Meet the Board – Charles Bill, LOC representative for the South region
12 January 2021
Charles Bill followed in his family’s footsteps when he pursued a career in optometry, but this energetic and busy LOCSU board member has expanded and diversified both the family business and his involvement in the optometry sector…
“Both my parents are opticians, so I grew up in the environment – our family owned an opticians in Newton Abbot,” says Charles. When it became clear that Charles and his brother had inherited the academic aptitude suited to success in optometry, they followed their parents into the profession.
Graduating from Glasgow Caledonian in 1996 and qualifying in 1997, Charles took over the reins of the family business alongside his brother in 1999 and began a drive for growth that continues today.
“It’s going well,” says Charles. “We now have seven sites and employ between 60 and 70 people.” He attributes part of the company’s success to taking an innovative approach. “It’s been an interesting journey, we have gone more down the medical route, rather than relying heavily on commercial revenues.”
Engaging with stakeholders
An important part of Charles’ professional approach is his involvement in the Local Optical Committee and the wider network of stakeholders in eye health provision and commissioning. He explains how he got started: “My parents were not hugely involved in the LOC, but I have always been interested in the direction that optometry and eye health is taking. I joined Devon LOC in around 2005 and then – because I’m the kind of person who literally can’t sit still – I became Chairman after a couple of years.”
Charles held the Chair role for three and a half years, during which he brought in a business manager and strengthened the LOC’s focus on supporting local eye health services. He believes that even now one of the biggest challenges facing LOCs is succession planning, saying: “It’s so important to bring people into LOCs and support the development of leadership skills so there is a strong line of succession bringing through new ideas.” He advises those considering getting involved with their LOC not to underestimate what they can offer: “People don’t think they have the right skillset, but many do, they just need to identify how they can apply it to LOC activities.”
Beyond his work with Devon LOC, of which he remains Vice-Chair, and with LOCSU Charles has also worked with MPs in his area to raise the profile of eye health on the political, as well as social and health care agenda. This has resulted in meetings with the Chair of the Health Select Committee and a joint Devon-wide campaign with the area MP to change people’s perceptions of the importance of eye health.
Visibility is one of the biggest challenges Charles sees for the optometry sector, ironically. As he explains: “When we set out our stall following the Optician Act of 1988 the sector veered more towards retail than healthcare and became reliant on spectacle sales rather than being seen as a healthcare service provider. Now, when there is disruption in the spectacle market and patients have more choice, it is imperative that our highly qualified optometrists are properly compensated for the essential eye health services they provide.”
He points to the dichotomy between the public perception of dentistry compared to optometry: “The worst that can really happen with your teeth is you end up with a false set – we can’t do that should something serious happen to someone’s sight. There is no second chance – and yet people attend their dentist every sixth months. We need to change that and better promote eye health to make sure the sector is recognised on a par with its importance.”
The power of music and people with passion
Aside from his own business and LOC duties, Charles is a director of Primary Eyecare Devonand also director of the Medical Eye Clinic, a surgical unit which was the only theatre open outside the NHS during the first peak of the pandemic. This doesn’t leave him a lot of free time but, when he gets the opportunity, music is his medicine. He is an accomplished cellist, pianist and oboe-player and enjoys playing in quartets, especially when it’s Mozart on the agenda. “When you play a classic Mozart quartet the interaction between the players is fantastic fun – it’s one of life’s true pleasures.”
Under normal circumstances Charles likes to head to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. His all-time favourite performance is the Royal Opera House’s live version of Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’, something that is sadly impossible to experience at the current time.
Charles finds himself inspired by anyone who is passionate about their field of work. He cites Dr Frankenstein, saying: “Obviously he created a monster, but he did it through passion. He just had something in him that meant he couldn’t sleep or rest until he had achieved his aim. I am hugely envious of anyone who can be so driven. Such people are always fascinating to be around – their energy is infectious. People who are truly driven light up, and they are brilliant to be with – even if you’re not originally interested in what they do, by the end of the conversation you are involved and feel energised.”