The Modern Lab is a new, quarterly VM series that explores trends impacting wholesale laboratories.

NEW YORK—When Essilor bought several of its biggest U.S. wholesale distributors in 1996, it sparked a consolidation trend that quickly spread throughout the industry. Over the subsequent two decades, that trend, driven by a push by suppliers to vertically integrate their businesses, has drastically reshaped the prescription laboratory business in the U.S.

Since then, some of the industry’s largest suppliers—Essilor, Hoya Vision Care, VSP Optics Group and Carl Zeiss Vision—acquired huge chunks of the independent wholesale segment of the optical market, remaking the labs they bought to fit their own business model and image.

Now that the consolidation trend is winding down, a handful of new independent labs have emerged over the past couple of years. The recent appearance of these start-ups, the first in many years, begs a number of questions:

• What prompted the owners to start the lab?
• Why is now a good time to start a new lab?
• What does it take for a new lab to succeed in today’s optical industry?
• What new systems/technologies are being used in the new labs, and why did the owners choose to invest in them?
• What aspects of the new business have the lab owners made significant investments in?

To find answers to these and other questions facing new lab owners and operators, we interviewed executives from three different start-up labs. Interestingly, all of them are veteran lab owners and operators. Here’s what we learned.

(L to R) Longtime partners Noel Diaz, Javan Diaz and Keith Grossman in the surfacing department at Simplify Optics.
Simplify Optics

Santa Clarita, Calif.

Principals: Keith Grossman, Noel Diaz, Javan Diaz

Keith Grossman, Noel Diaz and Javan Diaz, the former owners, operators and founders of Empire Optical of California, joined together to form Simplify Optics, which was formerly VSPOne Santa Clarita/Los Angeles. Born and raised in the optical lab business, the Grossman and Diaz families possess over 100 years of experience and come from a tradition of hands-on ownership. They produce the majority of their products at their Santa Clarita facility.

“My colleagues and I have always shared a genuine passion for the laboratory business, as we were each raised in this incredible industry. For over 70 years, our families have enjoyed serving our customers, working with our team of employees and collaborating with forward-thinking companies. Our goal in starting Simplify Optics, along with the partnership of VSP, was to become the simplest company for the customer to do business with. We are obsessed with simplifying the customer experience externally while also simplifying the internal process for our own team.”
—Keith Grossman

“We believe now is as good as any time to start a Premium Laboratory, as it’s a niche that has historically always been needed by the customer. In order for the independent practitioner to succeed, they need to partner with a laboratory that provides consistent service and quality. With so many recent changes in the landscape of the optical business, practitioners need to feel at ease in doing business with an independently motivated laboratory that is directly focused on supporting them.”
—Noel Diaz

“In order to be successful, we believe that you must always put customer needs first in everything you do. You must offer products and services that perform at a high level and produce them in an expedited and dependable environment. We must be available to each of our customers for anything they or their practice needs. All of us are hands-on owners and are always available to our customers and employees. We are open-minded and ready to quickly make any changes that can improve our service, quality and communication with our customers.”
—Javan Diaz

“Our first decision was laboratory software and this was perhaps the easiest decision of them all. We, of course, partnered with Digital Vision Inc (DVI) as we have shared an incredibly strong relationship with the entire team up in Portland. A great pair of lenses starts and ends with the software that your lab utilizes and it’s our belief that DVI leads the industry in innovation, service and commitment. We are subscribers and believers in Industry 4.0 and the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. Our lab implements 100 percent Satisloh digital surfacing, modern robotics, anti-reflective Coating and 4D edging. This means that customers will experience unparalleled quality and consistency from Simplify Optics.”
—Keith Grossman

“No matter how sophisticated your technology and processes are, nothing is more significant to us than our investment in people. We are building a team of true all-stars in every position of the lab. We look for something unique in each person we have added to our team and the people that are here at Simplify Optics genuinely want to be a part of something spectacular. In the end, most labs have made significant investments in machinery, LMS and inventory, but the thing that separates the good labs from the great labs is people.”
—Javan Diaz

Tony Esposito (l) and Tom Pfeiffer are well-equipped to produce top quality lens coatings at Sportifeye Optics.
Sportifeye Optics

Azusa, Calif.

Principals: Tom Pfeiffer, CEO; Tony Esposito, COO

Tom Pfeiffer and Tony Esposito are veteran lab managers who have extensive experience in lab management and operations. They specialize in the development and implementation of branded prescription sport and safety eyewear programs. Both men have extensive experience with correct processes and methods for interfacing with e-commerce transactions and necessary certifications and legal know-how needed to help their customers launch new products. Their new lab, Sportifeye Optics, has an on-site R&D facility that develops specialized lens designs and coatings. They responded jointly to our questions.

“With all the lab consolidation and commoditization we noticed a degradation of quality and service with a loss of focus on the customer’s needs. So we started Sportifeye Optics because we saw an emerging market that was underserved and felt with our combined experiences and backgrounds we could create a business that is a perfect fit. With the advent of more and more frame companies creating branded Rx programs, we saw an opportunity to create a full-service quality driven logistics and distribution hub facilitating e-commerce sales. We built a laboratory from the ground up, focusing on this concept, with state-of-the-art Schneider equipment designed for the unique requirements of sport and safety eyewear, including a world-class coating center and new proprietary products, programs and processes designed explicitly to serve this market. We have invested in and will continue to invest in finding passionate and creative people who share our vision.”
—Tom Pfeiffer and Tony Esposito

At LAB-Tech, David Pildes (l) and Mike Pildes will build on their knowledge and experience in the lab and stock lens business.

Northvale, N.J.

Principals: David Pildes, vice president; Mike Pildes, consultant

For many decades, the Pildes family operated one of the largest wholesale stock lens and laboratory businesses in the U.S. The business was acquired in 2003 by one of the leading global manufacturers. Mike Pildes and his son, David, started LAB-Tech as a wholesale stock lens supplier in 2012, and are currently expanding it to include a state-of-the-art, full service, digital surfacing and AR laboratory.

LAB-Tech will provide all the services traditionally associated with a wholesale lab, including frame-to-follow. The Pildes team also plan to offer an extensive frame and lens package program. LAB-Tech Inc. currently produces a complete range of First Quality, stock finished lenses, under its own brands, such as Labco, Aerial, HiLine, and distributes additional brands including Seiko, Hoya, Vision Ease, Younger and Transitions. David Pildes responded to our questions.

“It is the right time for LAB-Tech to open a surfacing lab because it expands and completes our range of products and services as a lens supplier. A state-of-the-art digital surfacing and AR lab at our headquarters, will complement our existing stock distribution centers, located in New Jersey (HQ), Florida, Texas and California. We think the main ingredients to any successful business remain unchanged, even in these uncertain times. Customers expect suppliers to provide a good quality product, at a very competitive price, all with excellent service, and we are constantly striving to improve our ability to deliver in these four main areas. We’ve partnered with Ocuco for our software, and Schneider for the vast majority of our surfacing and AR department machinery. Some additional equipment will come from Coburn and MEI. When you enter into a major project such as this, it has a tendency to become larger than you initially anticipate. On top of the major investment in machinery, equipment and systems, we have had to conduct major upgrades, renovations and improvements to our building just to prepare for the lab. New and future personnel with the specific skill-set required to staff the lab division will also constitute a major addition to our existing team of associates.”
—David Pildes