by Helen Martin
2019 marks 20 years since Sally Houghton opened her optometry practice in Helensville.
Unlike most of us, she set her sights on her future career very early. Picked up as short-sighted at a school screening when she was six, she was referred to prominent eye surgeon Sir Randal Elliot. “At the time, the only way you knew of optometry as a career option was if you had personal experience of it, and I thought his job was really cool,” she says. It tells you a lot about Sally’s determination when you hear that, several years later, she graduated from Auckland University with a degree in optometry (having had a wild social life while she was at it), borrowed the money to buy the necessary equipment and rented a consulting room from an established dispensing optician in the city. Eventually she and her colleague opened another branch in Milford as business partners. Having learned from that experience that “the best partner is myself” she became a full-time locum, a practice then in its infancy. Working around the North Island was tough but interesting and it taught Sally a lot. Confident she could make a go of it, in April 1999 she opened her own practice, ‘Sally Houghton, Optometrist’, trade name ‘Eye-Q’, in Helensville.
At the time Helensville had an optometrist near retirement working just one day a week. The area had been earmarked for growth and Sally, who shared a Kaipara Flats property, saw it as an exciting opportunity. She admits she was on a steep learning curve, discovering the difficulties of running a business long term in Helensville where, in harder times, half the shops in the street were vacant.” If you want a free course in personal development start a business,” she says. “It’s taught me a lot about myself. There’ve been some pretty bad times over the 20 years, I’ve certainly had my share of entrepreneurial seizures, so I figure it’s an achievement to still be around.”
In those 20 years she’s seen many changes in her profession: when she began her career, it was considered unprofessional to advertise, so there were no window displays, windows were covered in venetian blinds and eye glasses were kept in drawers. Pre-internet and pre-optical franchises she had quite a big contact lens practice for a while, but that work is now minimal. The industrial scene is also very different from when Sally started out. “Things have changed so much I wouldn’t be up for starting a business now. I’ve stopped waiting for the growth here because it hasn’t happened so I’m still doing some locum work and I’ve re-invented the way I run the place. My business model is low overheads, reasonable margins and a moderate volume. There’s no crystal ball but I think the worst is behind me. I prefer to play a long game anyway. I have no idea what optometry’s going to look like in 10 years’ time.”
Meantime, Sally enjoys the interaction with her diverse clients, some of whom come from as far away as Ellerslie. “I like the people in Helensville. There are a few ratbags, but every business has that. I get a sense of satisfaction from making a difference, helping people see. The work’s interesting and no two days are the same, no two pairs of eyes are the same. It’s helped me develop all sorts of life skills and I have the clients to thank for that. While I started off with a commercial focus when I set up here the rewards have ended up being more than financial because there’s more to life. Being in business has taught me a lot. At the moment I’m not going anywhere, but having said that, if my industry is deregulated, I’m out of here.”
In 2003 Sally moved to an Old North Road property with lovely gardens and covenanted bush. She calls it Paradise, loves growing fruit and veges organically, giving away much of what she grows, and going for long walks on her land. She and her wonderful neighbours have just bought calves. She’s had a lifetime interest in literature, theatre, film, art, and photography and she loves music. In her student days, she says, “the music scene was phenomenal. I remember seeing The Exponents at Mainstreet when they were just starting out. I still have my large record collection.” But she’s not interested in becoming a media ‘consumer’. “Mostly I use television to watch movies and I like old fashioned journalism. Politics is a lot of drivel because it puts you in such a negative space. Television makers are very deft at turning you into a consumer, aren’t they? They know what buttons to push. As it happens, I don’t need more stuff to be complete”.
Sally says that in a complete change from her university days she now likes a quiet life, with a lot of time on her own. She has recently become interested in meditation and Buddhist philosophy, which she sees as a great way of looking at the world. “I like my privacy and I’m a bit of a lone wolf. My work is quite intense and I re-charge on my own. I’m a natural introvert and I do my best thinking when I’m on my own and walking.”
by Helen Martin