Overheard at the OLA - To Merge or Not to Merge? That is the Question

By Christie Walker
The hot topic, and I do mean hot, at December’s OLA meeting was the question, “Should the OLA merge with The Vision Council, and move their annual meeting and trade show to Vision Expo West in Las Vegas.” Instead of the usual keynote speaker on day one of the two-day show, the OLA assembled a panel and had a town hall meeting on the subject. On day two, they continued the discussion during lunch, where they answered additional questions, mostly on how the combined show would work at Vision Expo West.

Prior to the show, the OLA had sent out a survey to members and vendors in which 170 people responded, 80 percent of which were members. Eighty percent of the respondents were in favor of the merge with an even higher percent of the vendors in favor of combining the two shows at VEW.

The OLA board and The Vision Council had created a special task force that has been discussing the topic for months before the meeting, with the survey and the annual meeting being the best ways to take the pulse of the membership. The panel presented a slide show with a number of points before they opened the floor up to questions. The theme was 1 + 1 = 3, which translated to The OLA + The Vision Council = Opportunity. The panel was made up of OLA board members, OLA task force members and Vision Council members including: J. Larry Enright, Perferx Optical; Jeff Szymanski, Toledo Optical; Mike Francesconi, Katz and Klein; Gregg Chavez, Vision Council; Steve Sutherlin, Sutherlin Optical; and Mike Daley, Vision Council.

The biggest concern of the members was that—like the AR Council and Polycarbonate Councils, both groups that were absorbed by The Vision Council—the OLA would lose its identity. This issue was addressed in Larry Enright’s opening remarks.

“We need to figure out what combination of the OLA and The Vision Council adds up to three. We are not going to do this (merge the two organizations) unless we can figure out how to make 1 + 1 = 3. We are going to keep this a strong organization that is going to keep its identity,” said Enright.

“We as the OLA, bring a rich history to The Vision Council. We are different and unique. Unlike the AR Council, that was absorbed. We will not be like that,” stressed Szymanski.

“All those individual organizations under The Vision Council have their own elected leadership, budgets and representatives on The Vision Council board,” said Chavez.

“We want the OLA to remain the OLA, even under a Vision Council umbrella,” agreed Francesconi.

“We will keep the autonomy of our board and be the ones to determine the membership of the OLA,” added Szymanski.

“We have the potential to be a very strong voice to the consumer and for our customers. If 1 + 1 only equals 2, then this is not worth doing,” said Daley.

“The industry is changing. The paradox is that by joining with The Vision Council we could actually become a much purer lab association with some OLA members finding a better fit with The Vision Council, leaving the remaining labs a more pure lab association,” said Szymanski.

Here’s what the task force has decided so far:

• The OLA’s name and identity would remain the same.

• The OLA would retain autonomy to operate independently within The Vision Council.

• The OLA board structure and leadership would stay the same.

• OLA products and services would stay the same.

• A dues structure that allowed a lab to pay one fee to belong to both the OLA and The Vision Council would be determined.

• Savings of expenses by merging office space and admin costs would be realized.

Many of the questions from the floor were asking for specific information on what the new meeting and show floor would look like. The following information was presented:

The OLA Meeting and Show would be held at Vision Expo West, Las Vegas

• There would be exclusive OLA education sessions

• Exclusive OLA daily keynote speakers

• There would be some (currently proposed—two hours in the morning) exclusive show floor time, in addition to the regular Vision Expo show floor times.

• Exclusive OLA member lounge and meeting rooms

• Networking breakfasts, lunches and OLA member reception

• Hall of Fame Banquet and the Awards of Excellence would be part of the event.

“It’s the goal of the OLA to make this happen in 2010, but there are a lot of obstacles to overcome to make this happen. I’m thinking that 2011 is more likely,” said Sutherlin.

“We have obligations with the Gaylord for 2010. We have a lot of hard discussions ahead of us. We are working hard to finalize details. I imagine we will have a vote from the members on whether or not to merge during the first quarter of 2010,” said Enright.

“We are not sailing on the Titanic. There are no icebergs in sight,” emphasized Sutherlin.

“The organization is very strong,” Szymanski agreed. “It’s the trade show component that is compelling us to look at this. But the organization is very strong.”

“We are as financially sound as we’ve ever been. We are just being proactive, here,” said Enright.

Identified Benefits of Merging

• Continued mutual success of both organizations

• Reduced expenses and reduced travel with a combined tradeshow and offices

• Strength in numbers

• Advocacy, clout and credibility

• Increased member services

• A more focused mission…supporting labs

“The resources of The Vision Council can help turn the goals of the individual organizations into reality,” said Daley.

“For example, under The Vision Council umbrella, we could finally bring the new lens center to fruition,” agreed Enright.

“Our passion on the board is member benefits, member benefits, member benefits. This would not change if the OLA joined The Vision Council,” said Szymanski.

“We don’t see this as a take over. We see it as a merger between two equal organizations,” Daley added.

For the most part, the vendors were in favor of merging the two trade shows. The cost savings for them would be huge. There was plenty of discussion and questions regarding how the combined show would work. For example, OLA members were concerned about sharing booth time at VEW with their customers. Another issue…the educational portion of the OLA meeting depends on the vendors to supply most of the speakers. That limits when the education portion can be held, since vendors wouldn’t want to leave their booths during show hours for VEW.

Vendors also wanted to know “yesterday” if this was going to happen by the fall of 2010. With both ECPs and lab people coming to their booth at VEW, vendors may want to upgrade to a larger booth. Labs that traditionally have a booth at VEW to meet with their ECP customers were wondering how they will be able to do both—meet with their customers and meet with suppliers—at the same time.

More questions than answers were identified during the ensuing discussions, giving the task force plenty of input for future discussions. I spoke with several lab owners to ask their opinion on the proposed changes. The following two lab owners captured the consensus of most of the people I spoke with.

Tom Schroeder

Schroeder Optical

Roanoke, VA

“It’s sad that we have to do this but something has to be done. It’s important, though, to keep our (the OLA) identity. I think it will be a challenge to merge with The Vision Council. The ideas seem to be good but I question how it will all work out. I’m worried that the OLA will amalgamate into The Vision Council. I would like to see a second OLA meeting, separate and smaller, at a different time and location, without the tradeshow component.”

Hal Walker

Superior Optical

Ocean Springs, Miss.

“In light of the fact that so many independent labs are being bought up, closed down, or going out of business, I think this is going to happen. Look at this year…we’ve gone from three days to two, and it’s not just economics. The membership doesn’t like spending money, taking sales reps off the road and bringing them to the OLA. I think combining the two shows is the right thing to do. I believe membership in the OLA is dwindling. The OLA needs to look at ways to expand their membership and this might help. I think merging with The Vision Council and combining the two trade shows is the smart thing to do…the only thing to do.”

Predicting the Future

In the tradition of “Joestradamus” Joe Bruneni’s annual predictions in LabTalk, I’m going to make my own predictions based on what I heard at the meeting.

I believe the OLA will join with the Vision Council. The OLA will retain its identity, board, membership and traditions. I believe the trade show component of the OLA’s annual meeting will be merged with VEW. It just makes sense on so many levels. There are a bunch of details to be ironed out, but eventually it will happen. The vendors want it. The members want it. The rest is just details.

Based on the very small nature of the show floor this year, I believe there will be a huge push to have this happen by 2010. I believe there will be growing pains and issues, but in the long run, this will be a good thing for both organizations and the industry as a whole.

So sit back, relax and I'll check back with you next year at this time to see how I did with my predictions.

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May/June LabTalk 2017