President and CEO of Torrance, CA-based Younger Optics, David Rips knows the optical industry. Recently honored by COLA with its Good Fellow Award, Rips has worked in the business founded by his father since he was a young boy. Here, Rips shares with OLP how he took Younger Optics from a small, family-owned business to one of the world’s largest independent lens companies.
Q: I understand you started working at Younger Optics at age 8. Is this true? What kinds of jobs did you do at that age?
A: My dad always felt I should know how to do every job at the company, so my responsibilities would run the gamut from cleaning centrifuges, to running machines, to making shipping boxes and even answering phones. I learned at a very early age that when a job needed to be done, you pitched in and did it. It’s like when you see young kids on family farms driving tractors or herding animals. My dad’s philosophy seemed to be: the harder and dirtier it was for me to do, the better. By the way, this experience is not so unique compared with many others who grew up working in their family’s manufacturing or lab businesses, especially if their parents were tough bosses. And both my dad and mom were tough and demanding bosses!
Q: You became president/CEO at a young age — by age 40. What did you set out to change or do at Younger Optics, and in what ways was this accomplished?
A: From the beginning, I was driven by the dream to turn Younger into a professionally managed, worldwide company rather than a small family business. I guess most would say I succeeded on that count. Now Younger is run by non-family professionals (I am the only remaining Rips here), and Younger is now the world’s largest independent lens company. Obviously, the company is very different now from back when it was a family-run business, but we have maintained some of the feeling of being a family business.
Q: Younger designs a series of lenses and you’re a big proponent of polarization. What lens designs particularly excite you, and why do you believe your newest, NuPolar Infinite Gray, is an important introduction to the market?
A: The lenses that most excite me are the ones that offer “breakthrough” technology along with superior optical characteristics. Transitions poly-composite flat tops are a good example. For the longest time, there was an open gap in the Transitions product offering because polycarbonate flat tops were not manufacturable. Younger had to develop a new way to make this product using a polycarbonate substrate with a thin layer of front-surface material to carry its photochromic properties. This “composite” technology allows us to make many lenses that would otherwise be very difficult or impossible to make.
NuPolar Infinite Gray is also in the “breakthrough” category because it solves one of the ECPs’ biggest problems: that some patients think polarized lenses are not dark enough, and others think they are too dark. NuPolar Infinite Gray intelligently combines polarization and photochromics to give both sets of patients the product they are looking for. Infinite Gray retains its high polarization efficiency in both states and it is one of the lightest and darkest polarized lenses available — depending on what is needed for the moment.
Q: What is Younger’s relationship with IOT?
A: At the core of the relationship with IOT is a common focus on both technology and customer service. IOT is run as a completely separate company under the leadership of Daniel Crespo and an outstanding management team both in the U.S. and Spain. In 2010, a partial merger became official, but each company views itself as the other’s equal partner, not as part of a parent-subsidiary relationship. This is a very important philosophical distinction that I hold very strongly. Most of the time, when one company combines interests with another, the smaller company becomes “absorbed” into the larger one, typically in the name of “synergy” and cost savings. I believe this “savings” is like fool’s gold — it might look pretty, but it isn’t worth much. Internal culture is the most valuable yet most vulnerable asset a company has, but it never shows up on any balance sheet. Younger is a distinct and independent company and so is IOT, period.
Q: Younger is very focused on, and has a unique relationship with, its customers. How has the company achieved this?
A: Younger is a privately held company, and that independence allows us to prioritize the long-term needs of our customers over the short-term interests of a set of shareholders. This means we don’t compete with our customers. We don’t have laboratories, retail operations, online sales, or sell to any company that doesn’t have a lab. Since we solely focus on manufacturing lenses, not on expanding to other areas of the industry, we can focus more of our energy on our customer’s needs and requirements. Manufacturing lenses and being the “easiest company to do business with” is our prime objective. Beyond that, we have been making lenses and serving our market segment for over 60 years now, and after so many decades, you get pretty good at it, and our customers appreciate this.
Q: You were recently honored by COLA with its Good Fellow Award. How and why is this significant to you both personally and professionally?
A: Nothing could be better than to win an award from your customers or from your friends, and in the case of the COLA Good Fellow Award, it’s both! What especially pleases me about the Good Fellow Award is that it is so emblematic of the optical business, which is absolutely filled with good fellowship! I just cannot imagine any other industry could be filled with more likeable, knowledgeable, dedicated associates than the optical industry. So, as just one of many Good Fellows, I accept the award on behalf of everyone in the industry, nearly all of them just as deserving of the honor as I am.
Q: Can you tell us about some of Younger’s specialty products and the company’s commitment to developing products that give patients the gift of better vision?
A: Every one of Younger’s products is a specialty product, or started out that way before becoming mainstream. NuPolar is a perfect example of this. When we first developed NuPolar, polarized lenses were 0.2% of all Rx lenses, clearly a “specialty product.” Now, close to 8% of Rx lenses sold are polarized, clearly “mainstream.” This pattern is common with Younger products, whether it is polarized, photochromics, high-index, Trilogy or Camber progressives. All were very niche at one time, but when you take all of them together today, you have a sizable portion of the total business revenue for a lab or ECP — and an even bigger impact on their profitability.
Q: Word is you have an extensive book collection on optics. Could you speak to why you have this focus (other than the obvious) and describe this collection?
A: I guess I caught the bug from my dad, who was a book collector with a specific emphasis on optics, and my copy of Newton’s Opticks was given to me by him. In contrast to his focused collection, my library encompasses the History of Science as a whole, including everything from a first edition Copernicus, to Galileo’s work, to Newton’s, all the way to modern science such as quantum and information theories. If an historical work is important in forming science today as we understand it, I like to have an original first edition volume. My own personal favorites are the first-edition works of Charles Darwin, a scientist I greatly admire. Darwin was perhaps the greatest observer of the world around him, and his scientific observations were built on a bedrock of logic and reasoning. As an added bonus, Darwin was a great writer, able to cover extremely complex subjects in a very readable way, even for the non-technical reader. I admire the ability to do that, and I really try to fashion my writing in the same way, although I have no illusions of being in the same league.
Q: Why have you recently been active on social media?
A: Over my 60 years in this optical industry, I have had many experiences, observations, successes and failures, and just funny anecdotes that I’m in a unique position to share. Social media allows a singular voice to be heard by many, and in a personal way. This industry has given me so much, and I want to share my experience with the rest of the industry, whom I consider to be like an extended family. Whether they are an ECP, a laboratory worker or owner, or work in lens or frame manufacturing, I hope they can gain something from my body of knowledge. I especially want to be an accessible mentor to the young people in our industry, and social media is a good way to stay in touch.