OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss.—Every company’s growth journey is unique, but for Superior Optical Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, it’s an impressive story marked by Service-Disabled Veterans support, 400 percent revenue growth in the past five years, and a recent expansion effort that has quadrupled capacity through state-of-the-art automation. Today, Superior Optical Lab is on the forefront of the industry—fueled by focused leadership, a strong presence within the Veterans Administration (VA) and ECP communities, and the powerful, behind-the-scenes Schneider Modulo One technology.

How It All Began
Superior Optical Lab was first started in 1991 by Service-Disabled Navy veteran, Hal Walker, and partner Jon Jacobs, with a primary focus on manufacturing eyeglasses for a wide range of eyecare providers in the region. In 2006, when the VA enacted the Vets First Program, it provided opportunities for Service-Disabled Veterans (SDVs) like Walker to receive preference for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business (SDVOSB) procurements. Because of Walker’s veteran status, Superior Optical Lab qualified for several of those contracts, which along with the ECP business the company was already doing, led to significant growth for the company.

In 2015, Walker and Jacobs were ready for retirement and sold Superior Optical Lab to Essilor. Unfortunately, under this new ownership and management, the lab no longer qualified for its SDVOSB contracts, which at the time, made up the majority of the lab’s business. For the next two years, Superior Optical struggled to maintain its presence in the industry, and Essilor decided to sell the lab.

Fortunately, two local financial partners saw great potential for the lab’s future—and had the right mindset and qualifications to make it happen.

New Ownership Restores SDVOSB Status
To reinstate the lab’s SDVOSB status and regain its primary business in VA accounts, the lab was purchased in 2017 by Derek Bodart, a Service-Disabled Navy veteran, and Tony Jones, a business executive with extensive sales and management experience. (Interestingly, by purchasing Superior Optical, Bodart and Jones have the rare distinction of having bought a lab from Essilor rather than having sold one to it.)

Once the ink was dry, the new owners were intent on building back the business that had been lost—and taking the lab to new heights of growth. They started by working to regain Superior Optical Lab’s VA accounts. After that, they created a new e-commerce platform, SpecsforVets.com, which provides discounted, high-quality eyewear for veterans and their families.

“We believe it’s an honor to serve our Veterans,” said Bodart, president and CEO, Superior Optical Lab. “This platform allows us to serve a larger population of veterans and their families, which is the heart and soul of our business.”

Thanks to efforts like these, Bodart’s and Jones’ impact has been remarkable. Since taking over Superior Optical in 2017, they have increased lab revenue by 400 percent, expanded production space from 12,500 square feet to over 44,000 square feet, and quadrupled capacity—all while changing to a new lab management software system, and more recently, dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a challenging period, but it positioned Superior Optical to achieve significant success in the years to come,” said Bodart.

A Vision for Growth, But Hindered by Capacity
Although the business was growing, Jones and Bodart knew the existing lab did not have the capacity to keep up with demands.

“We recognized early on that there were significant opportunities with ECPs and in the VA market for us to increase our presence but we really didn’t have the capacity to do so,” explained Jones, vice president and COO, Superior Optical Lab. “There is demand from ECPs for a strong, independent lab in the region, and while our intention isn’t to dominate the VA market, we would love to serve more of our nation’s veterans.

“We knew a laboratory expansion would position us to achieve significant success in the years to come,” he added. “We focused on becoming a more efficient operation—with the priority of providing our customers with quality eyewear in a timely manner and at a reasonable price.”

Last year, with a focus on expansion within their lab and into other markets, Bodart and Jones set up a five-stage expansion plan that would revolutionize their optical solutions. The expansion had four goals:

• Adopt new automation—Increase productivity and build efficiency with the installation of new automation, including a DVI laboratory management system and new Schneider equipment.

• Expand the floor plan—Create a larger production space by connecting two adjacent buildings, increasing the lab’s floor plan from 12,500 square feet to a facility with over 44,000 square feet.

• Diversify the portfolio—Maintain a strong presence in the VA and ECP markets, while expanding efforts into new markets and online platforms.

• Continue delivering quality eyewear—Become a leader in the industry for manufacturing and selling quality eyewear for generations.

About the Owners
Derek Bodart is a Navy veteran with a background as a jet mechanic. After seven-and-a-half years in the Navy, Bodart got out of the Navy to pursue a career in finance and ultimately earned a finance degree from the University of Illinois. A few years later, he earned his MBA from the University of South Florida.

Before purchasing Superior Optical in 2017, Bodart had been a financial advisor, private banker, commercial banker and VP of operations for a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

Tony Jones graduated from Florida State University and went on to earn an MBA from the University of South Florida, where he met Bodart. Prior to owning Superior Optical, he had a 20+ year career in pharmaceutical and molecular diagnostic industries, with sales and management positions on a national and regional level.

Pulling in the Right Partner
Bodart and Jones’s aggressive expansion strategy required a strong business partner—one with guaranteed success and support. They chose Schneider Optical Machines, based on a relationship that dates back to 2009, when the manufacturer first installed a small digital surface line to increase production rates. Since then, Superior Optical Lab has maintained a strong partnership with Schneider for their automation needs.

