Colleagues Remember the Contributions of Longtime Optical Retail Exec, Craig Risk, 66


CINCINNATI—Craig Risk, a longtime optical retail executive, known for his work in the U.S. and international optical retailing sectors, passed away here recently and unexpectedly. He was 66 years old. Former colleagues and friends from across the U.S. and Europe shared their recollections of him and his many contributions. Risk helped to expand many pioneering retail concepts from the "superoptical" to lenses-first lifestyle retailing and online retail and was highly regarded for his talent and leadership.

Risk started his career at LensCrafters in California where he met the founder of that company, E. Dean Butler. When Butler formed EDB Holdings in 1996, through the holding company, two businesses were developed. One was Vision Express UK and the other was Vision Express Australia and Risk was recruited to participate on the team that started Vision Express Australia.

During his time on this start-up project, he was involved in all aspects of the operations, both retail store operations and the development of the administrative function, becoming managing director. The team opened their first store in October of 1988, the first to promote "one hour service" in that country and Vision Express grew to 13 locations in three markets in the first 18 months. Ultimately that business was sold to Paris Miki.

After his time in Australia, Risk was transferred to Paris Miki’s wholly owned business, Lens Lab, a business based in Louisville, Ky., and operating 22 stores in 18 markets. Focusing the superoptical concept in secondary and tertiary markets, the group was losing money but Risk helped turn the situation around and over three years there, eventually opened new stores in Seattle.

Soon after, Risk moved to a new challenge, as president and CEO of Vision Options, working with Butler on the concept, a startup founded in the U.S. and funded by Vision Express UK. The goal was to "reinvent" the concept of optical retail by employing an extreme application of "lifestyle dispensing," and the stores were outfitted with interactive displays explaining various lens options, a concept that was ahead of its time.

The business began acquiring small chains and entering management agreements with professional practitioners and ultimately controlled over 30 locations. The business was sold in 1997 as a follow-on to the acquisition of Vision Express (the parent company) by Grand Vision (France).

From 1997 to 1999, Risk served as SVP operations for Sight Resources Corp., founded as an ophthalmology-based laser vision company and then moved into acquisitions to build a referral network of optometrists in the U.S. From there, Risk also got involved with Eyeshop in the UK, one of the first online eyewear platforms, offering a "virtual try-on" technology. From 1999 to 2001, the company expanded but ultimately suffered from the first "dot com" crash and was merged into Sight Resources which had just over 100 stores by then.

It was after that that Risk moved onto one of the biggest retail adventures, to help guide the further growth of Lensmaster in Russia, which started to develop the Western concept of the optical superstore in that country. He was there first as COO, then as co-president and CEO of that group. Ultimately, Lensmaster grew from three to six stores by the end of 2003 to 24 stores by the end of 2005, when an agreement was reached to sell the business to HAL Holding BV, and Risk stayed on for another seven years, continuing the expansion.

Commented Reade Fahs, ceo, National Vision, Inc., "Craig was a wonderful member of our global optical community. He played a variety of important and unique leadership roles at a most exciting turning point in the development of our industry—specifically the moment when superopticals went global. The people attracted to this were an intrepid group of adventurous people who had to overcome a myriad of regulatory, logistical, and cultural issues well beyond anything faced by the folks who stuck to their domestic markets.

"In so doing, they also had the absolute best stories to tell. Craig played a role in the development of the industry in the U.S., Australia, the U.K. and most prominently Russia where he and his partner Arian Alikahni created the first real optical chain out of the former state-run Russian Optical Ministry. I went to Moscow in 2012 to spend a week with Craig as I had heard a lot about Lensmaster and wanted to understand it better. When I heard what they had started with and saw what they had become I was simply astounded."

Fahs added, "As importantly, no matter the country or the difficulty of the circumstance Craig was the same personable, low ego, nuts and bolts well rounded superb operator that brought fairness, consistency, and discipline amid a very difficult retail environment. Large numbers of people, including me, benefited from and learned from the example set by Craig’s personality and leadership. He will be sorely missed."

Alikhani told VMAIL,"Craig and I worked together at Lensmaster in Russia for 14 years. He joined me shortly after I co-founded the business as we needed an industry expert to help bring best practices to a new and exciting emerging market. Craig was a unique person in the optical industry as he was a 'jack of all trades' who knew all aspects of the business very well. These skills were invaluable in launching Lensmaster and navigating it to become the leading chain in Russia. Aside from being incredibly professional and hard working, he was a remarkable individual, family man, and friend.

E. Dean Butler added, "What always impressed me most about Craig Risk is he was always first in line for an optical business AD-venture—anywhere in the world, including Russia, the U.K. and Australia. I was privileged to work with Craig from the early 1980s (LensCrafters) through about 2014 (Australia, Russia, U.K. and back in the U.S.)."

Added colleague and friend, Doug Meeks, "I am forever so grateful to have had Craig and his family in my life all these years. Craig has been my best friend and mentor and was just overall an amazing person. His knowledge and heart was truly a gift for us all."

Eyenavision's Dave Eichelberg recalls, "I met Craig Risk many years ago when I was the vice president of sales for Marine optical. He was a featured speaker at our national sales meeting and was one of the most dynamic speakers I had ever heard. Our paths crossed many times since that time and that passion never waned."

Added Sue Creek, now also with Eyenavision, "I worked with Craig in many different companies including Vision Express Australia, Lens Lab, Visual Options and Lensmaster, Russia. Craig was always teaching. He inspired me and everyone around him to do more, try new things, learn from your mistakes, don't be afraid to fail and start over. He was always up for a challenge. I learned more from him about leadership than anyone in my career. He cared deeply about people and led from the heart."

Another former colleague, Des Taylor, most recently SVP merchandising (retired) at National Vision, said, "During the 1990s I worked with Craig when we were both with the international division of Vision Express based in the U.K. We worked in many countries and Craig’s approach was always the same, calm and encouraging and working tirelessly to help get fledgling businesses to thrive in far flung locations from Argentina to Poland and in Moscow. His style was exactly the same and he was obviously well respected by his colleagues. The optical community is diminished by his passing."

Mel Groot, chairman, executive board, HAL Holding NV, told VMAIL, "Craig was the COO of Lensmaster the Moscow based optical retailer, we HAL/GrandVision, bought a stake in 2005, and I went every two months for board meetings there. Craig was in love with optical retail, very much an operator and a teacher to the management team that was assembled by Arian Alikhani. We were able to expand the company from 20 to 60 stores, and he was very much able (together with Arian and Amal Chakir) to professionalize the business in a personal and technical way.

"He always enjoyed learning from other experiences. One of the stories we never forget is that, in February, we went with the board to Saint Petersburg to see our stores and to see potential new locations. It was so cold, even in the car, that we stopped to buy an extra pair of socks that we put over our shoes! I think back with very warm feelings to the time we worked together."

More recently, Risk and his wife, Yvette, started the Cincinnatti-based Free Form International business in 2014.

Risk is survived by his wife, Yvette Risk , four children, Nicole, Ryan, Eric and Kylie, and five grandchildren.

Yvette Risk shared some thoughts about Craig's passion for the optical industry, "At 19 years old, Craig was grinding glass lenses for his father's friend, who owned an eyeglass store. His enthusiasm to learn and improve his skills was only rivaled by his desire to expand his horizons and see the world. He always felt lucky to have been given such great start-up opportunities all over the globe, that challenged his conceptual thinking skills. He respected, and felt very blessed, to have met a few genuine mentors/mentees over the past 40 years."