Stylebook Snapshot: Eyetique founder Norman Childs retires
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
Norman Childs looks through his “Norman Childs” collection of American-made eyewear.
Norman Childs’ Eyetique eyewear boutique business has grown to include 13 stores in Western Pennsylvania.
The entrance to the new Eyetique headquarters on Banksville Road.
Daniel Childs, owner of the Chromos eyewear business, helps Zakiyyah Thompson try on her new glasses donated by Childs' Chromos eyewear business. Students from Arsenal Middle and Woolslair Schools received the glasses.
Eyetique ad featuring Wiz Khalifa.
Eyetique ad featuring Norman Childs' son, Jeremy.
Eyetique ad featuring Ben Roethlisberger.
Eyetique ad featuring Tom Savini.
Eyetique ad featuring Billy Porter.
By Sara Bauknecht / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Over the past 30-plus years, Eyetique has become as well known for its clever ad campaigns starring local celebrities sporting its designer frames as it has for the eyewear and optical care. In fact, more than 700 familiar faces — from athletes and actors to comics and race car drivers — have starred in them.
The man behind the frames — and the ads — is Norman Childs. He started the business on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill nearly 40 years ago with $1,500 charged to seven credit cards, along with a lot of passion and entrepreneurial intuition. That one storefront turned into another in Wilkins, which morphed into several more. Then came the Norman Childs Eyewear brand, 3 Guys Optical (eye exams and designer eyewear at reduced prices) and Chromos Eyewear, a brand his son Daniel started about four years ago.
Now he’s ready to try something new: retirement. He’s stepping away from Eyetique and turning over his responsibilities to his younger brother Brad, who will serve as regional vice president. His son Daniel also is expanding his duties beyond Chromos in Lawrenceville as
Eyetique’s marketing coordinator.
“Hopefully I can relax a little bit and get my golf game better,” says Mr. Childs, 59, of Squirrel Hill. He also plans to grow a small real estate business he’s started on the side.
His retirement comes on the heels of the announcement last month that Dallas-based investment firm Riata Capital Group acquired Eyetique, as well as Crown Vision Center in St. Louis and International Eyecare Center of Quincy, Ill. Together, they’ll make up Acuity Eyecare Holdings, which will own and operate leading eye care groups and optometry practices across North America. While this gives Eyetique more growth potential beyond the region, back in Pittsburgh the company’s look, vibe, personnel and signature ads will remain.
“The best time to sell a business is when your business is on top. We chose this group because they had our values,” he says. “It’s such a great opportunity.”
Mr. Childs built his career by not letting good opportunities slip by. He was introduced to optometry by his great-uncle’s brother-in-law, the late Stanley Pearle of Pearle Vision. When Mr. Childs was struggling in high school, unsure if he’d even graduate, Mr. Pearle promised to give him a job at his new Pittsburgh store if he made it through school.
“I loved it and learned a tremendous amount. By 21, I knew I wanted to start my own company,” Mr. Childs says.
He attributes some of his knack for business to his father, who owned several dollar stores. (As a kid, Mr. Childs sharpened his salesman skills by running a candy store out of his house. At 17, he bought a snow cone truck.)
“Just growing up in that house, it was quite an education. He taught me a lot about business and life. I couldn’t have gotten that anyplace else,” he says. “It made me hungry, and it made me passionate.”
Along the way, he also learned to trust his gut. For instance, when his cousin happened upon a cool shop along California’s Sunset Boulevard stocked with Oliver Peoples eyewear, an emerging brand at the time, he knew he had to carry the frames. His cousin put him in touch with the owner, who told Mr. Childs that the glasses were so popular he could hardly keep his own store stocked; it would take a year before he could supply Eyetique with any.
“I didn’t feel good about it. I felt like I was in high school again being rejected,” Mr. Childs recalls. He called the man daily until he sent him the glasses. “I opened the box, and I was selling the frames right out of the box. It’s been our biggest selling brand.”
He launched the Norman Childs Eyewear collection when a customer requested a lavender frame that he couldn’t find anyplace else. That line became a top seller, too. Yet another boost came from those ads.
“How could I do something different, feature our products and have people remember our name?” he remembers thinking in bed one night during the early days. In addition to the famous faces (and, on a couple of occasions, Mr. Childs’ children), the ads spotlight some of Eyetique’s exclusive frames paired with phrases that turn the person’s claim to fame into something that rhymes with Eyetique.
“If it wasn’t for those people and the customers, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do what I do.”
Over the years, Eyetique evolved into a family affair, with as many as eight of Mr. Childs’ relatives working with him at one point.
“I grew up in and around the business, whether it was going in when I was younger to clean all of the glass shelves so I could get a pack of baseball cards,” says his son, Daniel, 25. (His brother Jeremy, 29, also worked for the family business before returning to school.) “I really enjoyed working in such close proximity to my dad. He inspired us to work hard.”
While a student at Syracuse University, Daniel conceived the concept for Chromos, a line of stylish eyewear that starts at less than $100. For each pair sold, Chromos provides free eye exams and glasses to local children in need. Mr. Childs was pleased his son wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“I think that was something deep down he always wanted,” his son says.
Like Mr. Pearle had done for him, Mr. Childs encouraged his brother Brad to go into optometry.
“When I was in college, I didn’t really have a good direction,” his brother recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t you go to opticianry school?’ All of a sudden, I had a future and at least a direction.”
Mr. Childs hopes his story might help other entrepreneurs find their paths. Maybe someday he’ll write a book, or give talks on making it in business? That’s what retirement is for.
“If you have an idea, don’t wait. You’ve got to get out there and do it,” he says. “It’s really important to live your dream, and I did.”
Sara Bauknecht: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter and Instagram @SaraB_PG.
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