Visionary: Dr. Jack Schaeffer

Dr. Brooke Schaeffer Kaplan, Dr. Mark Schaeffer, Dr. Jack Schaeffer, David Schaeffer

Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by Beau Gustafson

Vulcan isn’t the only one who watches over Birmingham. An astute eye is also looking out from 11 optometry centers in key locations in the city, usually accompanied by the signature Schaeffer royal blue (Pantone 2925, for the record). It’s the symbol that’s attached to the Crawfish Bowl, CityFest, segway tours at Red Mountain Park, a wildlife show and lorikeet aviary at the Birmingham Zoo, and the sponsor list at countless charitable events.

And at the helm of it all is Dr. Jack Schaeffer, a business maven, nationally renowned researcher and doctor, and style icon. His eight-page CV boasts 21 affiliations with professional organizations and service on 14 advisory panels, including Allergan, Bausch & Lomb, and Valient. He has taught the most popular course at the No. 1 eye meeting in the country, Vision Expo, for the past four years. He lecturers at major companies, conferences, and universities throughout the country, and his list of published articles rivals that of his investigative assignments.

And when he boards a plane, as he frequently does, people know him. “Nice glasses,” he usually tells his seatmate. “Oh, I got them from you,” they will likely respond, often unaware of the name of the brand but fully aware they came from Schaeffer Eye Center.

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From the Start

Schaeffer, a Charleston native and University of Georgia graduate, first came to Birmingham in 1979 looking for a small city to raise his family and start an optometry practice. A few years in, he knew he wouldn’t leave.

Schaeffer started lecturing early in his career after writing a contact lens paper. “It allowed me to visit new things happening all over,” he recalls, “so if I saw something in New York or California or Minneapolis or Florida and said ‘I’d like to do that in Birmingham,’ I’d bring that concept back to Birmingham, whether it be a better way to do contacts…or an optical shop in New York.”

But he soon found that in order to do bigger things like hire a buyer and have Lasik equipment, he needed a bigger business, and so he tapped a passion for being doctor and businessperson as Schaeffer Eye Center expanded throughout the state. For each of the 30 years since then, the company has been more profitable and welcomed more appointments than the previous year. Over the past decade, their number of employees has grown by 60 percent and is now at a count of 138 at their 17 locations statewide.

“Having the base here (in Birmingham) and growing to where we were profitable and (where) I could keep growing and bringing in other doctors made it so much easier for me to be able to do what I wanted to do,” Schaeffer says. “I (now) have doctors that can do the pediatric stuff, I have doctors that can do the research, I have doctors that can do the FDA studies, because I sure can’t do it all. All that knowledge is sifted through me. My passion is going out and lecturing and being part of something new.”

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Science

Today Schaeffer works with a team of doctors and researchers—including two of his children—who allow him to stay on the cutting edge of new research and product availability. Because he studies and lectures on dry eye and other topics, he always knows the next product coming out and brings that to Birmingham.

The large size of the organization ensures that Schaeffer can run practices as he envisions them—with the newest technology. “We have always been on the cutting edge of everything,” he says. “A lot of doctors won’t pay for something that doesn’t make money. That’s not my philosophy. If it’s something that gives better care, we have to have it.”

Schaffer readily admits they have three expensive pieces of equipment that don’t cover their costs, and they had the only LipiFlow dry eye treatment device in the state for two years before UAB and another private practice got one.

The science behind quality eye care and medical care is one of three cornerstones—along with style and service to the community—that Schaeffer attributes to the company’s growth.

Their pediatric learning program can change the way children see in one to two years, addressing the approximately 20 percent of kids that are performing poorly in school because of their eyesight. A myopia prevention program can slow down children from becoming near sighted by 40 percent. What he calls the “greatest piece of equipment ever invented” can take a picture of an entire retina during an eye exam. Working with Dr. Lawrence Lemak, Schaeffer brought the King-Devick test to town to help screen for a baseline for concussions, and he is working to establish a program that screens all local children.

