The optical industry is often viewed as a family: it is relatively small, as industries go, and it often seems like everybody knows everyone else. But many optical businesses, including labs, are literally family affairs passed on from one generation to the next, creating a continuity of culture and customer relationships. To understand the attraction, advantages and the rewards of working in the family business, VM spoke to four lab leaders who are following in their parents’ footsteps and creating new ones of their own.
Dawn Friedkin is the daughter of Monte and Skeets Friedkin, who 50 years ago acquired Classic Optical (www.classicoptical.com) in Youngstown, Ohio. An attorney who has had an extensive career in law and public policy, she worked in the lab as a child. Returning to Classic many years later, she became CEO and is currently president of the company.
Dawn Friedkin: My earliest “lab memory” dates back to around age 10—during the summer, I worked at Classic daily pulling frames for the State of Ohio Medicaid contract. I think there were two styles, and they were both black (think Buddy Holly). It’s amazing that today, more than 35 years later, we still serve that Ohio Medicaid contract (and 12 other states). And thankfully the frame selection is so much better.
I came back to Classic in 2001 to help my dad with a few short-term projects, and I never left. At that time, Classic suffered an unfortunate turn of events with its Lens Manufacturing Software (LMS) in preparation for 2000 (remember the panic about Y2K?). On Jan. 1, 2000, the LMS did not work— Classic could not track an order or invoice a customer.
The Classic team had worked through many of the big issues, but they had lost several large government contracts. As a lawyer with experience in public policy and government relations, I was able to work through some of these larger customer and legal challenges and allow time for the manufacturing and technology teams to recover. We led Classic out of this challenging time and developed a path for success. Our team effort and commitment to the success of Classic led to the emergence of the “Soul of Classic.” It is this soul that has kept me at Classic for so many years.
A multigenerational family business allows for the possibility of continuity of knowledge, culture, and leadership for decades. Alternatively, the lack of honorable oversight in a multigenerational family business can lead to excessive personal spending, cronyism and an unwillingness to adapt to change. It is up to each generation to determine what they want their legacy and history to be.
I consider the Classic Team to be part of my family. In fact, I often joke that Classic was my first baby and my 14-year-old son, my second. I am passing Classic to the next generation of my “Classic Family” because I know they will carry on the Soul of Classic that we have worked so hard to build over the last 50 years.
The Pildes family has been in the optical business for over 80 years and has encompassed both retail and wholesale businesses. For decades they operated one of the largest stock lens suppliers and optical labs in the U.S. In 2012, Michael Pildes and his son David opened LAB-Tech, a wholesale stock lens supplier with four locations in the U.S., and in 2018 they opened SkyLab Optical Laboratory (https://skylab-optical.net/), a state-of-the art facility in Northvale, N.J.
David Pildes: The business was in the background when I was young. My earliest memories are of our former retail stores in New York City, where my mother decorated the windows and my sister and I modeled for one of the advertisements in the 80s. During high school I would visit my father’s office and warehouse in New Jersey as we were also a large distributor of stock lenses, contacts, frames and sunglasses. By the time I was in college we had opened our own wholesale laboratory where I worked for a summer.
I moved to Japan, then South Korea to study languages after graduating from NYU. After several years abroad, I began to realize how important it was to continue in the family tradition, so I returned home in 2002 and formally began my career in the business.
My father built our first laboratories in the 90s because they completed our previous company’s offerings. We built SkyLab Optical Laboratory for the same reason; it completes our current organization as a full-service lens supplier. SkyLab is currently our sole production facility, but the fourth one that we have built and run. It is operated in conjunction with our stock distribution centers in New York, Miami, Dallas, and Los Angeles.
Although the technology has changed, the fundamentals of running a good business remain the same. I have learned that it requires a strong team effort. It is important to be fully involved in the work, paying attention to detail at every level while keeping the big picture in mind. It is about setting an example by doing, treating people right and always serving our customers to the best of our ability.
Our biggest strength is that we have maintained many successful business partnerships and relationships over the years. We have developed strong friendships in the industry, and this has been a blessing.
Javan Diaz and Keith Grossman
Santa Clarita, Calif.
Javan Diaz and Keith Grossman come from optical families, and those families are closely linked. In 1971, Keith’s parents, Neil and Jo Anne Grossman, founded Empire Optical in Southern California. Javan’s father, Noel Diaz, joined Empire in 1988 as general manager, and later became a co-owner and partner in the business. In 2017, Noel, Javan and Keith acquired majority ownership in VSPOne Los Angeles and created Simplify Optics (https://simplifyoptics.com/), located in Santa Clarita, Calif.
Javan Diaz: My older brother would work in the lab full time every summer, so as a 12 year-old kid wanting to be like my older brother, I found joy working in the surface department peeling fining pads and adding polish pads to hard lap tools. Every summer thereafter I would learn a different part of the lab. I was about 17 or 18 years-old when I first seriously considered joining the family business. When picking my major in college, I chose business management knowing that it would help me in my future role at the lab.
I entered the family lab on a full-time basis after college. As the years went by, I felt an entrepreneurial spirit that I knew one day would lead me to open a business where I could instill my own values and work ethic. I knew that I would only do it with the two people that have taught me the most in this industry, Keith and my father.
My father never pressured me one way or another but once he saw I was motivated and committed, he was there to help me along the way and still does to this day. I would be happy to do the same with my children. This business has been so good to my family and we are providing a very important service for people. I do see this business being around for many years to come and would love for the Diaz optical lab tradition to continue.
Keith Grossman: My parents brought my sister and me to the lab most days when we were younger. Some of the first jobs my parents gave us were sorting mail, printing addresses on envelopes, putting LEAP pads on finish blocks, cleaning lenses in surface and learning Rx entry in DVI. As a teenager I was trained to edge jobs in the finish department and also I worked in the inventory department for a few summers.
I was drawn to the industry because of the people. We had many employees that I had known my entire life and some of the sales consultants that would call on my parents were close family friends. Javan and Noel Diaz are like family to me—we have the kind of trusting business relationship that is difficult to find.
My dad always taught me that the lab business was difficult. His favorite thing to tell me was, “If this were easy then anybody could do it. If anyone could do it, then the customer doesn’t need you.” I saw the long hours my parents spent at the lab and the stress that they both dealt with on a daily basis. I knew how dedicated I must be to become as successful as they were in the industry. Even today when I am dealing with various problems, I can always fall back on their words and the example they set throughout my life.
All three of my kids have already been working in our lab in the summertime. I hope that one of them will be crazy enough to follow in my footsteps!