Upfront: Lab Watch


The Little Things

The Little Things
Opti-Matrix uses its small size to its advantage 

by Brian P. Dunleavy

Big things come in small packages. At least that seems to be the case with Opti-Matrix, an independent wholesale lab in Huntsville, Ala. Despite its relatively small size—the facility is only 6,800 square feet and handles fewer than 70 customers—the lab offers services such as rimless work and in-house anti-reflective (A-R) coating heretofore limited to, at least according to industry perception, larger wholesalers.

“People always say there’s not a lot going on in Northern Alabama,” jokes Opti-Matrix owner John Beach, referring to the largely rural region the lab calls home. “But we’ve tried to offer our customers the best service we can, regardless of our size. It’s been our philosophy since the beginning.”

“People always say there’s not a lot going on in Northern Alabama. But we’ve tried to offer our customers the best service we can, regardless of our size. It’s been our philosophy since the beginning.”

—John Beach

Beach, who has been in the lab industry since the late 1960s, opened Opti-Matrix in 1987. Since then, he has aggressively sought ways to expand the scope of the business without changing its fundamental position as a small, independent lab servicing independent dispensers.

In one of those moves, the lab added in-house A-R coating capability with the installation of a PlasmaCoat system from DAC in the mid-1990s. It now serves as a distributor of A-Rx, a coating brand licensed through Mansfield, Ohio-based wholesaler Interstate Optical.

Earlier this year, Beach decided to broaden Opti-Matrix’s rimless specialty (roughly 20 of 225 jobs processed in the lab each day are rimless) through the creation of “Rimless Simplicity,” a complete rimless frame and lens package program. Through Rimless Simplicity, customer dispensers can purchase complete rimless eyewear for patients in a variety of frame styles with single-vision, bifocal or progressive lenses (in polycarbonate).

In addition, according to Beach, the lab strives to be especially stringent with its quality standards. The lab exceeds the prescription accuracy standards offered by the American National Standards Institute and has kept customer returns well below 1 percent, Beach says. Many Opti-Matrix’s larger lab competitors would love that track record.

“We strive to be a good partner to our customers,” explains Beach. “We are a small business, an independent business, just like most of our customers. We stress that to our customers. Customer service is real big for us. We believe our business involves meeting the needs of one patient at a time. We feel good about the size we are because it enables us to do just that.”

“I’ve always been impressed by their customer communication,” adds Linda Johnson, office manager for Eyecare Associates in Northport, Ala., a long-time Opti-Matrix customer. “When new products come out, a lot of labs will just send something in the mail. John takes the time to call us himself and tell us how a new product might help a specific patient.”

With its small size, Beach says Opti-Matrix is able to offer this type of one-on-one attention to customers in Alabama, southern Tennessee and central Georgia. At the same time, however, its stature hardly limits the business on the product side. Opti-Matrix offers lenses from Rodenstock, Zeiss, Essilor, Sola and Seiko, using equipment from Gerber Coburn (SL-2 generators and Step One blockers), Loh, Weco and National Optronics to process them.

The lab has been so successful with Rodenstock product, in fact, that it was recognized by the lens manufacturer as its Circle of Excellence Lab of the Year for 2001 during the 51st annual meeting of the Optical Laboratories Association last November. According to Beach, the lab began distributing Rodenstock products in the early 1990s. Today they account for roughly 35 percent of the lenses Opti-Matrix sells.

“They have been a great partner for us,” notes Beach. “We’re not a Varilux lab, so we were looking for a brand people in the market would recognize as well as a high-quality product. It’s worked out well.”

That independent wholesalers would have nice things to say about Rodenstock might come as a surprise to some in the industry, who site the company’s recent efforts to go direct-to-dispenser through its Automated Prescription Technology (APT) product line and special production and distribution center in Columbus, Ohio as an effort to phase out labs. Rodenstock North America executives, however, have continued to preach strong support for wholesalers and have maintained specific products for lab distribution. In addition, Rodenstock labs can also outsource APT products for their customers and “get a good profit margin,” says Beach.

“A lot of the manufacturers are reaching out to get a piece of the retail market,” he continues. “Rodenstock isn’t alone. They have held true to us as far as their support.”

Opti-Matrix has, in turn, passed along the same kind of support to its customers. Amy King, office manager of The Eye Place in Birmingham, Ala., says the lab has given her dispensary a competitive advantage by providing access to the latest products and information.

“A lot of our competitors just can’t offer what we can working with Opti-Matrix,” she notes. “If we have a tough Rx, all we need to do is pick up the phone.”
And Opti-Matrix hasn’t stopped looking into new ways to help its customers. Beach says his lab is following the lead of many larger labs and beta testing a remote tracing/ordering system to help speed up order filing and enable customers to track jobs at the push of a button.

“We really strive to offer our customers products and services they can’t get anywhere else in the area,” he notes. “I really feel good about our ability to find out what our customers need and want, and deliver it. And I believe we’re able to do it because of our size.”