THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS A Q&A WITH US OPTICAL

By Christie Walker

US Optical was created on March 1, 2008 by three brothers…Ralph, Ron and Robert Cotran. Before US Optical, the brothers owned another lab, Optogenics, which they sold to Essilor in 1999.  With the advent of free-form and other new lens and coating technologies, the Cotrans decided to get back into the independent lab business. “We are entrepreneurs and wanted to create another viable Independent lab to help consumers see better, much better, and this time digitally better,” said Ralph Cotran.

Currently the third largest independent lab in the US, US Optical produces 1700 jobs per day. With 106 employees, US Optical prides itself in its 24 hour turnaround time on uncut lenses, calling itself, “The Fastest Lab in America.” 

“US Optical is the largest supermarket of free-form lenses,” said Cotran. “We give ECPs endless choices. We have also invested in automation with five free-form generators, 12 digital polishers, four Zeiss AR machines, two Crizal and digital AR machines, and two MEI edgers—the fastest edgers in the world.”

LabTalk reached out to Ralph Cotran to find out what makes this independent lab tick. 

Q: Being an independent optical lab today means you need to keep up with the Jones (Essilors, HOYAs and Zeisses). What is US Optical doing to keep one step ahead of the competition?

US Optical has excellent relationships with Essilor, Hoya and Zeiss. For example we are considered a Zeiss aligned lab where we have access to their latest lens technologies and best AR coatings. We are usually the first Independent lab to launch their new products outside their network and were the first to test Zeiss' Photofusion photochromic products. We are one of the largest Zeiss lens and AR Coating processing distributors outside of Zeiss' lab network. We just installed Zeiss' PURECOAT Plus and Allure plus.

We were also recently the test lab for Essilor's Transitions VII and just finished successfully testing a new cloth that activates Essilor's Optifog.

With Hoya we continue to bring their new products to US Optical and are about to sign an additional contract with them to install all their new backside free-form lenses. As you know they recently acquired Seiko's patent for backside progressives.

The three big manufacturers (Hoya, Essilor and Zeiss) and the medium size manufacturers like Younger, Shamir (owned 50 percent by Essilor) and Vision-Ease Lens work closely with US Optical in advising us of their new products for launch and in many cases, use us for evaluating and testing of their new products.

These same manufacturers love our 24-48 business model on uncut lenses with AR and 3-5 day turnaround on complete/edged jobs and in many cases might recommend us to customers looking for lightning-fast speed and excellent quality. As many Independent labs know and as the large manufacturers continue to find out, running a lab or labs is not an easy business; and not for the faint of heart. It is even more difficult to do what US Optical does with our 24 hour service, so there is large support from these manufacturers for our business model.  We are an extension of their services because of our commitment to this unusual business model and national presence.

We are also in the process of testing two more R & D products for new technologies that I cannot disclose due to confidentiality agreements. In both these cases we have suggested improvements that will substantially enhance these products. I am pretty lucky that both my brother's Ron and Robert Cotran are engineers and very smart optically. I primarily enjoy marketing these products along with our US Optical sales force and bringing value to our customers.

As you know US Optical has consistently expanded its operations, equipment and staff to maintain itself as a premiere Independent lab. Our excellent quality is not only due to the staff and optical experts working here, but to the constant equipment upgrade. Our facilities are much more advanced than many of the larger manufacturer's own labs. We are committed to continuing this expansion and more importantly, we are committed to expanding in the United States. You will not see US Optical outsourcing offshore. But you will see US Optical continuing to upgrade our facilities and reinvest in our business exclusively in the United States.

Q: Why do you call yourselves the “Fastest Lab in America.” What do you say to customers to back up that claim?

US Optical has become a national brand. This has occurred through the daily execution of our trademarked tagline FASTEST LAB in AMERICA!, our exclusive line of US Optical branded lenses such as the ULTIMATE HD, Advanced HD, Wrap HD and our PC HD, and our own trademarked Digital AR. We also have over 3000 customers that enjoy our incredible turnaround time, competitive pricing and excellent quality, If you call any one of our customers and ask them why they use US Optical you will essentially here seven or more reasons why they love our service. The primary three reasons are that we are FAST, have competitive pricing and our quality is excellent! Whether it is an uncut or complete job we are told we are the Fastest Lab in America! They will also tell you that our quality is exceptional and that we are easy to work with. They feel that with our excellent quality and speed they can make a ton of money and differentiate themselves from the "me -too pack." We add profits to the eye care professional’s  (ECP's) bottom line; and that is what it is all about.

When I open a new account that calls me on the phone and I explain our 24 hour business model most ECP's do not believe me. A few weeks later that same ECP will call and thank me and acknowledge our speed and quality and will tell me that they should have used us years earlier-that we have made their life so much easier and that they are very happy. One ECP even told me recently that if US Optical doubled their prices they would not lose a single account as our service is incredible. We obviously won't do this as we have very fair and very competitive pricing.

When we have lost an account to offshore outsourcing due to pricing—that would bankrupt most labs and prevent an employee in the US from a fair wage—we have gotten most of these accounts back. This is usually attributed to our turnaround time and excellent quality and the ability to work with a company like  US Optical that is reasonable and easy to work with. We also produce everything here…in America!

