When Mark Gordon, OD ‘71
, was a student at the University of Maryland in College Park in the late 1960s, he was already into his third year and still undecided with what he wanted to do as a career.
It was something that weighed on Gordon’s mind because he had become engaged to Ellen Feinglass and he wanted to be able to provide a good living as they started their journey together through life.
One day Gordon was walking across campus with Bruce Chercas, a friend from his dorm, both on the way to a physics class. Gordon asked Chercas why he was taking physics and Chercas told him it was because he was planning on attending optometry school.
Intrigued, Gordon continued to pepper Chercas with questions about the profession. What does an optometrist do? What kind of courses are needed and what was the required grade point average for someone to get into optometry school? What was the annual salary for optometrists?
“I was already taking a lot of the courses needed and I had the required grade point average,” said Dr. Gordon. “I was engaged to Ellen, so I was looking to become anything and I wanted to have a successful future.”
Gordon decided to call his uncle for advice — Gordon’s father wasn’t in the picture — and ask about the family’s optometrist. It turns out Norman Zipper, OD ‘43
, handled the Gordon family’s eyecare needs at the time, and Dr. Zipper just happened to be an influential alumni of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO).
A meeting with Dr. Zipper would yield a recommendation letter to PCO for Gordon and with his eventual acceptance, Gordon decided to leave the University of Maryland after his third year and attend PCO in the 3 plus 4 program.
That decision would become the foundation of a two-generation Gordon family legacy — father, daughter and son — paving along the exact same path at the University of Maryland followed by PCO. This path then led into a successful family business — Barenburg Eye Associates — that’s still operating and is busier than ever in the greater Baltimore metropolitan area.
It’s a family of big personalities that has had big successes coming up big in their community for a long time. Shoshana (Gordon) Cohen, OD ‘96
, wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do during her high school years because of the variety of options.
But she had seen her father build a successful optometry business while she was growing up and realized two things: how much her father loved what he did and how rewarding it was to him; and that unlike a career in law or medicine, she could go to optometry school, then into the family business that would be accommodating to her in motherhood, which was an important future aspiration.
“My father kept saying to me that optometry was great and that with this family business, I could come right in and work part-time when I had kids,” said Dr. Cohen, who as a fourth-year extern received the Clinical Excellence in Pediatrics and Low Vision Award at PCO.
“At the time I had talked to a lot of other women who were in other professions and there was no balance of motherhood and career. It was all or nothing. So optometry, especially with my dad’s practice, seemed like the best fit for me to be able to do everything and accomplish everything I wanted — to be a successful professional and also be a mom.”
Dr. Cohen was three years ahead of her brother Joshua Gordon, OD ‘99
, but he too saw the paths his father and sister were on and decided to follow their lead.
“Seeing what my father was able to achieve and able to become after having gone through PCO was really what did it for me,” said Dr. Joshua Gordon, who specializes in comprehensive eye care, dry eye, ocular surface disease and complex contact lenses. “The fact that my dad was able to have a successful career and do something he enjoyed as well as being able to help people and have time for his family was important to me.”
Dr. Mark Gordon’s career path did takes some turns along the way. After an extended residency at the New York Optometric Center where he continued his studies in vision training, he started his own practice in Baltimore in 1971. After a year, Dr. Gordon bought additional practices throughout the greater Baltimore area and had a practice with a partner until 1980. It was then that he added three additional practices to the existing six and called them Barenburg Eye Associates.
In the 1980s, Dr. Gordon founded MEC Health Care, one of the first managed eyecare companies in the country, where he served as CEO and President. He was instrumental in establishing optometry as the entry point for standard care for such companies as Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Carefirst, Potomac Health, Trigon Health and Kaiser Permanente, among others.
Throughout the entire journey into optometry and the family business though, the backbone has been matriarch Ellen (Feinglass) Gordon.
During Dr. Gordon’s time at PCO, Ellen supported the family by working for the U.S. Navy designing propellers in Philadelphia, one of the only females in the late 1960s working in that particular industry.
After taking a break to raise the couple’s children, Ellen — who has a degree in mathematics from the University of Maryland — worked part-time at Barenburg doing the bookkeeping and paying the bills. When Dr. Gordon opened MEC Health Care, Ellen was its chief operating officer and designed the software for the company. She has been an integral part of the family’s business development and is still heavily involved as a result.
“She has really helped over the years and has been the driving force,” said Dr. Cohen, who worked part-time at Barenburg when her children were younger but has been full-time for the past 10-plus years. “Not that my dad wouldn’t have been able to do it without her, but I know he wouldn't have gotten through some of the things in business without the support of my mom.”
The goal of the family business, according to Dr. Joshua Gordon, is that it continues to grow and get bigger in a way that still provides hands-on, mom-and-pop quality service to its patients. Barenburg Eye Associates currently has an 80,000 patient-based practice with five locations, a surgery center, and 12 doctors, including four ophthalmologists, that work directly for the company.
And, the family intends to keep that personal quality as part of its business model. “The practices in Maryland and in the Baltimore area are all corporate, all getting bought out by venture capitalists and corporations that are losing the doctor-patient relationship,” said Dr. Joshua Gordon, who was named Maryland Optometrist of the Year in 2019 for his contribution in expanding the scope of optometry in the state. “It’s becoming a corporation that’s based on numbers and plugging in personnel that aren’t necessarily people that patients want to see. We don’t want to go that route.”
They all attribute their success to the foundation that PCO (Salus University) established for them. “When I was there, PCO was already the best of the best. The clinics were great and that’s where you learned,” said Dr. Mark Gordon. “The people who ran the clinics and the optometrists there were fabulous. They really, truly helped you become an optometrist. That was where the rubber met the road.”
Dr. Joshua Gordon takes it a step further. “We owe a lot of our success to PCO. They took a chance on my dad and he became a great success. My sister and I followed in his footsteps,” he said. “We sometimes don’t stop and reflect about how lucky we are and how unique of a situation that we’re in, but it’s awesome.”
Despite the pros and cons of being in a family business, the good aspects have come to the forefront for the Gordon family, who all live within 10 minutes of each other. The patriarch has been a father who’s a teacher, mentor, family man and a doting grandfather to five grandchildren, several of whom are still too young to have given any indication at this point that there will be a third generation of Gordon optometrists.
“As an entrepreneur my dad is tremendous, as a businessman he’s tremendous and his mind is constantly about business,” said Dr. Cohen, who specializes in primary eye care, glaucoma co-management, contact lens and pediatrics. “Not that he can’t transition and spend time with the family, but he’s focused on the success of the business, not just for himself but for us and for our families. Everything he’s done to build Barenburg and the practice over the years has been so that we have a stable future.”
She added that the pride Dr. Mark Gordon has in his family makes him feel like he’s the luckiest man in the world to have both his children follow in his footsteps.
“They still seek my approval for most things, but not because they have to,” said Dr. Mark Gordon, who has a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Maryland Optometric Association (MOA). “My son runs his office; my daughter runs her office and they both go to other offices one day a week.”
Dr. Cohen and Dr. Joshua Gordon are partners in the business, but it’s the patriarch who is still the biggest dog on the porch, majority owner and the company’s CEO.
“I am the luckiest guy in the world,” said Dr. Mark Gordon. “It’s a very close family. We have the best of all worlds.”