ONE-TO-ONE: KURT GARDNER

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Licensed optician Kurt Gardner sought his place in optical in his teens as a file clerk for Pearle Vision and has made his mark through positions with Salem Distributing, IOT and now as VP for FEA. Here he discusses his achievements and goals within the optical lab community.

Q: You just joined FEA as vice president of sales and marketing. Why did you switch from IOT, a lens design company, to an independent lab?
A: When I came to IOT, it was a small company with big dreams. IOT won the lens design space. We had to build the groundwork of private label or personalized lens products. People automatically assume private label is cheap, but it means not nationally marketed or turned into a commodity, and that’s what IOT is. From my part, IOT’s dreams were realized, and I wanted the next challenge.
Now the battle is convincing ECPs there are more than just commoditized lens products. The best way for me to do that was to go to the people who are directly servicing the ECPs. That’s not IOT; that’s the independent labs.

Q: How did you get your start in optical?
A: I was folding sweaters at a unionized clothing store that fired you at 11 months so they didn’t have to pay union dues for you. The store manager said, “Kurt, what are you doing folding sweaters? You want to be an optometrist.” I always wanted to be an optometrist. I’m legally blind without correction. I’m about a plus eight unaided. He said, “Go find a job in the optical industry.” So I walked into the Pearle Vision that I had gone to since I was a little kid and applied for a job as a file clerk. Pretty soon, I was working in the lab and became a licensed optician running between stores and assisting the owner and manager.
After college, I ended up being a manager for that owner at a location in South Carolina where we did the work for his stores and some other folks as needed. Because I was a plus eight, I learned how to make plus lenses pretty well, so we became known for that.
Then I told the guy who’s been my mentor post the optician part of my life, Dick Pennington, “Hey, I want to do what you do.” He helped me get my first interview with Younger Optics, but they passed because I didn’t have sales experience. Then Salem gave me a shot. Steve Albright said, “Yeah, let’s give it a try.” I went there with a small territory that grew and grew. Then IOT came calling, and I went to work for them.

Q: What was your first major accomplishment in optical?
A: The first time I fit a kid with glasses. It might seem small, but the first time you help a kid see for the first time, it doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars you help a company earn. It still brings a tear to my eye. That’s what we do on a daily basis.
It was exciting for me. I started working in the lab when I was a teenager. I made my first pair of glasses before I could drive a car. It gave me a deep respect and passion for our industry because literally this has been my life.

Q: What were you able to achieve when you went to Salem?
A: Growing the territory was important. That’s how I could justify keeping my job, but the greatest thing was that I was able to get involved in some R&D. We developed some neat products. We developed a pad called the Tak pad, we did some dry polish, developed Aspire, did some testing on other polishes. It was exciting to be involved in that. It’s the stuff that I miss.
I also did an internship at Vistakon in R&D. I really enjoyed people bringing me a problem and let me find a way to fix it; I still do. That was all right at the cusp of digital. What are the new products that labs are going to need in five, ten years? The exciting stuff was developing new products that actually improved the work of our customers.

Q: Do you have a background in math or engineering or an education in opticianry?
A: I studied clinical science. I’m also a licensed optician in the state of New York and South Carolina. I’m ABO certified, that’s something you’re required to be. I don’t have a background per se in math, but I always enjoyed math. I took a lot of optics in college. I grew up in Rochester, NY, which is like the home of optics. So you’re surrounded by that in the education model. When you’re in sciences, you’re going to take some optics courses. Until recently, I had never taken a business class. I decided to go back to school because I was trying to develop myself into a more well rounded business person. I had never taken a business course, so I ended up going back and getting a degree from Southern New Hampshire University in business administration. And I’m going on to get an MBA.
My background in engineering and understanding lens design came from IOT. When I first started with IOT, I went to Spain and got a course in ophthalmic optics and calculus and understanding the principles behind lens design.

