You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to run a wholesale lab, but being a nuclear physicist doesn’t hurt. At least that’s what Ben Lynch has found during his nearly 40 years at the helm of Elmira, N.Y.-based Winchester Optical.
“I’ve had experience with other fields and I really think the optical industry is exciting,” he says with a chuckle.
Make no mistake, however. Ben and his family are definitely serious about Winchester and the optical industry in general. The lab, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in April with a special open house and continuing education program (part of its annual “WOW”—Winchester Optical Weekend—series), has been in the family since 1955, when Ben’s father Tom, who passed away in 1997, purchased the lab from the family of its original owners. Tom began working at Winchester as a courier at age 14.
“The job required a motorcycle and the owners asked him if he had a driver’s license, which at 14, of course, he didn’t,” Ben recounts. “But there he was tooling around on a motorcycle, delivering eyewear.”
In addition to eventually becoming Winchester’s owner, Tom is perhaps best known for creating the “box measurement” in the 1950s (some optical historians also credit Henry W. Hofstetter, OD, of the Indiana University School of Optometry). In those days, according to “Looking Back: An Illustrated History of the American Ophthalmic Industry” by Joe Bruneni, there was no industry standard for measuring frames. Labs relied on factory-supplied frame measurements to determine PD, which often produced off-center lenses. Tom’s book, which listed measurements for the frames on the market at the time, sold more than 400,000 copies worldwide.
“His work led to an industry standard,” says Ben’s son Brian, who, along with brother Mike, serves as a vice president at Winchester.
Tom’s book wasn’t Winchester’s first involvement in the frame business. The lab actually started in the 1800s as Winsted Optical, a frame and rimless mount manufacturer based in Winsted, Conn. The business was eventually renamed Winchester and moved to upstate New York in 1902. At the time, the company had six employees.
Over the years, Winchester morphed first into a lens processing equipment manufacturer and then ultimately into the lens processing lab it is today. Under the Lynch leadership, its staff has grown to more than 100 in four locations—the main office in Elmira and three satellite offices in Rochester, N.Y.; Geneva, N.Y.; and Greensburg, Pa. The labs process more than 750 jobs per day—using Loh V8 generators and Weco 4D edgers, and lenses from Transitions, Varilux, Younger, Corning and Essilor—for customers in New York, New Jersey and central and western Pennsylvania. Four and a half years ago, Winchester installed an on-site anti-reflective coating lab with Leybold CCS 250 coaters. The coating lab processes roughly 60 jobs per day with its proprietary brand LUXAR.
“They are a great lab but, for me, they’ve always been more than a lab,” notes Jan Liberatore, owner of JK Liberatore Optical in Horseheads, N.Y., a Winchester customer since he opened his shop more than 25 years ago. “They have sales reps with expertise in practice development and their staff is always there to offer information on the latest lens technology.” Ben, in fact, publishes a quarterly newsletter on lens products for the lab’s customers.
Winchester has also expanded its business beyond the scope of lab work again with the acquisition of Corning GlareControl/Medical Optics’ U.S., Canada and Mexico business, which was finalized last March. The business, now known as the Medical Optics division of Winchester, markets specialty eyeglass lenses through eyecare professionals for patients with medical eye conditions such as cataracts, macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and glaucoma.
“We wouldn’t have made the purchase if we hadn’t been already doing all the work for Corning under contract for 17 years,” Ben admits. “It’s highly technical, though the foundation of the work is what labs do every day. We really see this business as high-growth because of the growth in the elderly population in the U.S. We feel it’s important for the future of the business to diversify.”
That said, the Lynches are quick to emphasize that lens processing will remain the focus of Winchester’s business. Much of their staff—Art Waite, who works out of Winchester’s Rochester lab and serves as a vice president with the Optical Laboratories Association—has roots in the optical business and many of the lab’s technicians have multiple decades of experience processing lenses.
“I’ve always been impressed with their business sense,” notes Liberatore. “They always seem to be one step ahead. I tell my colleagues in the area how fortunate we are to have a world-class laboratory right here in our backyard. Tom Lynch had a love for the optical business and his customers. That has clearly been passed down to his son and grandsons.”
Both Lynch sons, like their father Ben, attended Cornell University in nearby Ithaca, N.Y. Brian, in fact, worked as an industrial engineer at Eastman Kodak for several years before earning his MBA and returning to Elmira to work in the family business. “I enjoy lab work,” he says. “It’s not only manufacturing but sales and marketing. It’s a great opportunity to do a variety of work and get your hands into everything.
“We have a great capability, with all of our services and our experience, to help our customers solve problems, whether it’s a patient with a tough prescription in the lab or a radiologist who needs a protective bifocal on the GlareControl side,” adds Ben. “I think the average office finds that, along with the fact we’ve always been a family business, very comforting.”