“Those types of specialties are what we are about,” Schaeffer emphasizes. “Every decision I make and our team makes is based on what is the best thing we can do for our patients.”

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Style

As much as Schaeffer is focused on the science of his business, he’s also all about style. That’s why his eye centers feature a “runway” of glasses vendors. Among their thousands of frames from more than 60 brands, you can find anything from a standard $99 pair covered by insurance to a high end piece from Cartier, Lunor, Robert Marc, or l.a. Eyeworks. Their buyer travels to New York or Las Vegas every six months to stay on top of the latest fashion frames, stocking a selection you see on the likes of Elton John, Madonna, Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman,
Matthew McConaughey, and a growing list of other celebrities.

“We want to make it fun,” Schaeffer says. “A lot of people like to shop. Buying glasses at Schaeffer Eye Center is like going to New York and walking down Madison Avenue, or going to Atlanta to Phipps Plaza or Lennox. You get to try on all these brands and colors, and a lot of consultants have said, ‘You have too many products.’ I say, ‘Guess what? I’m going to add some more.’

“That’s who we are. We want to have that many. You can’t please everybody every time, but you sure can try to.”

Quality frames, Schaeffer says, fit better and are more comfortable too, unlike cheaper ones you might find online and see everyone wearing.

The breadth of choice continues into the realm of lenses, which Schaeffer says are the most important part of the glasses. Often, chain stores will only offer two choices, while Schaeffer provides 10 different designs, with basic, mid, above mid, or the best that’s made. Four levels of coatings include ones that are scratch-resistant and dust-resistant.

Overall, their eyewear consultants sell only about five pairs of glasses a day, while at some other places they average up to 12. The difference is the amount of time they spend helping a customer with a selection.

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Service

Any article on Schaeffer would be incomplete without mention of the third pillar Schaeffer speaks of: service to the community. “If we don’t give back as a company, shame on us because then the community doesn’t grow,” he says, noting that the company puts half of its marketing funds into the community and half into traditional advertising.

While the company’s list of community involvements is certainly long, it’s also not at a surface level either. If a member of his staff is on a board, Schaeffer wants to make sure they are heavily involved and writing a check, and their commitments to organizations are similar. “We lock into something and we try to support it, not (just) one year, not two years,” he says. “We try to stay so they can count on us.”

Crawfish Bowl posters lining the walls at Schaeffer’s headquarters on Highway 31 in Hoover testify to years of support behind city music festivals (including CityFest and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra). More recently they have shifted their focus to funding projects at Red Mountain Park and the Birmingham Zoo. Through all of their years, they have not only put up sponsorships for countless runs and walks but also encouraged their staff members to attend them. “They come out in droves to everything we do,” Schaeffer says of his team.

And that’s how it all ties together. At Schaeffer, you might pay more for glasses, but there are multiple layers of quality behind what you get.

“It’s not because we charge more,” Schaeffer says. “It’s because those products cost more. If you want to really be in fashionable eyewear, this is the only place to go.

“A lot of people say, ‘I may pay a little more to get those glasses, but I know part of that goes back into this community, both in time and money, and they are making this a better place for my family and my kids.’”

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Dr. Jack Schaeffer has always considered his Schaeffer Eye Center a family business because of the closeness of the staff, but the terminology took on new meaning in 2012.

His three children had never planned on attending optometry school, but today two are associates with Schaeffer (as well as fellow University of Georgia graduates) and the third is in optometry school. His son-in-law Justin Kaplan is also their CFO.

“When they came in, they were just added to the family,” Schaeffer says. “But what made it special was that when the staff…saw the family come in, they said, ‘Wow, we really are family.’

“I try not to treat them that much different. I can’t say I don’t treat them different at all because family is family. They have to pay their dues. They have the same hours, they have the same job descriptions, they do everything every other person here does.”

Today longtime patients who saw his kids grow up and work in the office in summers can opt to see Dr. Mark Schaeffer or Dr. Brooke Schaeffer Kaplan, freeing up their dad to spend more time traveling or focusing on being a CEO.

“Working with your children is wonderful,” Schaeffer says.