Imagine an entrepreneur keeping the doors open in Detroit for forty (40) years–and, still going strong.
George P. Barnes, Jr. has managed to do so and is positioned for continued growth and sustainability. He started out as a staff optician at the now defunct Metropolitan Hospital in Detroit and has built Heritage Vision Plans, Inc. A company which services a wide range of clients across North America, including administering vision programs for Ford Motor Company’s active employees and retirees, the City of Detroit, Detroit Board of Education, employees of Detroit’s casinos, Wayne County Community College District, et al. Heritage Vision Plans is part of a national provider network which includes more than 3,000 providers in Michigan alone, and 20,000 providers across the U.S.
Initially interested in the commercial and health care aspects of the business, Barnes did research and realized senior citizens and others needed to have glasses adjusted or make small repairs. At the time, these types of services were not available in various neighborhoods across the city. When he would visit homes, the overall reactions were always very favorable.
With this as a backdrop, Barnes opened Heritage Optical Center in July 1975, in Detroit, as the the first African-American-owned and operated full-service optical dispensary in Detroit.
In 1991, Heritage Optical applied for and earned an Alternative Financing and Delivery System (AFDS) Certification of Authority from the State of Michigan. Heritage is the only minority-owned company in the state to hold an AFDS Certificate, which allows Heritage to offer fully covered and self-funded vision benefit programs. Heritage’s first major client, as offered my the then, late Mayor Coleman Young, was to provide vision coverage for City of Detroit employees.
I recently caught up with Barnes to share how he’s been successful conducing business for forty years and discussed his plans for continued sustainability.
Lee: You have been in business for 40 years, all in the city of Detroit. What have been the keys to business sustainability?
Barnes: For me, the keys to success are determination, knowledge and hard work – these are essential.
You must really want to be in business. You have to go out and create the name recognition and connections that will lead you to potential opportunities. Know your product, know your competition and know your target market. Being able to speak knowledgeably about your company and the companies you are marketing to will create a network that will provide long-term potential. And always, always be involved in your community and your industry. Business will not come to you. You need to work hard to create and cultivate the contacts and associations that will assist you in growing your business. You will win and lose contracts, but you must never give up.
Believe in yourself and work hard to be the best.
Lee: What are strategies are you employing to remain relevant and competitive in the next several years?
Barnes: At Heritage, we need to develop strategies for both retail and service models. Tracking market trends, name recognition and maintaining community involvement will always be the pillars of our strategy for our retail business.
The landscape is changing for vision insurance, however. More and more, we see corporations using insurance brokers and agents to construct and maintain their employee benefit programs. These brokers have developed relationships with various major benefit companies, making it challenging for minority-owned benefit administrators to gain traction in the bidding process, even those with proven national presence and capabilities. This situation affords a great opportunity for HR department heads to review their diversity initiatives and take steps to ensure all qualified benefit administrators are given a fair shot.
Lee: You currently have three locations across the city. Any plans to expand?
Barnes: No plans to expand on the retail side at this time. But Heritage Vision Plans does look forward to continuing to expand our provider network across North America as we continue to grow.
Lee: To aspiring entrepreneurs, what advice would you share?
Barnes: First, build a strong support network that includes your family, your industry and your community — and show that you appreciate them by supporting them in return. Second, put in the effort. You have to immerse yourself in your endeavor. You have to study hard and work hard. This is your life and your career — you can only reap what you sow.
Lee: You were recently named to the “Hall of Honor” at the University of Detroit-Mercy. Please share your thoughts on this honor.
Barnes: It is hard to find the words to express how I feel to be honored in such a way. I consider it quite a privilege to be recognized for the work we do in the community. I am truly blessed.
Lee: You’re teaming up with former Mayor Dave Bing’s foundation to offer free glasses to young people. What is the program and why is it important to you?
Barnes: I believe that building a business isn’t enough. You also have to build your community. So, Heritage has teamed up with Dave Bing’s nonprofit, Bing Youth Institute, which provides resources and support for young males of color in the city of Detroit to help them develop academically and socially through positive role models or mentors and enriching experiences. We stepped in to support this important initiative, because we know that no child can perform at the highest levels in a traditional school setting if they are unable to see the blackboard or the smart board. We want to make sure they are getting the vision care they need and deserve. Our children can’t do well in school if they are unable to see clearly.
Lee: Any other comments?
Barnes: At Heritage, we seek out businesses based in Detroit and Michigan to help strengthen our local economy and create jobs for people in our own backyard. I would encourage other Michigan business owners to take a hard look at their supply base and partnerships, and find ways to build relationships with other Michigan enterprises.