Presented by First National Bank Alaska
Juneau optometrist Dr. William To says it’s a familiar story: Alaska patients can wait years before gaining access to new medical technology already in use elsewhere in the country.
It’s a trend Dr. To is bucking at Lifetime Eyecare, a longtime clinic in Alaska’s capital city. He’s made it his mission to bring state-of-the-art systems and services to the Southeast hub, while keeping the practice’s hometown feel.
“That’s always going to be my focus, no matter what,” Dr. To said. “When you find a special place like this, you can’t help but contribute back and want to be part of it.”
Dr. To became Lifetime Eyecare’s third owner when he bought the business in 2021 with financing from First National Bank Alaska. Since then, he’s carried on the legacy of the longtime local practice, keeping the clinic independently owned and growing with the community’s ever-expanding needs. He has also brought industry-leading diagnostic and imaging technologies to Juneau.
Yet Lifetime Eyecare’s story is one of changing times. The U.S. economy is shifting as the Baby Boomer generation leaves the workforce. As aging business owners look to retire, a new generation is stepping in to continue their legacies both nationwide and in Alaska.
A big dream meets an ever-connected world
Dr. To opened his optometry practice in California at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a first-time business owner, he was already making some of the most consequential decisions of his career as he led his San Mateo-based practice through a tumultuous period of unknowns.
Like many others, he quickly learned how to manage a company online – hosting meetings and using telehealth to access clients remotely. Thanks to these new skills, when it came time to expand, Dr. To dreamt big.
“The world is small when you can communicate that quickly, over distances,” he said.
Dr. To met then-Lifetime Eyecare owner Michael Bennett through a mutual friend, and it seemed like a good fit: a new and enthusiastic doctor who could carry on the practice’s shining local reputation, giving Bennett a chance to retire.
Dr. To spent some time in Juneau before he made his decision. He met with locals and sensed it was a community he wanted to serve. Six months after his first visit to the clinic, Dr. To took the reins.
“It was fast, but it was one of those things that felt good,” he said.
Lifetime Eyecare’s story of generational transition is becoming more common as more owners retire and sell their businesses. The Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, makes up roughly 44% of small business and franchisee owners in the U.S., according to reports from 2020.
“Alaska is witnessing a similar trend,” said Zac Hays, vice president and lending unit team leader at First National Bank Alaska. In the 1970s, the state’s economy and population boomed with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and new businesses flourished.
“This has led to a large number of older business owners looking to retire in a relatively short period,” Hays said.
Not everyone has a plan. Sometimes, the business simply closes, Hays said, “leaving a void where the people of Alaska no longer have access to the products and services these businesses once offered.”
“By identifying their long-term plans, we can help business owners be better prepared when the time comes,” Hays said. “Furthermore, we can work with potential buyers and facilitate introductions and meetings where the buyer and seller can discuss various options.”
The wave of retirements also offers opportunities for the next generation, as financing is easier to obtain when buying an existing business.
For first-time business owners, financing can be a struggle, as most startups are shown to fail within the first few years. But with an existing company, “you have the ability to evaluate historical trends,” Hays said, and can “more accurately predict what you are going to need in order to operate and potentially grow.”
Lifetime Eyecare has long been a First National customer.
“Every business is going to be in a different stage in its cycle, whether it’s continuing on through family or other people that are up and coming,” said Marc Guevarra, vice president and branch manager of First National’s Valley Centre Branch in Juneau.
Guevarra and his team worked with Dr. To and the previous owners of the practice to facilitate a smooth transition. Dr. To financed the purchase with a commercial loan from the bank, and established a commercial line of credit for the company’s capital needs.
After he took over the clinic, Dr. To decided to keep banking with First National. Today, First National also provides Dr. To with financial solutions like merchant services for smooth payment processing.
Dr. To said the national bank he worked with in California didn’t understand why he was expanding to Alaska, let alone Juneau.
“That’s what’s great about working with a local bank like First National,” Dr. To said. “They understand Alaska, and the need and opportunities for growth.”
And Dr. To said he’ll sometimes stop by one of the Juneau branches just to say hello.
“They’re just great people there,” he said.
Growing to meet Juneau’s needs, and beyond
Lifetime Eyecare is a short walk from the Juneau airport in the beautiful Mendenhall Valley. Dr. To and his staff serve a relatively small community, but there’s no shortage of demand for eye care.
These days, the clinic is booked out roughly four to six weeks in advance, said Office Manager Jenica Canaday. Lifetime Eyecare is considering bringing on another doctor and may extend its operating hours to five days a week, up from the current four-day schedule, she said.
Dr. To hopes to bring more specialties and services to patients, like minor laser surgeries for conditions like glaucoma.
“We have no intent to downsize,” Dr. To said. “We’re only expanding and growing. We’re going to give people more benefits than they had before and more opportunities to grow than before.”
All the while, Dr. To has kept the Lifetime Eyecare legacy intact. His growing staff comprises 11 team members, most of whom were around before the business transition.
Canaday, who has been with Lifetime Eyecare for a decade, said when Dr. To took over, he wanted to hear from the team about the changes they wanted to see at the practice.
“He picked our brains on how we felt about anything during the process, and we had a chance to give feedback,” she said.
“With the previous and current owners, I feel like everyone here is really anxious to grow as a team and to keep learning. So, I really appreciate that kind of enthusiasm,” Canaday said.
Lifetime Eyecare also hopes to expand into more remote communities surrounding Juneau, bringing vital healthcare to people in harder-to-reach places. Most smaller towns lack clinics, so many patients commute to Alaska’s capital city, chancing ferry and plane cancellations while racking up expensive travel fees.
With satellite clinics, Lifetime Eyecare staff could drop in for periodic eye exams, Dr. To explained. The clinic is already moving in that direction, with capabilities for hybrid remote exams; doctors control equipment remotely while technicians are in the room with patients.
Dr. To said his goal is to ensure no Alaskan receives reduced healthcare services just because of where they live.
“I tell industry partners and vendors: If you do business with me in California, you do business with me in Alaska, too,” he said. “The people here are in need of good healthcare and they deserve good healthcare.”
First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to help Alaskans shape a brighter tomorrow by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.
This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.