Top Labs That Made News in 2011

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NEW YORK—The pace of mergers and acquisitions in the optical laboratory sector slowed considerably in 2011. The most obvious reason was the nation’s battered economy, which caused many optical companies to shy away from making major cash outlays or financing deals and instead concentrate on maintaining their core business.

Another reason for the slowdown in M&A activity is that, unlike 10 or 15 years ago, many of the more desirable independent labs—most of which ranked among VM’s Top Independent U.S. Wholesale Labs—have already been cherry picked, mainly by VM’s Top 5 Supplier-Owned Labs. Yet some significant lab purchases did occur over the past 12 months, mainly by Essilor International, which is still pursuing a growth strategy that emphasizes acquisitions.

In October, 2010, Essilor International announced that it had acquired a majority interest in Reliable Optics, a Brooklyn, N.Y.–based prescription laboratory. Reliable Optics generates approximately $4.3 million in revenue per year, according to Essilor. Lab principals Howard Fried, OD and Eddie Purman remained on board.

In January, Essilor announced that it had acquired two significant independent wholesalers: Winchester Optical, in New York State, with revenue of around $9.3 million, and NEA Optical, based in Jonesboro, Arkansas with revenue of $3.7 million. Both labs are now part of Essilor’s network of partner labs. The management team at Winchester Optical, headed by Brian Lynch, and NEA Optical, headed by Jim Evans, remained in place.

Essilor announced in August that it acquired a stake in Caveo Optical, a prescription laboratory in Phoenix, Ariz. with $1.5 million in revenue.

Essilor also closed two small branch labs this year: Duffens Optical, a branch of Essilor Laboratories of America in Hannibal, Mo. shut its doors on July 29, after 63 years in business; Essilor also closed it Custom Optical branch in Macon, Ga.

Among VM’s Top Independent U.S. Wholesale Labs, the largest independent lab operator, Walman Optical, acquired Harbor Optical, an independent lab in Traverse City, Mich. The purchase price was not announced. According to a Walman spokesperson, no changes are anticipated in the lab’s current management team, which is headed by Geff Heidbrink.

Harbor Optical was founded in 1997. It was ranked number 22 among VM’s 2010 Top 25 Independent Wholesale Labs, with estimated Rx sales of $6.5 million dollars.

In other Top Labs news, K Optical, a Michigan-based independent optical lab that is part of Precision Optical Group, moved to a new location in Farmington Hills to accommodate its growth. K Optical’s new office is about 6,000 sq. ft., which is six times the capacity of their old space.

On a sad note, two noted executives from among the Top Labs died in 2011: Hal Rothstein, co-owner and president/CEO of Hirsch Optical and Jonathan Balester, an owner of Balester Optical and a former president of the lab.

akarp@jobson.com