Vision-Ease Lens CEO John Weber started in the contact lens industry in 1993 with Ocular Sciences, Inc. and worked in distribution, production, and marketing until 2001. He then moved to CooperVision, Inc. where he held various executive and leadership roles in manufacturing, logistics, and marketing. He served as Vice President of Worldwide Operations, President of the Asia Pacific region, and most recently, President. John took over the reins of Vision-Ease in November, 2014. Here he talks to VCPN about Vision-Ease’s strengths in the market, its continued commitment to eco responsibility, and why the company will keep producing “firsts.”
ED DE GENNARO: How is the Vision-Ease of today similar to the company established in 1930 and how is it different?
JOHN WEBER: I really don’t think of our business as old and new, it’s a natural evolution as the marketplace changes and as the needs of our customers change. It’s about understanding where the market is going and helping our customers be successful in that market. We do this by staying true to several tenets that have been with the company since the beginning. Going through our branding process this year, we’re trying to reinvigorate the spirit that goes back to the ’30s. We strive to align our employee base with what we do well and the value that we bring our customers.
ED: What do you see as Vision-Ease’s niche in the lens market these days?
JOHN: I believe it is crafting unique programs designed to help our customers improve their business results. People tend to want to label Vision-Ease as a niche player in the sun or bifocal category or a glass lens or polycarbonate producer.
I don’t think people realize that we strive to be a full supplier. Cast plastic is an important part of our business, but we’re under-indexed in that area as well as AR coating. Those are things we’re concentrating on in the next few years. We really have broad product offerings and we’ve positioned ourselves not as a lens manufacturer, but as a solution for the customer.
ED: What do you think you do best and where do you think you could do better?
JOHN: I think our approach to the marketplace is what we do best-how we listen to customers and how we will tailor our product offerings. When you have those conversations with customers, you have to be able to give them the full range of products and services they want to deploy. So we need to strengthen those offerings and be much more relevant in high-index lenses and coatings such as AR and other functional coatings.
ED: What effect will Essilor of America, Inc.’s 100% ownership of Transitions Optical have on Vision-Ease’s Life Rx‘ photochromic lens business?
JOHN: Transitions is a very strong competitive product, and it will continue to be so under Essilor’s complete ownership. Our customers are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Our flexible business model allows us to be a bit more distinctive. Photochromic lenses represent about 18% of units sold in the U.S., and we believe it could be as high as 30%, so there’s plenty of opportunity for a number of players in this category.
ED: Vision-Ease has been an environmentally friendly company over the last number of years. Why has the company taken this approach?
JOHN: My predecessor, Doug Hepper, was a big believer in sustainability for a variety of reasons, everything from a personal belief to making good business sense. The Millennials, for instance, are very excited about sustainability. In 2008, we were the first ophthalmic lens company to make a commitment to purchase 100% of our energy needs through renewable energy. We pay a bit more for it but we believe that’s the right thing to do.
In 2011, we signed on to measure our carbon footprint as part of the Carbon Disclosure Project. In 2014 we were the winner in Minnesota Business Magazine for sustainable energy. We’ll continue to give sustainability a top priority.
ED: Vision-Ease got into plastic lenses later than most other lens companies, so why was the company the first to produce polycarbonate lenses?
JOHN: It’s part of our DNA to question market trends and we try to be innovative. Being the first to produce polycarbonate lenses is one example. Another first was the sustainability path. We were also first to start educating industry professionals and consumers about the importance of blue light protection with our Coppertone‘ launch. Film technology is another area where we excelled and really became a market leader.
We are a big believer in research and development. We’re increasing that budget and our R&D efforts as part of what we’re planning to accomplish. We have several exciting things in the pipeline that over the long term are going to add to the list of “firsts” for Vision-Ease. Polycarbonate is going to be a big part of the ophthalmic lens story in this country for many decades, and we’re certainly going to be a part of that story. But the important thing for us is to understand where the customers in the industry need to go to be effective and being proactive with trends. Our overall strategy is to expand our product offerings, not only from a lens perspective, but from a service and coatings perspective because they’re all important components to the customer, the industry, and the eyeglass wearer.