CANDID CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN VCPN’S ED DE GENNARO AND LEADING OPTICAL EXECUTIVES ABOUT THEIR PRODUCT STRATEGIES.
Rudolf Suter, president of Pro Fit Optix, has held senior management positions at several optical companies. From 1986 to 1990, he served as general manager of Loh Switzerland and principal and president of Satis Vacuum. In 1998, Ruedi sold this company and focused on several start-up businesses. Optixx AG of Switzerland was founded in 2002 and became an important player in the field of free-form progressive addition lenses (PALs). He recently moved to the U.S. to head up Pro Fit. Here, Rudhi talks about Pro Fit’s position in the marketplace.
Ed De Gennaro: What’s Pro Fit’s mission?
Ruedi Suter: Pro Fit was originally founded as a virtual lab for free-form. The company had proprietary software developed for online ordering in a very efficient manner so eyecare professionals (ECPs) could purchase a large array of free-form lenses on the Web at an excellent value. It then signed supply contracts with Rodenstock, Optixx AG, HOYA VISION CARE, North America, KODAK, and ILT.
The initial company model was that an ECP would order lenses using our online software, which routed the job to a worldwide processing partner, then the ECP would receive uncut lenses in a few days from Pro Fit. In its original design, Pro Fit was purely a distribution company.
EDG: How has the company changed?
RS: In one way, we’re still the same company because free-form surfaced lenses are still offered online at an attractive price. We’ve also begun distributing products like semi-finished progressive blanks so we’re selling Rodenstock lenses as a high-end product. Rodenstock frames are even sold. In addition, we are building a full-service free-form lab in Dallas for the production of free-form individualized progressive addition lenses (PALs) and single-vision lenses under Rodenstock software licensing, Optix software licensing, and other software to come. Programs are also available to provide Pro Fit’s licenses for labs so we can offer identity lenses and the OptixCalc software (from the Swiss company Optixx) to other labs.
EDG: How were your lens partners selected?
RS: We chose them based on brand reputation and on quality, and put them into a pyramid to create a complete portfolio of products from premium to value and everything in between. The peak of this pyramid has the Rodenstock brand. In the middle is Pro Fit Identity and the lower segment has the private label product, Acuity.
New brands will continually be added because each one has different design criteria, materials, and options. Free-form lenses have variable corridors and variable insets. Some have two or three different lifestyle uses and every company has its own mix of specialized uses and design philosophies. Our goal is to provide one-stop shopping for customers.
EDG: Will Pro Fit still be a value-oriented company?
RS: We are and will remain a premium product company with a value price proposition. We also want to be the driving force to convert all PAL users into free-form lens users. We see ourselves as a catalyst and if that means a partnership with a wholesale laboratory, that’s where we want to be. If that means education, sales, distribution partnerships with IPAs or managed health care groups, that’s where we’re going to be.
One important element in making a highly technical operation like a free-form laboratory successful is training and support. Maybe that’s the reason the U.S. free-form lens market is only about 3% of all PALs sold. Without the training and technical support that we’re offering, all this complex technology won’t work properly.
EDG: Why did you introduce your own line of free-form PALs?
RS: Pro Fit introduced the private-label Acuity brand as a value position product. By having a value package of designated materials and designs, we’ve made free-form PALs more widely available. ECPs can order a free-form lens at a similar price to a conventional PAL, eliminating the price barrier that causes some practitioners to hesitate trying these lenses.
Pro Fit is “design neutral.” We don’t push doctors or patients into one box; we give “good, better, best” options and they decide which works best for them.
EDG: What’s the future for Pro Fit?
RS: We’ve added to our distribution division, which is the virtual lab, and we’ve added the Rodenstock blank program; now we’re adding the free-form lab and software licensing. We’re focused on getting an important market share, which free-form will have at the maturity of this market. There are also opportunities to package free-form lenses to a branded frame and lens product. For example, a Ferrari frame with a Ferrari lens can be offered. This could be done not just with the Pro Fit laboratory, but with partner laboratories that have licensing agreements with us.