The Personal Computer HD (PC-HD) is a US Optical brand designed lens. It is a free-form lens that rates very high on the performance scale. What we created was a reasonably priced (value) lens that is comparable to some of the best office lenses. Because it allows customization based on one's reading focus, an ECP can tailor the lens exactly for a consumer's/patient's needs. Clear vision is available in three modes: reading (4 feet), desk, (7 feet) and room (up to 13 feet). It is available in plastic, poly, 1.67 index and of course in BluTech (a mid-index material that protects against blue light). This new PC-HD product complements US Optical's brands: ULTIMATE HD, ADVANCED HD AND WRAP HD. (FREE-FORM PROGRESSIVES)

Q: Your new personal Computer-HD lens… is this your own brand? How is it different from what is already out there? Why should your customers buy this from you? What education do you provide to help your customers sell this lens?

Our sales force is readily available to educate customers and we have created some literature on the PC-HD lens. Because the RX is automatically compensated by the free-form software it is also a very simple lens for ecps to order. All we need is the normal prescription.

We are currently in the process of launching our new series of THINNER HD lenses. These are proprietary US Optical free-form lenses that are 40 percent thinner than most free-form lenses with excellent optics.

Q: Tell me about the BluTech Lens series?

BluTech Lenses are one of the most exciting new products offered by U.S. Optical and the response from our clients and their patients to this new lens technology has been extremely positive.  Patients have reported "relaxing vision" and improvement in their sleep patterns.

BluTech Lenses filter harmful blue light and block UV by utilizing a revolutionary process mirroring the natural protection in the eye whereby the lens monomer is infused with ocular lens pigment; the result is an incredibly comfortable visual experience for the patient. The lens not only protects them from Blue Light and UV but also enhances their daily vision. BluTech Lenses are available as either an indoor or an outdoor (sunglass) lens in plano, single vision, digital single vision-Shamir SV Autograph and Attitude, FT-28, computer lens designs including Shamir Office and Workspace.

Our current progressive lens offering includes the Shamir Autograph 2 and 3 and our highly-acclaimed US Optical brands, Ultimate HD/Advanced HD, and Wrap HD & PC -HD. They are also available in the US Optical Single Vision HD and the US Optical Single Vision Wrap HD.

We’re excited to see enormous growth potential in the market for lenses that can help protect patients from the dangers of blue light and are pleased to be able to offer our clients BluTech Lenses. We believe in the science behind the product and feel that BluTech Lenses provide the most complete blue light protection and visual enhancement for patients.

Q: With everyone pushing free-form progressives, how are you positioning the Shamir Duo free-form bifocal? Who is this lens meant for and how are you educating your ECPs?

The Shamir Duo is not a progressive. It is a new generation of free-form bifocals. First, it eliminates the visible line often associated with advanced aging. Secondly, the vision is clear and smooth from one visual zone to another. Eliminating the line allows for optical continuity. There is a smooth line from the reading area to the distance without the  annoying loss of image. It is an excellent enhancement for those patients wearing traditional lined Flat tops. We rely on Shamir's brochures and pamphlets in educating ECPs about this new advanced free-form choice. Our sales force is also available to train ECPs.

Q: You have some great AR products. How do you position them to your clients?  Do you also offer your own brand of AR?

Our Digital AR and because it is excellent with a  two-year warranty, many of our customers use it. In addition, we have four Zeiss AR machines and produce all of Zeiss' branded products. THE SET/GET, Carat, Carat Advantage, Zeiss Allure Plus and Purecoat Plus. Crizal Alize, Crizal Avancee, Optifog, Prevencia, are also our premier AR coatings from Essilor; also produced in house.

We only position these AR coatings based on pricings: We are like Macy's and try to provide every single possible free-form lens and most AR coatings. It is than up to the ECP to sell what they prefer. Do they want a Mercedes, a BMW or Cadillac? It is their choice when it comes to AR coatings. With Essilor's consumer campaigns Crizal is definitely  in the spotlight.

 Q: You recently purchased some new equipment. How are these new pieces of technology going to help you maintain your position as “Fastest Lab in America?”

With new machinery both free-form generators, and polishers and AR coaters we are able to produce more work in one day. We also expanded our capacity, which means that our customers will get more jobs overnight due to our ability to produce more volume. 

Q: Where do you see your lab 5 years  from now?

I believe US Optical will double in size in five-to-seven years, and might add another location. I also believe we are the “Last of the Mohicans” when it comes to independent lab start-ups. Will other independent start-ups occur? Probably, but due to large capital investments and obtaining brands it will be very difficult. Free-form designs will definitely help but it will be still very difficult to brand oneself.

Q: How will you get there, with there being five years from now?

The same way we always have…fine tuning our business model and becoming more efficient internally. We plan to increase our sales force nationally and our own branded products. We will continue to add equipment, people, new products and new processes. We continue to believe in the large brands and feel they are an integral part of our business model. Their branded products are unique, recognizable by the consumer and superb optically. We are also looking for exclusive optical and lens products.

Q: In closing, do you have anything else you’d like to convey?

We are humbled by the support the independent eye care professionals have given us. We could not do this without our customers. We are very appreciative and will pretty much do anything for our customers...within reason!


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May/June LabTalk 2017