Candid conversations between VCPN’s editors and leading optical executives about their product strategies.
Founded as Eagle Optical in 1929 by two Italian immigrant brothers, Anthony M. DiChiara (son of one of the founding brothers) took over as President and CEO of Liberty Sport in 1968. Here DiChiara discusses how Liberty Sport is partnering with eyecare professionals (ECPs) through its valued Prevention Center account base to share its passion and mission: to prevent the loss of vision due to sports-related eye injuries.
ED DE GENNARO: Liberty Sport is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year. How did the company begin?
ANTHONY DICHIARA: The company was founded in 1929 by my father and his brother in one room above a garage in Newark, NJ. They named the company Eagle Optical in honor of their new country. In 1940, the brothers formed Liberty Optical. Then there wasn’t much differentiation in eyewear like there is today, so they produced commodity products.
EDG: How did Liberty become one of the leading American frame manufacturers?
AD: Back in the ’40s, there were 40+ American manufacturers. Most of these were entrepreneurial businesses and they sold to optical wholesale laboratories, who in turn sold to independent eyecare offices. This supply system continued until some of the larger companies began selling directly to eyecare offices. A number of them built their reputation on certain types of products. Liberty’s reputation was for plastic men’s frames. That was our core definition for many years but the thing that really set Liberty on the fast track was our aluminum-trimmed women’s frames. The introduction of the Starlite Libby really catapulted us.
EDG: So when did you start to feel the stress from the competition?
AD: As direct sellers became stronger, they introduced more fashion-forward products rather than the core eyewear we produced. In doing so, they redefined the market and made frames a fashion business while changing the distribution channel. I reacted to this trend in 1988 and changed our distribution to direct. Today, we have well over 20,000 independent accounts in the U.S. We went from 275 wholesale labs to over 20,000 independent accounts.
EDG: Why did you decide to move toward a sports performance niche?
AD: Like all business decisions, it was an interpretation of where we saw a business opportunity, and we thought it was sports eyewear. We had introduced Rec Specs in the ’70s and it had done well for us so we expanded that vision. Around the year 2000, we redefined the company and changed its name to Liberty Sport.
EDG: Isn’t sports performance a pretty tough niche?
AD: The ASTM 803 standards govern impact-resistance eyewear. It might be challenging but it’s also an opportunity to build something special and that’s pretty much what we set our sights on. We expanded our vision of sports eyewear to not only be protective, but performance oriented, too.
From Rec Specs, we expanded into some performance items where we designed products for specific sports activities. All of our products have sport specificity like basketball, baseball, football, Rxable swim goggles, motorcycling, etc. About four years ago, we introduced interchangeable eyewear and named it Switch Vision. It features magnetic interchangeable lenses.
EDG: What’s the vision for Liberty Sport from this point on?
AD: This year we implemented a full-service laboratory, so now we produce all of our own Rx’s in our Fairfield, NJ, location. We have become the complete Rx sports eyewear go-to resource and our vision is to continue to build on that strategy. We will continue aligning ourselves with organizations that promote awareness of the loss of vision through sport eye injuries. We spend quite a bit of money and effort doing this now. We’ve done programs with the AOA, Prevent Blindness, Special Olympics, and similar organizations.
Prior to our involvement with these organizations, there was an excess of 60,000 cases with a loss of vision due to a sports eye injury. Recent data show it was reduced by 30% to 40,000. We’ve been invested in this mission almost from the date we started Liberty Sport, so I’d like to think we’ve had a significant impact on that reduction.
EDG: In view of 85 years of business success, what is it that you’d like to share with the industry and ECPs?
AD: Independent ECPs have to recognize their moral, legal, ethical, and professional responsibility to reduce or eliminate the loss of vision due to sport eye injuries, and they can do it. All of it is totally avoidable. Kids wear knee pads, elbow pads, helmets, shin guards, and much more, but not protective eyewear. Broken bones will heal, but lose your vision and it’s gone! Kids are playing with street frames or no protection at all. The lack of awareness that the most important thing to protect is your vision-that’s the challenge for us. We’ve promoted this considerably to consumers, but multiples of that to ECPs. It’s not just a business opportunity for them; it’s a professional responsibility. If an ECP can save the vision of one patient by preventing a sport eye injury, isn’t it worth it?