Making It Complete

By By Brian P. Dunleavy

When the lab director at Complete Optical answers the phone, callers frequently ask the same question.

“Can I speak to your lab manager?” recalls the woman, Jamie Currington, who has filled that position since the lab opened in the early 2010s. “They just expect it would be a man.”

Thankfully, people calling the lab—customers and vendors alike—have more than gotten used to who’s running the show at the Leadington, Missouri-based facility, which occupies the basement of Complete Vision Care, the eyecare practice owned by Mark Kahrhoff, OD. A lab run by women is hardly new to the optical industry—in fact, some of the country’s biggest and best labs have been owned and managed by women—but it is still, unfortunately, relatively unusual.

For their part, Currington and her all-female team have more than proved that they know what they’re doing around generators and edgers—not that they needed to. And they’ve always “just laughed at” any incidents of sexism.

“Once people get to know us and see how we work, they see that we know what we’re doing,” Currington says.

Indeed, the evidence is in the numbers. What started as an in-house lens processing facility for Dr. Kahrhoff’s three-location practice now produces more than 1,000 jobs per month, not including roughly 200 jobs per month for its own proprietary safety eyewear line. The 4,000-square-foot lab runs on two Optek generators, three edgers and two hard-coating systems as well as a separate freeform line using OptoTech’s FLASH equipment.

Although it occupies the basement of Complete Vision Care’s Leadington location, it operates as a separate business entity, producing jobs for other independent optometry practices from across the country. Dr. Kahrhoff runs the lab at cost, meaning it doesn’t make a profit. Instead, customers pay fees that cover only the costs associated with the eyewear it produces, including the labor.

That the labor is being done by a staff of women—in addition to Currington, there’s Megan Rion, who is in charge of surfacing and maintenance as well as all freeform work, and Misty Peel, who handles finishing and inspection—happened “by accident,” the optometrist says. Currington, a licensed optician who filled that position for Complete Vision Care before taking over the lab, had little lens processing experience when she started, while Rion had none.

“I worked the in-office edger a bit,” Currington says with a chuckle. She also handles all customer service and data entry at Complete, but notes that all three of the staff members are cross-trained on all departments “just to help out when somebody’s not here.”

“At first, I came down to help out in the lab and I ended up staying,” she adds. “Everything I had done before was on the optician side, and this was a totally different world, but I found out I really liked doing it.”

Like many lens processing gurus, the three learned by doing. It turns out Rion is mechanically inclined and has a unique skill for troubleshooting problems with the lab’s equipment. Hence, she became the maintenance technician for the team. Peel had briefly worked in a surfacing department at a wholesale lab prior to joining Complete, but the work was still relatively new to her as well.

“I walked down to the lab one day a few years ago and (Rion) had taken apart the hard-coater trying to fix a problem,” Kahrhoff remembers. “I’m lost when it comes to this stuff, so when I saw that I thought, ‘Oh no.’ Needless to say, she found the problem and had the machine up and running again.”

“Early on, when a generator or edger broke down in the lab, they had no choice but to roll up their sleeves and get their hands in there to solve the problem,” he adds.

Still, according to Currington, Rion more than once had to make her voice sound deeper—jokingly—to get a tech support person she was dealing with to take her seriously.

“That stuff doesn’t happen as much anymore,” Currington notes. “Now it doesn’t take them long to realize that these ladies are as good as any man.”

While others outside the practice and the lab may have needed convincing, Kahrhoff has always had belief in the team. Currington actually came to Complete right out of high school, some 20 years ago, and she’s been there ever since.

“She’s one of those people you get the feeling that if things had been slightly different one way or another, you’d be working for them instead of the other way around,” the optometrist says. “She’s bright and she’s got a work ethic. When we started the lab, she just kept taking on more and more responsibility, and it became clear that she was running the show.”

Megan joined the team three years ago, while Misty signed on last year.

Now, Kahrhoff says he is pleasantly surprised by how far the lab has come in just a few years. In addition to handling the lens processing work for his practice, the lab works with other independent optometry practices from as far away as Florida and Utah, fulfilling orders for all non-managed-care jobs, and hopes to take on more customers as well. He also expects the lab’s safety business to grow and, perhaps, outpace its conventional eyeglass work. He is even considering bringing A-R coating work in-house.

“We really think we can take advantage of our location, right in the middle of the country,” Kahrhoff explains. “Plus we have a great team.”

Even with that praise, though, Currington says she and her staff still have a lot to learn if the lab is going to meet those growth goals. “We’re still figuring out a lot of kinks and we don’t have everything down to a ‘T’ yet, but we’re doing pretty good,” she notes. “Mark is our biggest cheerleader and the lab is his baby. That helps.”


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Labtalk June 2020