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As an adult, Frank Devlyn built his parents’ small opticians chain into the biggest in Latin America. But it was selling US confectionery in Mexico as a young boy in the 1940s that gave the president of Devlyn Group his first taste for business.
“Mars, Snickers, Milky Way — they didn’t exist in Ciudad Juárez,” says 77-year-old Mr Devlyn, recalling how at the age of eight he would cross from the northern border town into El Paso, Texas, buy the coveted chocolate bars and sell them to his neighbours back home. “I was selling house to house,” he says, recalling that he got a good price: “I had no competition.”
It was a crash course in commerce. “I learnt how to buy wholesale,” he says, and within two years he had eight other children working for him selling the sweets.
At the same time, as the eldest of six children, he was getting to grips with the family business, which was set up in 1936 by his American father and Mexican mother, both opticians, in Ciudad Juárez. He would wash the windows and arrange the displays. He translated while “the American eye doctor”, who had never learned Spanish, examined patients. By the age of nine he had learned how to make glasses. His door-to-door “candy salesman” experience was also paying dividends.
“I learnt the benefits of promotion. I’d knock on doors and give out handbills — I did this both sides of the border. We also gave out calendars . . . I’d say to shopkeepers: ‘Shall I put it up for you straightaway?’ I’d put it in the middle of the damn store,” he chuckles. “I learnt it was important to be taking advantage of opportunities for publicity and promotion.”
After his father died when Mr Devlyn was 22, he was asked by American Optical to take over a factory. “I’m from the boondocks and they were the big enchilada,” he says. He accepted, took out his first loan and never looked back. “Luck and taking advantage of opportunities — I’ve always lived for that,” he says. Now he is the president of a business with 1,200 opticians shops, mainly in Mexico but also in Guatemala, El Salvador and the US.
An early lesson was to go where there was no competition, and “to offer such good service [that] people are customers for life”. He was also unafraid to import new ideas — such conducting eye exams in the middle of a shop, not behind closed doors — that he saw in Japan.
Mr Devlyn’s business acumen has earned him EY’s 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year for Mexico and a place in this year’s EY World Entrepreneur of the Year event in Monaco.
But there have been downs as well as ups. Mr Devlyn at one point insisted on using own-manufactured frames, despite the existence of better ones. “I learnt from that. I learnt like crazy,” he says.
Mr Devlyn is a shameless self-promoter, who admits he has a “strong desire to stand out”. The former president of charitable body Rotary International, he is also the author of a string of books including Frank Talk, Frank Talk on Leadership and Frank Talk on Public Speaking. A cabinet in his office, where his collection of figurines of famous people is on display, houses four binders with material for several more books that he wants to write, including one on the history of the optical industry.
He has pursued social causes through the Devlyn Foundation and has provided free glasses to some 1m Mexicans without access to eyecare.
Tall and imposing, Mr Devlyn, who is dressed in a suit and sports a tie-pin with spectacles on it, has the gift of the gab. Melanie, his eldest daughter and president of the board of Devlyn Holdings, chides him to “stay focused” as he careers between telling anecdotes and showing off selfies, including one with Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
He has witnessed the transformation of Ciudad Juárez from a sleepy town with no American companies to a manufacturing hub churning out goods for export, and understands the need to keep moving with the times. “Family businesses always peter out,” he says, and in 2014, Devlyn merged with Opticas del AH, a portfolio company owned by Linzor Capital Partners. Linzor has a 23 per cent in the group, “so now I listen to outside advice”.
Ms Devlyn says her father is an internet junkie. “I don’t think his brain is ever off. He’s a hyperactive adult, which is very good for the business.”
Her father puts it slightly differently: “You’ve got to move forward. What got you here won’t get you there.”