(Independent) Optical Laboratories, Has Its Time Come

By Jeff Szymanski
The annual OLA convention in Nashville, Tennessee, November 11 - 13, 2004, will fondly be remembered as one of, if not the, best OLA meetings in recent history. Even the theme, “Industry Voices Joining Together,” seemed destined to unite a diverse industry with even more diverse players.

As I look back on those three days spent in Nashville, I find that it is not the machinery, nor the education that most often comes to mind, but a much less conspicuous moment, which occurred during the general session on the second day.

As the morning assembly was being welcomed, a statement was made intended to appease a certain mass merchandiser who had taken offense with both the previous mornings skit, as well as the panel discussion entitled, “Who’s Killing The Independent?” Apparently, parts of the discussion where perceived as disrespectful to a select group of retail chains and mass merchandisers. I have pondered this one event many times in the months that have followed. On one hand, I think, “A large mass merchandiser is upset? Who cares? So what? They steal patients from my customers every day.” On the other hand, when I consider their position, I myself, would not want to attend a national meeting of my peers and have attendees poke fun at our company, even if it were only “in good fun.”

Have we become such a diverse group, and so overly competitive that our general sessions need to begin with such statements? Are we so diverse that we no longer have the ability to meet collectively as peers and friends in peace? Perhaps we have.

Many independently owned laboratories wrestle with issues and decisions, which have been the cause for many a sleepless night: Which anti-reflective lens system can best secure market share? Is it viable to distribute frames? Will Eyefinity, VisionWeb, or RX Wizard better position my lab in the future? Will our customers be successful enough to fend off the aggressive tactics being employed by retail chains?

These are difficult issues. It seems fair to say, however, that these are not the same issues that large retailers, mass merchandisers, corporate-owned laboratories, or even third-party controlled laboratories are concerned with. That is not to say that these organizations do not have their own concerns, only that their issues are in most cases vastly different from that of an independently owned laboratory.

Historically, it has been a sense of camaraderie and friendship that has united the OLA—a desire to be with a group of your peers who share similar trials and tribulations. It was, and is, a comfort to be around those who share mutual interests. This desire, I believe, has been a major factor in the formation and continued growth of laboratory groups, such as Lightbenders, Global, OSI and others who continue to prosper.

Dynamic shifts within our industry in the last decade or so have led to an organization made up of extremely diverse members. One could argue that the mission of the OLA is simply to represent manufacturing laboratories, without bias. This definition, however, seems to be so broad and all encompassing that the distinct needs of each member can hardly be met. It cannot be denied that the OLA, in its current form, has had a profound, positive effect on our industry.

History has shown time and time again, however, that many good and righteous organizations have had to be modified to deal more effectively with the changing tides. Abraham Lincoln once very eloquently stated, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Ladies and gentlemen there are divisions within our house. We must be willing to address these divisions in some fashion or run the risk of encroaching towards obsolescence, as has the League of Nations and many other such organizations that resisted the changing needs and desires of its membership.

JEFF SZYMANSKI IS THE SALES MANAGER OF TOLEDO OPTICAL LABORATORY, TOLEDO, OHIO.

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May/June LabTalk 2017