A LAB WITH A VISION

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Headquartered in Mt. Clemens, MI, SVS Vision serves 77 retail locations in eight states from Michigan to Georgia and underwent a major renovation and equipment upgrade two years ago. Purchased by a private equity company in 1997 that eventually brought in current President Kenneth Stann to sell the company, Stann and Rob Farrell, OD, ended up purchasing the company themselves, turning it into an optical powerhouse that is poised to open three additional locations by the end of this year. OLP visited SVS’s state-of-the-art, automated lab and spoke with Fred Chandonnet, vice president of manufacturing, to find out its unorthodox back story and the keys to its continued growth.

OLP: SVS’s lab has 53 lab employees and most of them have been here 20, 30-some-odd years. That’s a testament. Fred, how did you get started in the industry?

Chandonnet: Well, I started fresh out of high school. I turned down a scholarship to go to a college in Chicago because I had an opportunity to get into an apprenticeship in the optical industry. At the time, my brother-in-law was working for a Michigan-based company here, New Vision, as a manager. He got me in one of the last apprenticeships that they had. Back then, they had the five-year apprenticeship program. I started in 1975.

Then, New Vision was bought out by Cole National. At that point in time, I parted and went to work at Henry Ford OptimEyes. I was enticed to come over here by Dr. Farrell, who’s one of the principals now, and run their laboratory here at SVS. It’s been 17 years. We were doing about 600 jobs a day on all antiquated equipment. But it was a roller rink. The floors were horrendous. It was hard to keep the place clean because wood and water don’t mix, and anytime you’d have a spill you’d have a warped floor.

OLP: Tell us a little bit about SVS’s history and how you and the current president got involved.

Chandonnet: Avery Sterling and I hit it off years and years ago. He had a small wholesale lab back in 1974, I believe, here in Michigan. He was servicing a few small retailers around here. He ended up acquiring four offices from one of his customers that he was doing lab work for, and he kind of grew from there.

We were in the middle of an all-union workforce here with the automotive industry, and he had an opportunity with Ford Motor Company. He started an insurance entity, and he sold them insurance. So, the company was built around the Ford Motor Company. That’s why we were in 11 different states when I came here, because wherever there was a Ford plant, Avery would put an office to service all the Ford workers, the hourly workers, because he had a contract with them to take care of that. He put small locations with doctors and would take care of all the Ford patients.

OLP: Did that evolve into Henry Ford OptimEyes, or were they just a big competitor?

Chandonnet: They were abig competitor. First Optometry was the retail end, and Henry Ford had optical shops in their Ford entities, their Ford hospitals. But they were not very well run, because they weren’t retailers. They were trying to run a retail office like a medical office and it didn’t work. So that’s where that merger came in—Henry Ford basically bought out First Optometry.

A Detroit State of Mind
Detroit sports fans are sure to have noticed SVS Vision: The company sponsors several local, major league teams.In 2007, SVS became a sponsor of the Detroit Red Wings, at the Little Caesers Arena, the team’s home ice. Extensive branded company content runs throughout the event center, from programs and digital panels to inclusion in both the Red Wings’ app and website. SVS also sponsors the goals under review during play as well as game delays caused by needed glass repairs.Since 2009, SVS has been the official optical provider of the Detroit Lions football team, and an entire concourse at Ford Field is named after SVS Vision. But that’s not all: SVS has also been a sponsor of the Pistons since 2014, and take in a Tigers game at Comerica Park and you may spot SVS Vision on the right field center sign, in instant replays and occasionally, on the back pads. SVS has sponsored the team since 2004.

“As a life-long Michigan resident and Detroit sports fan, I understand the importance that our Detroit sports teams have in our community,” said Kenneth Stann, president. “SVS Vision is a Michigan-based company that has strong roots in Detroit. We’ve always felt that it is important for us to create strong relationships with the teams in an effort to support our community.”

In addition to sports, SVS became a sponsor of both the Detroit Zoo and The Parade Co. last year, and SVS debuted its float at the 2017 America’s Thanksgiving Parade.
“We have such great partnerships with the Detroit sports teams that we wanted to get involved with more Michigan-based companies and charitable entities,” Stann added.

When I came on board, I want to say we had 52, 53 offices. We were owned by a private equity out of Chicago. Then, Ken was brought on a few years after I came in to basically sell the company, but there was an issue with selling the company because it had such a concentration of Ford lives that it was a big risk.

Long story short, Dr. Farrell and Ken ended up purchasing the company 10 years ago. Then, they were on a mission to turn it into a real retail company. Now, Henry Ford’s just a small part of our business, but we still have that contract. Two years ago was when we decided we were going to totally automate and get rid of all the old wood. That’s what we’ve done. It works very well now.

OLP: What prompted the renovation and the need to really automate this lab?