“We had ambitious goals and we knew from the lab’s partnership with Schneider that we would receive well-built and dependable equipment,” said Bodart. “No other company could put together the level of integrated technology we needed to revolutionize production.”

The teams at Schneider were excited to partner with the lab for this massive expansion project.

“With such ambitious growth goals, Superior couldn’t afford to take a chance on a lengthy project with different vendors,” said Kurt Atchison, president of Schneider Optical Machines, North America. “They needed a true integration and needed to rely on Schneider to design, build, plan and oversee the success every step of the way with nearly no risk. We were thrilled to provide the resources, personnel, and technologies to make the lab’s vision come to life.”

So, Superior Optical and Schneider came together in a natural partnership, resulting in a strong business plan, aligned goals and timelines, and a dedication to best-in-the-industry equipment that drove the expansion project.

A Smart Solution: Modulo One
Trusting in its partnership with Schneider, Superior Optical decided to implement two “rings” of the Modulo One system, a completely integrated system for eyewear manufacturing. The Modulo One system is the first-of-its-kind, fully automated platform for fabricating and processing ophthalmic lenses. It consists of 11 new machines within one workflow system to process quick and dependable production.

The Modulo One system was the right choice for several reasons. It’s designed to communicate with each machine on the line, eliminating human error. Routing and output directions are built into the system for easy production flow, without the need for an operator interface. And far beyond just machines and conveyors, Modulo is a cognitive, or “thinking” system, proven to generate reliable products within one workflow.

One unique aspect of the Modulo One system is the Control Center, which allows the user to instantly see and evaluate the Modulo ring’s efficiency and quickly make adjustments, as needed. While the Modulo system is not new to the U.S., Superior Optical benefited from the new additions to the system, which were recently featured at the 2022 Digicon event in Germany. The new system additions include the CCP Modulo One polisher and the HSC One generator, which add more speed and reliability to the entire line.

A Five-Phase Expansion Plan
The first phase, which began in November 2019, involved initial meetings with architects, engineers and general contractors. Because the lab was purchasing a neighboring facility and connecting the two buildings, it was important to solidify timelines, budgets and specific areas of physical renovation or completely new infrastructure. The final plans proposed adding 30,000 square feet of new infrastructure to connect the buildings.

The second phase involved working closely with Schneider to design the floor plan. Schneider led the direction to specifically house the new Modulo One system. “This stage can be complex,” said Atchison, “but Schneider details every step of the way in designing and integrating our technologies into an optical laboratory. A total system project like this is a huge task, so it’s essential for us to be thoroughly involved to achieve guaranteed results.”

During phase three, engineers did their work to design and place conduit and piping for electric, air and water in the new and existing buildings. “Building something of this size was especially challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jones. “There were numerous disruptions in supply chains which greatly delayed the completion of some parts of this project; but we refused to let that stop the expansion.”

By February 2022, Superior Optical was ready for phase four, which focused on an expansion of their anti-reflective coating room. Although the first four phases took longer than anticipated with COVID challenges, by April 2022 the lab was finally ready for the fifth and final phase of expansion. This step involved commissioning the new machines and fine-tuning the equipment to meet the lab’s specific needs. The project was finally completed in October 2022 with a grand opening planned for early 2023.

“We’ve accomplished everything we set out to do and the lab is already running so well with significant growth in our business already being realized, particularly in the ECP market,” said Bodart.

Atchison couldn’t agree more and credits the power of partnership. “Our commitment to each other through this project is the only way to partner,” he said. “We worked hard to provide a successful outcome for each other—and that’s something that was desired by everyone involved.”

A Promising Future
With the expansion of the facility, including production space and new automation solutions, Superior Optical Lab has high hopes to continue its spectacular growth journey.

“We’re excited about where we are today, but both Jones and I agree: the best is yet to come,” said Bodart. “We are well positioned to plug more equipment into our two Modulo rings and increase our capacity as business opportunities arise.”

Today, the bugs have been worked out and the lab is running well overall. Throughput, breakage and turnaround times have all improved, and the next step is to leverage the Control Center and DVI LMS to become more efficient.

Of course, the key to a successful outcome was a winning partnership. “We feel we have an outstanding relationship with Schneider,” said Jones. “They have always been there for us when we needed help during our ‘break-in’ period; and they’re a company that does what they say they will do. We like the fact that the company founder, Gunter Schneider, has his name on the equipment, and he realizes that his reputation is literally on the line. Gunter takes great pride in the performance of his machines and he is very innovative in his approach.”

Superior Optical Lab and Schneider are moving forward in a partnership that continues to revolutionize the optical industry. From service and support of the VA and ECP communities to the ever-improving optical manufacturing equipment, this powerhouse team is changing the way we see tomorrow.

About Schneider Optical Machines
Founded in 1986, Schneider Optical Machines is one of the world’s leading companies for the development and production of freeform ophthalmic machines and solutions. With several locations, including Germany, the U.S., Brazil, Thailand, and China, Schneider develops innovative technical solutions that inspire optical labs worldwide.