| Eye Care
By Pam Droog
President and CEO of Crown Optical
Charles “Matt” Matthews has a law degree, but never practiced
law. He was a banker, but hasn’t worked in a bank for more than
a decade. However, his legal and financial background provided
the perfect training for his career as an entrepreneur—specifically,
as president and CEO of Crown Optical.
Matthews owns and operates 20 Crown Optical offices in the St.
Louis metropolitan area, from Alton and Fairview Heights, Ill.
to Columbia and Jefferson City, Mo. His first Crown location was
in Alton, a successful, single-office business owned by an eye
doctor who was ready to retire. “I went there one morning to check
things out and 14 people were lined up before they opened,” Matthews
recalls. “I was convinced it was a set-up. But it wasn’t.”
The owner had built a tremendous word-of-mouth business, based
on an everyday low price and outstanding service. “People drove
hundreds of miles to get their glasses there,” Matthews says.
“That’s what interested me, the fact that he had such a defined
service philosophy and repeat business after 30 years.”
So Matthews bought the business in August 1990, and has continued
to expand the company regionally and technologically. In fact,
besides acquiring existing optical businesses, Crown has purchased
former bank buildings and transformed them into eye care centers.
One of those became Crown Laser Center in 1999.
Previously, Matthews was one of the founders of First Look vision
network, which offers eye care services to members through 800
providers in 26 states. He’s currently president of the organization.
And for more than 10 years, Crown has contracted with the area’s
major managed care providers. “We’ve grown as they’ve grown,”
Matthews says. “If we think we can make a difference, we’re very
opportunistic. We don’t believe it’s wise to expand for expansion’s
The Sikeston, Mo., native earned his undergraduate and law degrees
at Vanderbilt University. “When I graduated in 1981, several firms
looked at my resume and sent me to their legal departments, but
Adam Aronson looked at my resume and sent me to his management
training program at Mark Twain Bank,” Matthews says. For 10 years,
he worked as a commercial lender, acquisition specialist and bank
president. “By then the entrepreneurial bug had bit,” he says,
and he was ready to own a business.
Matthews considered several different businesses before choosing
Crown, including a mattress factory. “A lot more goes into making
a mattress than you realize,” he says. “But it’s hard to make
a mattress you can distinguish from a Sealy or Serta.”
What distinguishes Crown from other eye care businesses, he believes,
is a commitment to excellence on behalf of every patient. “You
can’t get by saying, ‘Eight out of 10 times we do a great job.’
Your moment of truth comes with each patient,” Matthews says.
That’s why Crown does not intend to expand to every state. “I
think it’s extremely difficult to extend the culture and commitment
beyond a certain defined geographic area,” he says. “The world
doesn’t need another mediocre eye care shop.”
To maintain Crown’s high level of service, “We believe in being
close to our customers,” he says. The staff consists of 175 associates,
including 25 optometrists, three field managers and a full-time
trainer at Crown’s off-site training center.
Matthews says Crown is “a complex service business, part retailing
and merchandising, and part medical-oriented, that is, diagnosing
and treating some serious eye diseases,” he says.
Crown is also part community activist, especially through its
Crown Cares for Kids program, which started in 1993 offering
free eye exams and glasses to flood victims. Today, the program
provides those services at five Crown locations to eligible children
up to age 14. Matthews estimates Crown has given away more than
2,000 pairs of glasses since the program began. “It’s one thing
to write a check, but this is a way we can uniquely contribute
to the area,” he says.
Matthews also contributes through his five years on the Development
Committee of the Arts & Education Council of St. Louis. “I don’t
mind asking for money!” Matthews says. “I think they do good work
and public awareness and appreciation of the arts is so important.”
Matthews also serves on the RCGA’s Leadership Circle, where he’s
active in workforce development and appreciates the challenge
companies and communities face. “I think the combination of good
people skills, a strong work ethic and the desire to learn and
advance are in short supply,” he says. “It’s a very challenging
undertaking to help communities offer training, so people can
become competent in the workplace, and to help employers access
needed skills in a tight job market.” Matthews also addresses
workforce issues with the Madison County Work Improvement Board.
Away from Crown, Matthews enjoys tennis and traveling. He’s proud
of his three daughters and one son. But he’s equally proud of
Crown Optical—all 20 locations. “I could have one office and say
that’s the shining star of the company and have 19 others that
are black eyes,” he says. “But I’m proud to say the service level
we offer to the region is consistently professional and high quality.
I think we have really fulfilled our potential.”
Pam Droog is a St. Louis-based free-lance writer.