Bill Harding learned his way around a prescription eyeglass lab in the 1970s as a low-ranking laborer.
Today, he walks the floor of his own lab in Greenwood, LensTech Optical, the largest independently owned optical lab in the state. Harding marvels at the changes he has witnessed: Technicians no longer calculate measurements in their heads, for example, and the glasses themselves come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes.
“Our business is kind of a weird blend of the machine-tool industry, health care and fashion,” Harding mused.
Harding and his two partners, Greg Kyle and Greg Dallas, are striving to keep up with as many of the changes as possible. It’s a tall order for a lab with fewer than 30 employees.
The company recently spent $675,000 on digital surfacing equipment, which means it will not have to outsource no-line, or
“progressive,” bifocals and
trifocals. Progressive lenses account for more than 40 percent of all orders, and that portion is only expected to grow as the U.S. population ages, Dallas said.
Next up is a $1 million investment in a clean room and equipment to produce anti-glare coatings.
LensTech expects the investments to pay off in faster turnaround and more business. Harding plans to add a second shift to keep up with demand, and he expects sales to rise from $5.2 million in 2009 to $6.5 million this year.
Some of LensTech’s independently owned brethren have been snapped up by Paris-based Essilor, a vision-industry conglomerate that posted first-quarter sales of nearly $1.2 billion.
Essilor is the leading supplier of raw materials for lenses. It also owns about 300 labs in the United States. Essilor scooped up three small Indiana lab companies in late 2007 and 2008. That continued a consolidation trend that began in the mid-1990s.
Wholesale independent labs are not extinct. According to a ranking by industry magazine Vision Monday, they range
from Minneapolis-based Walman Optical, with annual sales of $96 million, to labs smaller than LensTech.
There are just three independent labs left in Indiana, Harding said, and LensTech is playing up that status. One advantage, he said, is that the independents have access to multiple brands. To ensure ample and timely supplies, the company owns part of a Green Bay, Wis., distribution co-op that serves independent labs across the country.
Indianapolis optometrist J.J. Abrams, of Abrams Eyecare Associates, said he prefers using independent labs like LensTech.
“We like the independent lab—we get some personal attention,” he said. He said he sends most of his orders to LensTech because the service is quick, three to five days. Patients wait two or three years to get their eyes examined, he explained, “and they want their glasses back next day.”
The lab business is challenging, Plainfield optometrist Cory Shaffer said. He and three other doctors are the former owners of Pro Optics in Greenwood, which hired Harding to oversee the business, then sold it to him in 1999.
“We didn’t have the time or the expertise to really treat it well,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer still uses his former lab, which became LensTech in 2005, because it reminds him of working with a hometown bank.
“You could just get things done efficiently,” he said. “That’s what we have with LensTech.”
Shaffer uses larger labs as well. No single lab can keep up with all the industry’s product offerings, he said. But he has noticed that LensTech is trying.
“LensTech has to keep up with all that technology because that’s the main game—it changes constantly,” Shaffer said. “It is an expensive proposition for them.”
The three vision-industry veterans at LensTech seem to have found their niches. Harding, 50, hones the manufacturing process. The digital surfacing equipment alone cut out four steps in polishing and should reduce the do-over rate from 4 percent to less than 1 percent, he said. But he’s still looking for ways to prevent mishandling of orders.
The lenses move from work station to work station in color-coded plastic trays. Black trays are for high-priority orders, Harding explained.
“Black was my idea because it’s a black day in your life if I catch you with one in front of you and not working on it,” he said.
Kyle, 53, grew up in the business. His father started GK Optical of Greenwood, which other relatives later sold to Essilor. He oversees computer systems and administration, while Dallas, 52, runs sales.
The partnership works well, Dallas said. “We don’t have three people, [each] telling the other two how to make a lens.”•