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Staten Island Optical Store Puts Focus on Service and Knowledge
This article is one in a series highlighting the Best for NYC, a growing community of more than 1,500 local businesses focused on improving the lives of their workers. To learn more about the 2019 campaign, visit bestfor.nyc.
By Alice Maggio
Chris Williams has been in the eyeglass business since his first day of high school. That’s when, at the age of 14, he walked into a Cohen’s Optical at the Staten Island Mall and simultaneously accepted and started an after-school job sweeping up in the shop. What started as a way to earn some pocket money turned into a profession.
After 10 years working at Cohen’s and obtaining his optician’s license through a home study program, Williams went to work for an independent optician who owned his own small business. “It was really quite a good combination, I think,” Williams says. “Cohen’s gave me that corporate mentality, and then the small place gave me a much better view of the professional field. I think a lot of small guys aren’t business-minded enough so they don’t grow, and then for the people that go the corporate way it’s hard to stand out.”
By 1995, Williams had opened his own shop, renting space from a local doctor. In 1998, Williams Eye Works moved to its current location, in the Westerleigh neighborhood of Staten Island.
As Williams’ business has grown, so has his reputation. “Almost every ophthalmologist on Staten Island refers their patients to us,” he says. Williams admits that there are plenty of more convenient options available to people, but Williams Eye Works has never had a problem staying busy. Why? “There’s no question, it’s because of our service and knowledge,” he says.
Williams hires for personality. He says, “I can teach you your optical skills, but I can’t teach you to be customer-service oriented.” To reinforce the team, Williams Eye Works hosts regular staff dinners, and Williams and his workers participate regularly in continuing education classes.
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Hiring on Staten Island can be difficult, Williams says. He bemoans the fact that there are so many places to post jobs now that “the chances that I’m posting in the same place that you’re looking is practically zero.” And almost always, prospective employees from off the island are deterred by the prospect of a difficult and expensive commute. So if Williams finds someone who is a good fit after three months, he says, he hopes they will stay for 10 years.
Williams is a third-generation Staten Islander, and Williams Eye Works is similarly rooted in the community. His vantage point as a small-business owner gives him particular insight into the power of the pocketbook. He asks, “Can I save a dollar by buying my paint at Home Depot rather than walking across the street to Shamrock Paint? Probably! But then Pete’s not going to have a dollar to walk back into my store.”
Williams found the Best For NYC Impact Assessment helpful, he says, because it encouraged him to think more about his vendors, and their environmental and employment practices. In fact, he says, he was just recently out on Long Island picking up an order of lenses from a manufacturer, when he was suddenly inspired to ask where they disposed of their toxic waste materials. Happily, he was very impressed by their elaborate filtration system. “I doubt I would have thought of that if I hadn’t done the Best for NYC program,” he says.
It makes sense that Williams is thinking about the long-term impact of his business and others because, in fact, his business is already embracing the next generation. One of the things that Williams is most proud of is that his three children are joining the business: “My son is done with college and he’s working here full-time, my daughter is in optometry school, and my youngest son is getting his license. The fact that our three kids have decided to join us gives me quite a bit of pride. They’re all quite good at what we do.”
Williams Eye Works is a member of Best for NYC, an initiative of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development in partnership with B Lab. Best for NYC aims to build a shared understanding that businesses can thrive financially while also making decisions that benefit their workers and their community.
B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.
Williams Eye Works: Small Business Drives Positive Impact for Workers and Community was originally published in B the Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.