WILKES-BARRE, Penn.—Mergers and acquisitions over the past 25 years have reshaped the wholesale optical lab business in the U.S., yet some family-owned, independent labs remain vital, despite competition from corporate-owned labs. Luzerne Optical Laboratories is a notable example.

Luzerne Optical co-founders Lorraine and Jack Dougherty.

The lab, which turns 50 this year, has grown into one of the largest independent wholesalers in the U.S. It has successfully adapted to new technology, changing production practices to compete with deep pocketed competitors.

Luzerne Optical operates from this 50,000 square-foot facility in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Located in an imposing, 50,000 square-foot facility in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Luzerne Optical offers a full range of lens manufacturing and finishing services to eyecare providers across the country. It is an authorized laboratory for a wide assortment of lens brands including Hoya, Vision Ease, Signet Armorlite, Varilux and Younger, as well as private label brands such as Therablue.

Opened in 1973 by John and Lorraine Dougherty, along with Lorraine’s brother George Albert, the company is one of the oldest, continuously run family businesses in the industry. Brothers Neil and John Dougherty currently manage the lab, and a third generation of Doughertys is also part of the workforce.

“When Luzerne started the business, it was strictly glass lenses using mostly manual Coburn equipment. Over the years, new thinner and lighter materials were introduced like CR-39 [monomer from PPG], polycarbonate and various high-index materials,” recalled company president John Dougherty, who is known as Jack.

A lens surfacing production line at Luzerne Optical.
Over time, Luzerne Optical invested in automated equipment and technology, becoming the first laboratory in Pennsylvania to produce anti-reflective coatings in-house. “Progressive lenses became the newest technology, cutting into the traditional flat-top bifocal market,” said Dougherty. “Digital free-form processing has become the latest technology advancement, utilizing sophisticated software calculations and digital processing equipment.”

By systematically acquiring and implementing new technologies, Luzerne was able to adapt to each new wave of ophthalmic lenses, lens materials and coatings. By the mid-1980s, Luzerne expanded its tech-forward approach to contact lens manufacturing, enabling it to produce hard and gas-permeable contacts as well as custom designs.

Luzerne received several optical industry and local business awards for its commitment to quality and service. Dougherty, a former president of the Optical Laboratories Association (OLA), was inducted into the Optical Pioneers Hall of Fame by the OLA (now the lab division of The Vision Council). He noted with pride that in addition to himself, Luzerne is represented in the Hall of Fame by two industry veterans, lab manager Richard Mecteau and the late Ralph Kent, who served as a sales manager.

By the early 2000s, the lab was one of two independently owned companies in the U.S. authorized to produce Essilor’s Crizal anti-reflective coatings. An upgrade to the inventory room allowed the company to better manage its stock. Construction of a special clean room led to expanded coating production, and upgrades to the surfacing line in 2009 enabled Luzerne to produce digital free-form lenses in-house.

Dougherty said Luzerne remains on the cusp of new technology, lens styles and designs. He also believes in investing in his team to ensure that everyone is educated about the latest trends and can provide the right level of customer support.

In 2014, continued growth and ongoing innovation in the optical industry prompted the company to break ground on a new 30,000 square-foot lab. The facility is staffed by a team of more than 200 employees who have specialities in all areas of optics. Luzerne Optical has made a point to hire people with extensive retail and laboratory experience so customers can get expert advice on products and technology options.

In an era of quiet quitting and job changing, Luzerne has not only built loyalty with customers, but employees too. The company has many longtime industry veterans both on the inside management and production side and in its outside sales team, including some who have been with the company for decades.

To create a culture of engagement and learning, Luzerne provides employees with ongoing training to ensure they have the highest level of product and technology knowledge. “We are nothing without our entire inside lab tech team and our outside sales force,” said Dougherty.

This dedication to craftsmanship also extends to their commitment to offering products that are “Made in America.” Dougherty recognizes that the industry is creating newer and more accurate vision correction products. As a result, he wants to ensure to offer his customers at home access to the very best in lens technology.

“Our industry is an international one with many products, equipment and components coming from all over the world, but I think COVID taught us that supply chain issues can come up, and you have to be able to operate with just American resources when necessary,” he said.

“There are many great products from the U.S. and all over the world, so it’s important to be able to offer the best from all over. But as some labs continue to farm their production and processing of eyewear out to other countries, we feel it’s critical that our production is done in the United States in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.”

Dougherty pointed out that corporate acquisition of independent labs has had a significant impact on the family-owned labs such as Luzerne. “Consolidation and acquisitions in our industry can cost us some business at times. But it also provides many opportunities from the ECPs who choose to remain independent or in areas where other labs have been acquired or closed,” he said.

To build customer loyalty and strengthen connections, Luzerne launched several programs offering packages, discounts and training geared toward education and long-term partnerships. They have also become experts in “unusual and difficult jobs” such as slab-offs, quadra-focals, reverse slab-offs and myodiscs.

Offering these “specials” has helped Luzerne Optical gain recognition and acclaim by both peers and industry associations. Over the past 50 years, they have been recognized for service, performance and innovation from organizations like OLA, VisionWeb, the Contact Lens Manufacturers Association and numerous suppliers.

The most important reward for the Dougherty family has been the ability to watch their company grow and pass down institutional knowledge from generation to generation. As one of the few remaining family-owned optical labs in the U.S., Dougherty believes this continued focus tradition will benefit them in a fast-paced and shifting market.

He said he understands that the market will continue to put pressure on independent labs, but that Luzerne will continue to offer high level, customer-focused service. Neil Dougherty’s children are now also working at the lab, continuing to the keep lens production tradition in the family.

“We would like to see this family tradition continue and thrive for another 50 years, but it’s hard to say without a crystal ball,” he said. “As things constantly and radically change in this industry, the most important thing is to stay on the forefront of technology, provide excellent service and offer our customers many more choices than they might be offered elsewhere.”