Q: Going back even further, what did you do for Powell Gebhard and Pearle Vision?
A: Powell Gebhard, was Doctor Powell and Gene Gebhard. Gene was the guy who gave me my start. He gave me a chance. When I wanted to learn more, he gave me more to learn. And when I asked for still more to learn, he just kept going.
The biggest thing I did there was when I came to work at the lab he had in South Carolina, he had a really high breakage number, and we got that lab snapped into shape pretty quickly. Now, everybody has all these coatings. But 20 years ago, not everybody had AR coating on everything, and we were doing progressives in an hour.

Q: You decreased breakage from 14% to about 2%. How were you able to do that, and what is your cost-of-business-by-the-minute philosophy?
A: Too many people in every business look at the small problems. Say you have a lab that does 150 jobs a day, and we spend two hours trying to figure out what happened to one lens. That’s a waste of time when you figure out how much you spend per minute just to turn the lights on in your building. If you’re spending half an hour to try to fix a two dollar lens, you just lost money. It doesn’t make sense. See if you can figure it out. If you can, great. But if you can’t, grab a new lens and start over.
When I came, breakage was really high. The manager felt there wasn’t anybody looking at strategy. We would break a lens then try to fix the lens while we are also trying to run a new lens. Maybe the problem was a fining pad or a tool. This is the olden days of hard tool polishing. So it was looking at all that and sorting it out and that was really useful for me later when I went to Salem because that was part of my job. If the lab would have a problem, they would call me and I would try to sort it out for them.

Q: What would you say are the greatest challenges in optical today?
A: For the independent lab or the independent group, I would say the greatest challenge is the fear of consolidation. Notice I didn’t say consolidation, I said the fear of consolidation. So many people are afraid of the two largest optical companies merging or a group buying up all these private practices. Maybe it’s just my attitude, but all that does is leave opportunity. As companies grow, it’s like becoming a bigger ship. If we can learn anything from history, our navy’s best warships in World War II were little wooden speed boats. Why? Because they could go into shallow water, they could shoot and then get out quickly.
IOT is the PT boat of the optical industry. Independent labs still have that ability to be the PT boat for the industry. I truly believe that my new position with FEA lets me prove to the industry that we don’t have to fear consolidation but that consolidation has to fear us.

Q: And what are the greatest opportunities?
A: Finding your niche and owning it. Nobody does personal service better than small business. Go on social media and see what people say about how they’re treated by the largest companies. Independent business can own the individual because it’s people serving people not a giant international conglomerate.

Q: And what are the keys to doing that?
A: That’s my marketing strategy, so I don’t want to give too much away, but the key from the ECP perspective is to know your market.
Don’t try to be what some expensive consultant tells you to be. Go outside, walk down the main street of your town, look at the people. Figure out what they want and be that.

Q: Where do you see things headed?
A: My goal is to form an alliance among independent laboratories. I would love to see independent labs see each other as allies not enemies. We are stronger working toward a common goal than working against each other. We have some pretty large companies counting on the paranoia of independent labs to be our ultimate downfall, and part of my future is making sure that doesn’t happen.

Q: That’s a big goal. Wasn’t that what the OLA used to be?
A: The OLA, The Vision Council, there’s nothing wrong with them. I’m involved in The Vision Council. It serves a very important purpose. But The Vision Council has to look out for all of its members, including companies that have interests that include taking the lab work from independent labs.
My goal is to have a more exclusive club. The owners of labs get together. Not some giant corporation, not some vice president. The guy whose name is on the building, the guy who owns the shop are the ones who should sit down and talk and have a cohesive alliance, a partnership so they can take advantage of when some of these bid opportunities that happen, with venture capital groups for instance. Right now, no independent lab can service 150 locations.
Five or ten independent labs working together can stand up to these international corporations. You just need consensus on how the work is done.
Obviously I want to see the same for FEA. They are the ones who asked me to join them. But in ten years when we have this same type of interview, we should be talking about how independent labs have bonded to take on the big guys as an independent force.

Q: Lofty goals there, Kurt. I will call you in ten years to see what you’ve accomplished. Now, for the record, what does FEA really stand for?
A: Fast, efficient and accurate, and that’s my final answer.

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