Maybe it’s a secret to some people, but for millions more, Detroit-based Heritage Optical Center, Inc. and Heritage Vision Plans, Inc. have resonated with excellence for decades in the field of vision care and optical vision benefit plans. Heritage Vision Plans has built a massive network of more than 20,000 locations in the United States. It serves a broad base of clients through companies/corporations, school systems, government agencies, unions, and automotive, medical, gaming and other entities. Very few African-American owned and operated companies in Detroit — if any — or across the nation in any industry, can present a portfolio of services that is inclusive of customers in all 50 states.
As a trailblazing company, Heritage Vision Plans became the first African-American Tier I Healthcare Vision Supplier to service Ford Motor Company in the automotive giant’s 100-year-plus history. A partial list of other clients includes the City of Detroit (employees and retirees), Detroit Medical Center, Motor City Casino, MGM Grand Detroit Casino, Greektown Casino, Detroit Public Schools, Johnson Controls, Inc., Wayne County Community College District, and the University of Detroit Mercy. Nationally speaking, Heritage Vision Plans, Inc. has been embraced by such national optical chains as America’s Best, Henry Ford OptimEyes, K-Mart Optical, Meijer Vision Centers, Pearle Vision, Sam’s Club Optical, Sears Optical, Target Optical, The Vision Center (inside of Wal-Mart), Texas State Optical, and the many more.
Heritage Vision Plans got its start in 1991 under an Alternative Financing Delivery System (AFDS) Certificate of Authority from the state of Michigan, granted to Heritage Optical Center. The Certificate of Authority allowed Heritage Optical to offer managed vision care plans and fully covered vision care programs.
To put this accomplishment in perspective, Heritage Vision Plans, Inc. is the only African-American minority-owned entity to have an AFDS license.
In 2006, Heritage Optical and Heritage Vision Plans decided to function as two separate, but related companies. Heritage Optical would be the retail arm of the company, while Heritage Vision Plans would serve as the vision management entity.
“What we found was the license (Alternative Financing Delivery System Certificate of Authority from the State of Michigan) under Heritage Optical Center was confusing people about the differences between Heritage Optical Center, Inc. and Heritage Vision Plans, Inc. Therefore, by having two separate companies, we could have a distinction for our customers to better understand the services of each company,” said George P. Barnes, Jr. who heads the companies.
Heritage Optical Center, Inc. opened its doors in 1975 as the state’s first African-American full service optical dispensary. It is also believed to be the first Black-owned optical dispensary in America. As with all successful companies, especially ones with a strong national presence, there is a visionary and savvy leader at the helm.
Barnes opened the first Heritage Optical Center on the corner of Chene and Lafayette in downtown Detroit. He credits then-Mayor Coleman A. Young with giving great support to help Heritage Optical grow in its early days.
“Mayor Young allowed me to participate with another union company to do business with the City of Detroit,” recalled Barnes, who serves as chairman of the board for Heritage Vision Plans and president and CEO of Heritage Optical Center “That was my first time having a large client. From the City of Detroit, I picked up the Detroit Board of Education; both were major springboards for my company to grow.”
Heritage Optical currently has three locations in the city: Chene Square Center (Jefferson Ave.), on Livernois Ave. (near Seven Mile Rd., and in the Compuware Center (downtown Detroit), all of which serve Detroit-area corporate, government and other customers and entities.
To truly appreciate these companies, it is imperative to know the history of their founder. Barnes, a native Detroiter, graduated from the fabled Eastern High School in 1961. After completing high school, he was told by a White optometrist that there were no Black optometrists in Detroit. Thus, seeing opportunity, Barnes enrolled in the Opticianry Program at American Optical, where he was the only African-American student. After a stint in the U.S. Army, where he furthered his studies in the field, Barnes returned to Detroit to complete his training as an optician.
Following an 18-month internship in opticianry at the old Metropolitan Hospital, located at Tuxedo and Woodrow Wilson on the city’s west side, Barnes stayed on as a staff optician. In 1975, after a six-year stay at the Metropolitan, Barnes made a bold decision that would forever shape his life and career.
“I was passed over for a position at the hospital,” said Barnes. “They chose someone from the outside, although I was well qualified and well suited for the position. After being passed over, I knew that it was time for me to go, so I left. People were always telling me that I was knowledgeable enough in the field to start my own business. Being passed over turned out to be a true blessing for me.”
After leaving Metropolitan, Barnes began to do minor eyeglass repairs and adjustments, mostly at senior citizens’ homes. Word of mouth of his professional work created a buzz in the Black community. Barnes knew that beyond the buzz, there was a great need for a Black-owned optical dispensary facility that could give complete eye exams, fill prescriptions for ophthalmic lenses, dispense eyeglasses, fit contact lenses and offer other related services. Thus, Heritage Optical Center became the brainchild of Barnes.
While both Heritage Optical Center, Inc. and Heritage Vision Plans, Inc. have achieved high levels of success, Barnes believes there’s room to service more corporate customers.
“There is a lot of business in Michigan and throughout America that we should be doing,” he said. “Many companies are not taking advantages of our outstanding services and experience; they can’t say that we can’t do big jobs for major corporations as it relates to offering and managing vision plans and benefits, because we’ve been in business a long time and our finances are in order. While we are an African-American owned and operated company, we continue to provide excellent service to Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies.”
Barnes admits, however, that every day is a battle to stay atop and serve the more than 20,000 providers in all 50 states. However, his philosophy is simple: “We never give up. I have some Muhammad Ali boxing gloves that he autographed and gave me many years ago which always remind me of the fight in this industry.”
For more information regarding Heritage Vision Plans, call 1.888.322.0919, or visit http://www.heritagevisionplans.com. For more information regarding Heritage Optical Centers, please call 313.863.9581.