Opticians with a vision to be customer-focussed
TRADENAMES:In returning to make bespoke spectacles, a well-known Dublin optician is going back to its roots, writes Rose Doyle
DIXON HEMPENSTALL, says the man who owns what is probably Dublin's oldest and best known opticians, "was set up by two chaps of about 30 years of age, Thomas Dixon and Thomas Hempenstall". The two Thomas's were Dubs and the year they "started doing optics" was 1908.
Michael Wyley, the company's latter day MD, has seen Dixon Hempenstall through the last 35 years and is unmistakably a Cork man, accent and enthusiasm for the rebel county undiminished by a life lived in Dublin for most of those years.
His passion for the company is equally lively, his enthusiasm for telling its tale infectious. We talk about the company and, digression being key to all stories, a lot more besides in the Suffolk Street building which is still the company's hub. We're aided by Michael Wyley junior, 19 years in the business, a dispensing optician and the son destined to take over the company. Lens technician Tommy Donohoe, an employee of 50 years standing, works away on the floor above.
The beginnings are clear enough, even if the founder's personal stories are thin on detail. Thomas Hempenstall was born in 1870 and died in 1954, aged 84. Thomas Dixon died young, probably in his early 40s. Both, at the turn of the 19th century, were working for Yeats Opticians in Dublin and both, in 1901 as they hit 30, went out on their own and set up Dixon Hempenstall.
"They were into engineering equipment at first," Michael Wyley says, "but by 1908 they were here, in this building at 14 Suffolk Street, and had started doing optics. They dealt in engineering equipment on the ground floor, rented out the next two floors and on the top floor - which had a very level concrete floor - they repaired equipment. They made lenses and all that for the optical end of the business in the basement, which in time moved to 111 Grafton Street."
Thomas Dixon died and Thomas Hempenstall carried on the business. Wyley Snr says business for the first half of the 20th century "was mainly in spectacles, doing bespoke frames in such as tortoiseshell and Nickle Bauford rimless circular glasses - the kind worn by John Lennon. They were national health glasses. There wasn't a great deal of choice for years; optics didn't change until the mid-1970s really, with contact lenses."
Dixon Hempenstall had state contracts to supply army specs (they still do VDU eye testing for state engineering works). Weather forecasts, which were determined by the company with the aid of a 30ft mast on the Suffolk Street building and barometers, were taken and passed on to newspapers until the 1960s.
The Wyley journey from Cork happened in 1973. Wyley Snr was in his early 30s then, married to Breed and with four daughters; Michael Jnr is the youngest and was born that year.
Wyley Snr's growing up years in Blackrock, Cork, shaped him for business. The fourth of seven children born to Michael and Alice (nee Egan) Wyley, he met Breed in a tennis club when she was 15 and he 19; they married in 1963. Breed died, too young, seven years ago. "She was a beautiful person," he says, "was and still is the most important influence in my life."
His first job was in general insurance. By 23 he was an inspector and worried he'd come to a "dead end". In 1969 he joined Egan's Opticians, owned by the family of his best friend Larry Egan. "I had three children and my father never forgave me for giving up what was a secure pension, rightly so!"
But it was the beginning of the road to Dixon Hempenstall.
In 1973 Egans opened a small branch in Mary Street, Dublin, and followed this by opening a factory/workshop in Andrews Lane, off Trinity Street. Wyley Snr became MD of TL Egan (Wholesale) Ltd, and 10 per cent owner. The family moved back to Ballycotton, Cork, for a while but, Wyley Snr, finding the commute tough going, eventually resettled in Dublin. He "became involved in the medical instrument business, went to the UK and got the Irish agencies for all the instruments I could lay hands on. The company had moved to the corner of Trinity Street by then; I fitted out an eye unit and we set up a big showroom. It was on that corner, too, that Egans Opticians was set up."
Dixon Hempenstall "was in the hands of the Harrison family when I became interested; of all the opticians in Dublin it was the one I wanted, always had the name of giving a good service and being very professional. I made my move and met the Harrisons, father and son, in the Hibernian Hotel. They decided not to sell but I knew that wasn't the end. In the Hibernian that same night I met with US contact lens people Bausch and Lomb and tied up an agency with them. Six months later the Harrisons came knocking on my door and the deal was done."
It was 1987 when, still with Egans, he bought Dixon Hempenstall. One thing led to another and not long afterwards he bought out the Dublin end of Egans and split the company into Dixon Hempenstall and Trinity Instruments. The latter was purchased by United Drugs in 1990. By 1991 there were Dixon Hempenstall, Opticians and Contact Lenses Practitioners branches operating in Blackrock shopping centre, The Square, Tallaght, and the ongoing flagship branch at 14 Suffolk Street.
Blackrock closed in the mid-1990s and today's business is run from Tallaght and the multi-operational Suffolk Street building which has the opticians shop on the ground floor, testing rooms in the basement and, on the first floor, the consulting rooms of Donal O'Malley, the company's clinical practitioner and dispensing optician.
O'Malley's work involves providing such services as therapeutic contact lens fittings, dyslexic colour filter assessment and low vision treatment for partially sighted adults through clinics run in Dublin's Mater, Temple Street and Eye and Ear hospitals as well as in Galway's University, Limerick's Regional and Sligo's general hospitals.
The service and care qualities which attracted Wyley Snr to Dixon Hempenstall are, he says, maintained to this day. "If you look after your customers they'll look after you. When taking on staff we want someone who will fit in and has a caring disposition. Veronica Archer is our company secretary; she's my eyes around here and does everything."
Wyley Jnr says sun glasses, notably the 1972 Correna range, were the root and cause of glasses moving from the simply practical to fashion item. "All the big fashion designers got involved," he says. "We're going back to making bespoke spectacles, back to where the company started. We'll have a made-to-order range, fitted and made to the owner's choice of colour and shape and with their name inside. We'll be the only ones in Dublin offering the service."
Wyley Jnr became a dispensing optician in the early 1990s after studies in Kevin Street; he'd joined the company aged 16 as a "general dogsbody". Dixon Hempenstall has a staff of 16 and "we still run things the way we always have. The big thing is to keep on top of changes in lens and frame technology."
There is no shortage of expert knowledge in today's generation of Wyleys: Deirdre is an optometrist in Co Cork, Fiona teaches a pre-nursing course in Athlone DIT, Gillian works a three-day week in Suffolk Street and Michelle is an eye nurse in Waterford.