full collection of frames that they can pick from that are covered in their program. And we can service them right there, so we do that a lot, with a lot of our clients. We bring the service right to them, right to their worksite.
BH: Myles, it sounds to me, from where I’m sitting, that you have a corporate culture that tells you intuitively that you can do well by doing good.
ML: Right! We’ve actually named the RestoringVision program “See Well, Do Good.”
BH: Is that right? I didn’t know that. Alright, so obviously it’s hitting on the right notes.
ML: Yes, great. Thank you.
BH: And how long have you been doing this Myles?
ML: I’ve been in the optical business 25 years. I’ve been on the retail side, but most of that has been on the healthcare side.
BH: Alright Myles, well I want to thank you for coming on. I want to thank you for telling us about your program. Now, if somebody wanted to get a hold of you, and they wanted to sign up for your services, do you have a website, do you have a phone number? Why don’t you give us that information?
ML: Sure. My email address is Myles L, so M-Y-L-E-S-L, so MylesL@GVS.bz, and my direct phone number at the office here is 212-729-5336.
BH: Well, Myles, once again, thank you for coming on the program and speaking with us today. And thanks for all the good work you do out there.
ML: Thank you, [we’re] very proud of it!