Overheard at the OLA

By Christie Walker
Each year at the annual OLA event, I wander the trade show floor, swoop down on unsuspecting lab owners and managers while they’re trying to eat lunch, and listen in on conversations that take place in the hallways between classes. Here’s where you learn what’s hot in new equipment and lens products, whether or not the new format of the OLA show worked better than last year, and what challenges are facing today’s top labs.

In general, lab owners and managers were excited to check out the new offerings in lenses and equipment in one convenient location. With equipment manufacturers setting up functional edgers and generators, lab personnel could get a working demonstration right on the trade show floor. Some labs took advantage of the combined Vision Expo West/OLA program to not only reconnect with peers, but to meet with customers who were in Las Vegas for VEW.

The format of this year’s OLA event solved many of the issues that were apparent in last year’s show. Having the education and general session in the morning was a huge success, with great attendance for both. The OLA-provided lunch made for a great place to meet before heading out onto the show floor. Comments were positive for all aspects of the new OLA format, with high marks for the Hall of Fame awards banquet on Wednesday night.

When it came to the challenges labs must meet today in order to, not only stay successful, but ultimately stay in business, the responses were all over the place from the high cost of new equipment, to the pressure to keep up with technology, to competition from outside sources. Many of the more honest opinions I heard, while lurking around the hallways, were about vertical integration and vendors going into the lab business. These labs owners would not go on the record with their concerns, afraid of repercussions from the companies that supply them product. Apparently, not only are lens vendors purchasing labs, but they are purchasing business away from the smaller labs by offering cash investments to the accounts if they will switch their lab business to the new lab. With the deep pockets of the lens vendors funding these practices, it makes it impossible for a small independent to compete. In one case, an account was offered a half million to improve their practice. While the account was loyal to their current lab—happy with the lab’s service and products—how could they turn their back on a half million, especially in this economy? And so the customer switched labs.

But independent labs aren’t going down without a fight. Check out the comments from your peers on everything from financial issues, to equipment challenges, and yes, even the challenge of competing against the same companies that supplies them with lenses, to learn how they are meeting these challenges head on and what solutions they have in place to become successful in the long haul.

Diane Strickler

POL Optical Labs,

Roanoke, Virginia

and Arden, N.C.

Challenge: For small labs, I think the biggest challenge is the huge financial responsibility you incur when trying to keep up with the big labs. Keeping up with technology is difficult. Things are changing so fast. Once you get used to one piece of equipment, they change it on you. We have to settle into one way of working. Changing equipment all the time is not an option. Financially, it’s just too difficult.

Solution: We come to the OLA to check out new equipment to see if it’s worth the price tag. We are also a member of the Global lab network. You have labs who are fast adapters and labs that are slow adapters to new technology. We try to stay in the middle.

Chris Bowers


Minneapolis, Minn.

Challenge: As the operations manager, the biggest challenge is controlling turn-around-time, TAT. The ECP wants quality, price and fast TAT. We are trying to master all three. The best we’ve come up with is great quality, great turn-around-time and a moderate pricing structure.

Solution: In order to deliver great quality and turn-around-time, we’ve undertaken a project that is almost complete. We’ve centralized our more difficult jobs to maximize capital equipment. We’ve just finished building the largest independent AR room in the U.S. We have one facility that does free-form and AR. We are three months into the moving of the equipment and are just starting to see the benefits.

Mike Francesconi nd Corinne Hood

Katz & Klein,

Sacramento, Calif.

Challenge: Our biggest challenge is increased competition from many industry directions, due in part to the economy.

Solution: We are creating new revenue streams. Because the ECP is in the same boat as the lab, we are constantly coming up with tools to help the ECP enhance their patient base. We’ve already reduced our labor costs with the purchase of new, automated equipment.

Dale Parmenteri

Balester Optical,

Wilkes-Barre, Penn.

Challenge: The biggest challenge facing independent labs today is the consolidation and vendor-owned labs.

Solution: We are trying to make sure we carry all the major brands and technology in-house. Our goal is to produce quality products, comparable to the vendor labs but beat them on service. Our commitment to practice management education helps solidify our relationships with our customers.

Don Hampton

Diversified Ophthalmics

Cincinnati, Ohio

Challenge: Our primary challenge is how to educate our customers on the expanded menu of lens options and convey the information they need to order these lenses.

Solution: We have taken a three-prong approach to providing this information. It’s more than a menu of lens availability; we need to educate them on when to use an 11, 13 or 17 mm corridor width. There are new mechanics involved for capturing the information needed to make customized lenses such as pantoscopic tilt, wrap of the frame and vertex distance. And they need to take these measurements—in most cases—with minimal tools. And finally, with free-form lenses, we have to educate the ECP so they can understand the difference between the compensated Rx and the ordered Rx. We spend a lot of time educating our customer service staff so they can talk to dispensers, who rely on us heavily for information. We are planning to provide dinner meetings to deliver this information to our customer base. We also rely on our territory managers to bring this info to the individual offices that they visit on a regular basis.

Geff Heidbrink

Harbor Optical,

Traverse City, Mich.

Challenge: Today we face the same challenges we faced 40 years ago; thinking we are going to be driven out of business by the latest development. In the past, it was contact lenses or LASIK surgery, today it’s something different.

Solution: How am I meeting these challenges today? I sold my lab. For me, now was the time to sell and I sold to Walman. I still think the future is bright for independent labs. Our customers need us now, more than ever.

John Haigh

J&J Optical,

Paradise, Calif.

Challenge: The biggest challenge for the independent lab is to keep up with and be able to afford the new technology to make the premium products our customers want and need. Many smaller labs are waiting for the price point for free-form technology to come down. We all want to be able to offer free-form lenses and we would want to do it now, but we have to be able to afford it. For example, you can get into AR today for less than you could five years ago. So hopefully the same will be true of free-form.

Solution: We are working hard to become as profitable as possible so we can purchase new equipment. I’ll be looking for equipment here at the show that even a small lab can afford.


Labtalk June 2020