Chandonnet: Ken’s got a very aggressive growth strategy. If we couldn’t sustain the workflow and the throughput, it wouldn’t work. That’s why we said we’re going to build the lab up first, get the infrastructure built, and then fill it out. And our workforce is getting older. As we grow, there are two philosophies: you put in a whole bunch of equipment or you work the equipment you have longer. We chose to work our equipment longer because we don’t have an endless building. We’ve got 7,000 square feet here. I can’t put 10 generators and run one shift. So we’ve opted to run the equipment longer: three shifts for four days a week.

OLP: Pre-renovation, when it was the wood flooring, let’s say there’d be a spill, it would buckle. In the midst of work you would just remove the wood floor, pour some concrete and keep running?

Chandonnet: Yes, we would pour patches of concrete. It was crazy. The water would run underneath that floor. You may have a leak in one corner and 20 feet out it would warp because the water would run out 20 feet and it would try to get out. It was terrible. We’d have times you’d come in and it would be like a speed bump in the middle of the lab. We’ve had times where the old coaters were almost flipping; they were tipping over like it was going to fall over because the floor would push them up.

OLP: That’s the old UltraOptics coaters?

Chandonnet: Yeah, the old UltraOptics MR3s. We poured a concrete pad big enough just to have them sit on them so they would be level.

OLP: You had to use a suspended conveyor system, correct?

Chandonnet: What we did is we suspended it from the ceiling, so we took all the legs off and suspended it so they could pour the concrete underneath it.

When Carryline came in and put those conveyors in, we only had two-thirds of our concrete poured in our surface department, so the final third of it had to be poured after the conveyors were in. So we removed all the legs, strapped it from the girders of the building with ratchet straps—18 feet up. Then, they came in and poured all the concrete under it. We came in on Monday and put all the legs back on and fired it up.

OLP: What made you decide to go with Schneider? I’m guessing your history was mostly Coburn.

Chandonnet: It was Coburn to start with. I mean, when I started all we had was glass back then. We were all Coburn 506, 504s. We had hand pans.

OLP: What equipment are you running from Schneider?

Chandonnet: We’re running the Modulo blockers—two auto blockers and we have two manual blockers. We have three smart XPs and four Modulo polishers. We have the automated de-taper and de-blocker, two automated lasers and we run their dip coater in our coating room. We’re upgrading that to a BCH 200, and we’re putting in the 1400 AR coater. We run anywhere from 600 to 700 AR coatings a day through those two Modulos.

OLP: What do you do for your edging?

Chandonnet: I use MEI. We have three with TBAs on them. They’re incredible. They do a great job.

OLP: You also have some equipment from OptoTech and A&R.

Chandonnet: We have just one piece of OptoTech, the auto taper, and we use A&R’s mapper.

OLP: You also control your lenses. Are you doing any standardized PALs, or are you just generating them all?

Chandonnet: A lot of our patients are all insurance-driven. I still use a little SOLAMAX. SOLAMAX and Adaptor are our entry-level covered product. But right now, all of our Essilor products are freeform, even an Adaptor. I do an Adaptor freeform, Accolade, Ovation. We do all of those freeform. We used to sell a lot of Zeiss GT2 and if somebody can’t adapt to a freeform type of thing, we’ll put them back into a GT2 or something like that, or some fringe stuff. But we’re probably 85% freeform.

OLP: You have Zeiss, Essilor and Seiko, correct?

Chandonnet: And Vision Ease. We use all the primaries.

OLP: IOT for designs?

Chandonnet: IOT, yes. Zeiss is our primary.

OLP: EyeDef is your private label line of lenses, correct? What’s the advantage of EyeDef?

Chandonnet: EyeDef is a full series of single vision and variable progressives, all freeform designs. It’s the newest technology out there, and it’s custom made for us. I mean, it’s been tweaked just for us. The good part about it is it can always be the newest technology. If somebody comes out with a newer, better lens tomorrow, we can upgrade our EyeDef lenses tomorrow. We don’t have to worry. So we’re going to always have fresh, new designs under that umbrella.

OLP: What percentage of safety do you do?

Chandonnet: Today it’s about 8%. That’s by design. It used to be higher than that—12% to 14%. We’ve kind of backed away from that where we don’t have retail entities, in essence. We used to do a lot of East Coast business with a lot of utility companies because we had a good relationship with them. We decided to focus on the retail entities or on safety where we can drive the patients into our retail.

OLP: Fred, for you, what’s the difference between building a lab for a retail chain as opposed to a wholesale, independent lab? Is there a difference?

Chandonnet: Oh, there’s a big difference. We can control the lenses we use, but I think one of the things we can also do is we can make sure that we have the cohesiveness between the lab people and the retail people.

