It’s All About Strategy and Structure for ABB Optical’s New Chief Executive Officer Tom Burke


Tom Burke.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla.—For Tom Burke, who joined ABB Optical as chief executive officer last year, running an organization successfully comes down to two things: strategy and structure. This is the formula he has relied upon in running various businesses over a 40-year career (mostly under the Cardinal Health corporate umbrella) and it underpins the plan he’s worked to put in place since joining ABB last August. “If the strategy is solid and the structure is great and you execute, then you can do anything,” Burke told VMAIL in a recent interview. “That was my story with Cardinal.”

Burke, who was recruited to ABB by its private equity parent New Mountain Capital, said he found an “amazing” company upon his arrival and that his work has come down to tweaking and refreshing what already had been a solid foundation. (He had previously held the chief executive role at Medical Specialties Distributors, a New Mountain portfolio company that was sold in April 2018. Burke succeeded ABB founder Angel Alvarez as the chief executive, and Alvarez remains as chairman of ABB).

“We needed to make sure we had the right mix of current infrastructure that was here with [the addition] of some new infused talent,” he said of the “tweaking” that has taken place over his first eight months in the new role. “And we wanted [this team] to be empowered and ready to make good swift decisions on behalf of doctors.”

ABB Optical's management team, sitting (L-R): Alessandra Valdes, Erika Jurrens, Scott Pearl and Jeannette Delgado. Standing (L-R): Jonathan Mish, Mike Bono, Michael Dell, Paul Sherman, Tom Burke, Steve Heft, Aaron See and Mike Dari.

In February, ABB announced a number of management additions, including the appointment of Meg FitzGerald as a board member, as VMAIL reported, and these moves followed an October 2018 announcement that Jonathan Mish had joined ABB as chief information officer. (FitzGerald was an executive vice president of strategy, mergers and acquisitions and health policy at Cardinal Health and Burke refers to her as “one of the most powerful women in health care.”)

“The strategy is, simply, to be essential and to really focus on the doctor and the [eyecare] community, while continuing to be a great distribution platform,” Burke said. “[I want] to really understand this business, and continue enhancing it through the needs of the independent eyecare professional (IECP).”

While Burke found an organization in solid shape when he arrived, he also discovered that many people knew ABB primarily as a contact lens distributor, when in reality ABB plays many other roles in the industry. For one, Burke said ABB is the second-largest independent lab in the U.S., and it owns Primary Eyecare Network (PEN), a leading ECP alliance and buying group. ABB also acquired Glimpse Live late last year, as VMAIL reported, and intends to play a larger role in data analytics going forward.

“We haven’t been great marketers of all our service lines and we haven’t done a lot to bring combined or bundled solutions to the market that help drive costs out and create value,” Burke said in the interview. “Clearly, this is a vision for me.”

In addition to adding and shifting some senior management roles, Burke is in the midst of overseeing a few other key moves at ABB. They include: the opening of a new Midwest distribution center in late summer (he declined to provide the specific location); buying, building or setting up joint ventures that enhance ABB’s “solutions” offerings to ECPs, and, among other moves designed to strengthen ABB’s market position, continuing to expand into the frames business.

Much of Burke’s strategic plan is set against the lineup of executives he has designated to oversee each of the six priorities that ABB has established.

These priorities (not ranked in a specific order) and the ABB executive overseeing each area are:

1. Growth through the “eyes of the doctor.” Burke said ABB's customers are currently outpacing the market, its lab business is experiencing double-digit growth there’s also growth under the Glimpse data analytics and dashboard business. Mike Dari, vice president of sales, is leading this initiative.

2. Developing “industry solutions” that are beneficial to the customer base, through acquisition, internal development or joint venture opportunities. Erika Jurrens, a former Cardinal Health executive, is overseeing this initiative as senior vice president of strategic development and commercialization. The goal for ABB is to do everything it can to keep the patient connected to the doctor. “That’s something we are working diligently at,” he said. Paul Sherman, chief development officer, works with Jurrens in this area.

3. Enhance relationships and be meaningful to partners. Aaron See, who previously was vice president of marketing, has taken on leadership of this area as senior vice president of manufacturer partnerships, which includes working closely with the four leading vendors in the contact lens space. “We [need] to bring value and we better be different in the way that we go after the market,” Burke explained. “And we better bring solutions to them and make sure that we are focused and we are developing meaningful and trustworthy relationships that are built on transparency.” Burke said he believes See is “the ideal person to serve in this role ... and we are doing great work in the area of building upon these relationships.”

4. Data and technology from an external standpoint, which chief information officer Jonathan Mish is charged with overseeing. This is the priority bucket in which the Glimpse acquisition falls, and Burke noted that ABB will be making moves to enhance Glimpse “very soon.” This also is an area where ABB is actively involved in considering the “build, buy, joint venture” approach to building up ABB’s current menu of offerings to ECPs, including technology solutions that will enhance the Glimpse dashboard business unit.

5. Network optimization, an area that Burke said is in his “wheelhouse” as a longtime manager in the distribution business. Steve Heft, senior vice president of operations, oversees this priority area, which is particularly close to Burke’s background. “I’m just in love with distribution,” he said. “It’s a very complicated business, but one that’s incredibly important in the supply chain and one that has evolved over the years. It’s not just a pick-pack-and-ship operation anymore.”

6. Building the lab and eyewear businesses. Scott Pearl, as Digital Eye Lab network's managing director, is charged with growing and expanding the lab business, setting up the new Midwest facility and executing against other ABB labs throughout the country. He’s also overseeing ABB’s continuing effort to expand into the frames business. The latter move is one way ABB can reduce capital costs for ECPs while also speeding the delivery of finished eyewear to the patient.

The ultimate goal, Burke said, is to find ways to support the ECP and help them grow their business, whether it’s by offering ways to help them operate more efficiently, better manage expenses or uncover solutions that enable better health care. “Hopefully, we will just continue to be essential to that market because that is the legacy that Angel built.”

He added, “We have a lot going on, but it’s such an exciting time,” noting that ABB is built upon the foundation of a “great team” and solid financial structure and backing. “The energy is high and the financial support is great, but the magic to anything is to say what you are going to do, and do it,” he said.