If you have an employee in our retail location that has an attitude or something about your laboratory, we can address that. We can deal with it and make them communicate better. And I’ve dealt with some wholesale situations where it can be pretty testy. The frame situation is huge. We have that database. We don’t key anything.

OLP: Every frame is stocked in the lab?

Chandonnet: Not every, but all of the ones except for a patient’s own or an enclosed frame [a frame that comes from an office’s inventory]which is about 8% to 10% of what we do. We pull brand new frames out of the boxes and replenish our stock inventory here.

OLP: So it doesn’t come from the store?

Chandonnet: There are no holes in our boards in our stores. You could sell the same frame 10 times in the same day. I don’t have to worry about frame-to-come at all. That’s a big advantage. It’s huge. The biggest bottleneck is matching a frame up to that tray. We don’t have those kind of bottlenecks, because we control the whole thing.

OLP: Do you ever subcontract any jobs?

Chandonnet: Very few and only with some specialty jobs. I don’t do glass.

OLP: What is the lab’s average turnaround time on orders?

Chandonnet: I just ran a report, and our average turnaround time this month so far is 2.12 days overall. On safety it’s 1.46.

OLP: And that’s on how many jobs per day would you say you average?

Chandonnet: Right now we’re averaging about 1,200 a day.

OLP: Do you process much polycarbonate?

Chandonnet: Poly is about 75% of what we do right now; photochromics are about 30%.

OLP: What lab management software do you use and what do you use it for?

Chandonnet: We use VisionStar. It’s very robust. The inventory module works wonderfully, and we use it to its fullest. I mean, we do everything on the frame ordering, everything on the lens ordering: the tracking, the ease of operations, and they’re very easy to work with. And they’ll do custom things for you. I have them working on a project right now to help sort our AR coatings by different strip times and things. But they’re going to build that right in to where it’ll make it easier for the operators to sort things. Little stuff like that, which is important.

OLP: How often do you run reports, would you say, from that system?

Chandonnet: Daily.

OLP: And analyze? Daily?

Chandonnet: Daily, yes. We look at every lens that goes through here and we log it. I see every job that goes through every machine every hour. We can look at that and analyze and see, you know, ‘Why is this generator now two jobs an hour less than the other ones?’ You know, those types of things. It’s all there.

OLP: How much AR do you do?

Chandonnet: Right now we’re between 45% and 50%, so we’re running anywhere from 600 to 700 ARs a day through our AR coating room. We have our own private label AR.

OLP: What about coatings such as mirrors?

Chandonnet: We’re big into mirrors. I actually used to take pucks and have them mirror-coated and put them on our shelf, and then we would just pull them off and do a progressive on the back and AR-coat the inside, and away you go. So we could do mirror-coated and AR-coated backside virtually the same day. That’s the way we run our mirrors now. We keep them all on hand and on-shelf for our mirror coating.

OLP: Is there anything unique about the lab or anything of which you’re particularly proud?

Chandonnet: Well, like I alluded to earlier, when I laid this place out, I looked at how many steps everybody takes. I try to keep things close together. I’ve been in laboratories, and you’ve probably been to them also, where it’s very difficult for the operators to maintain a lot of equipment. If you look at our layouts, even the new layouts when we maximize, we add more polishers, more generators, I still only need one person to keep that stuff running on one shift.

OLP: The surfacing area is a ghost town.

Chandonnet: We have the same person running the generators, running the lasers, running the polishers and maintaining the de-blocker and de-taper. One person. But I make it accessible to them. I make it easy for them to do. Even when we put in more equipment, that one person will handle all of that. Our people are trained to do that. I’ve been to some places where they have people that just watch for green lights on the polishers, and they can’t get to the generators because they’re too walled off by the conveyors. I don’t like that. They have to stand on each side of the conveyors and talk to each other because they can’t get under them.

OLP: Speaking of training, when you get a new lens style, how do you train your retail branches?

Chandonnet: We get the information out. We have tests that they have to take. We’re improving that all the time. We have webinars and we can go office-to-office; we can do a group setting. It’s not cookie-cutter, but we’re constantly improving that. We also give tours here. We brought 300 people through here when we were still in the midst of building this place. I did a half-hour session with them on prism and thickness and those kinds of things, which all helps. But we don’t add a lot of new lenses very often. We just refreshed our whole portfolio. We sent all the literature out and said, ‘On this date, we’re going to switch. Here’s the difference between this one and that one.’ So they had all of the information there. They had to read that and initial it, and it’s on file that they know we’ve gone through the testing. But, like I said, we’re always improving on that. It’s the doctors that we’re working with a lot now in trying to educate them on freeform. There’s a deficiency in optical training for doctors. They don’t get lens training. But the lens training that they got in their freshman year could be totally different by their senior year, so it’s hard to do. But, personally, I think they ought to have an internship, kind of like a residency in a laboratory.

View the SVS Vision timeline here.

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