This year BOC Ophthalmic Instruments is celebrating its centenary. Managing director TONY COSENTINO reflects on the company’s remarkable past and explains how its founding principles live on today.
When Alex Gordon Champion, a little-known optician from New Zealand, arrived in Australia around the end of the First World War, it wasn’t long before he began carving out a career that would leave an indelible impression on the Australian optical industry.
Back then in 1918, Champion sailed across the Tasman and started a modest practice in the outer Melbourne suburb of Dandenong, and became involved in the original Victorian Opticians’ Association.
By 1920 he had moved to Sydney where he initiated the first of his two legacy projects. Champion established the British Optical Company, a business that operates today – 100 years later – as ophthalmic equipment distributor BOC Ophthalmic Instruments.
Champion originally wanted to name the company Australian Optical, but the name was already taken by a Melbourne firm. British Optical suited Australia’s close ties to the motherland and soon began securing agencies from Britain, Europe and the US to provide spectacles frames, lenses, cases, equipment and accessories to the Australian optical market.
Some industry figures quipped that Champion was more of an entrepreneur than optician and, in 1932 as The Depression started to impact BOC’s profit line, he and renowned ophthalmologist DR Darcy Williams identified a unique opportunity to take on the exploitative fees opticians charged for dispensing Rx scripts.
Ophthalmologists were also keen on a dispensing-only service that did not undercut their eye testing business. Champion and Williams collaborated in secret to establish Optical Prescription Spectacles Makers, presently known as OPSM, that began dispensing competitively priced scripts in Macquarie St, Sydney, before going on to become a national industry powerhouse. For many years, BOC supplied OPSM.
The fact Champion was behind two companies with such longevity is no surprise to Mr Tony Cosentino, who joined BOC as a technical consultant in 1980 and has been its managing director for the past 26 years.
“One thing I really admired about Alex Gordon Champion was that he obtained the best agencies and found people who he could trust to deliver,” he says.
“And I can honestly say that is something I continue today; the company is still a private business, with the same virtues of employing good people to deliver the goods and services to ensure our customers are successful so we can prosper together.”
Now in its 100th year of operation, BOC remains in Sydney with 16 employees, including Cosentino’s wife Luisa and their adult children Ricardo and Daniella, distributing ophthalmic equipment from more than 10 leading manufacturers such as Nidek, Righton, Reichert, Optovue, SBM Sistemi, Welch Allyn, Yuratek, Optomed and Topcon Lasers .
Under Cosentino’s tutelage, BOC’s purpose remains largely reflective of the Champion-owned era. However, the company has come full circle after enduring a turbulent history.
Assisting the WWII campaign
During the Second World War, in 1942, and 22 years after the establishment of British Optical, Champion’s knack for seizing lucrative opportunities came to the fore once again.
After securing a contract from the Commonwealth Government, BOC established a munitions factory in Palmer Street, Woolloomooloo, to manufacture lenses, casings and assembling gun sights for the Australian Army and Navy.
Mr Francis Lord, a BOC employee, was requisitioned by the Commonwealth to design the all-important optics for the war effort. Lord himself came to Sydney after escaping Nazi rule from his Czechoslovakian homeland via passage on an Italian ship.
According to historical records, he worked at BOC, but the company let him go when fellow employees grew suspicious due to his nationality. Champion was sympathetic and when he heard the Commonwealth Solar Observatory was looking to undertake optical munitions work, he chaperoned him to ACT for the job.
During that time, BOC also manufactured optical equipment including chairs and stands and the famous ‘bead heater’ for spectacle frame fitting and lenses.
However, after the war, the munitions contract was terminated, forcing the closure of the prosperous manufacturing plant. The equipment was relocated to Concord West and Framemakers Australia was formed to manufacture frames for OPSM. BOC also established itself at the same premises.
“During the war we showed we could manufacture in this country and should have continued to, much like the US did,” Cosentino says.
“We had the resources; we could make the optical glass thanks to companies like ACI (Australian Consolidated Industries) and Art Glass. The way it was set up, it was a great opportunity for Australia’s optical industry, but that went out the door because the Prime Minister at the time wanted to please the House of Lords who wanted to disband the munitions operations.”
Following the closure of the manufacturing business, the BOC group comprised J.R. Beck, an optical supplier in Melbourne, Tasmanian Optical in Hobart and a branch in Brisbane.
In September 1956, Champion died from a heart attack and BOC was sold from his private estate to Diamond & Boart, a concrete cutting and diamond tools company that had a stake in OPSM.
In 1972, OPSM purchased 100% of BOC, excluding Tasmanian Optical which was sold to the Martin Wells Group (a company owned by Adelaide Steamship) after optometrists there resisted the OPSM sale. BOC continued trading as a separate entity servicing the ophthalmic profession.
Separately, but around that time, Cosentino joined now-defunct global industry heavyweight American Optical as a technician servicing equipment in its lens laboratory.
He trained in optical mechanics and dispensing and soon became a technical consultant as American Optical began introducing its instruments to Australia, including the first Non-Contact Tonometer.
American Optical was eventually purchased by a large pharmaceutical firm, and its Australian operations eventually closed in 1980.
BOC became distributers for American Optical instruments and, with his expertise, Cosentino joined the company. Four years later in 1984 he became the product manager for BOC’s product portfolio.
In 1987, OPSM sold BOC to the Adelaide Steamship Company, seeing it become part of the Martin Wells Group. OPSM’s sale was motivated by a reduction in ophthalmology-issued scripts, seeing it buy optometry chains to boost its retail sales and go into direct competition with optometrists. This was disadvantageous to BOC, an optometry supplier at the time, because its clients grew concerned about supplying information to – and purchasing products from – an OPSM-owned company.
That same year, BOC management travelled to Italy to secure Luxottica spectacle frames and sunglasses for BOC to distribute to the Australian market, in a major boon for the company.
By 1991, the Martin Wells group, including BOC, was sold to Hancock and Gore (HGL), a publicly listed investment company, for $14 million. However, HGL had shares in Luxottica’s major Italian rival Safilo, so to avoid a conflict the BOC frame collection was split into new ventures establishing Miralink (Luxottica range) and OP’s (Charmant, Cazal, POP & Metzler).
Luxottica Italy eventually purchased Miralink and also went on to acquire the OPSM group, including Laubman & Pank and Budget Specs.
BOC continued sales and service of ophthalmic Instruments and in 1994 Cosentino and his wife agreed to an offer from HGL for a 50% stake in the business.
Cosentino had previously travelled to meet suppliers and attend trade events, but people often asked whether the British Optical Company was based in London or Birmingham. To avoid confusion, the name was changed to BOC Ophthalmic Instruments.
A family-owned business
By 2013, HGL wanted to move away from its role as a passive investor, seeing the Cosentino family obtain full private ownership of the company. It remains that way today, with son Ricardo employed as operations manager, wife Luisa as accounts administrator and daughter Daniella in charge of administration and IT.
“Even today our overseas distributors say they are always amazed to see the same faces; our staff turnover hasn’t been like it has in many other distributors around the world,” Cosentino says.
“I’ve got a bevy of people who have now worked with me for 25 years, and one that recently retired, for 30 years. That’s one of our strong points – it’s run as a family business, in many ways. The only boss we have is the customer. Keep them happy and everyone else is happy.”
Being a student of history, Cosentino enjoys being at the helm of a company with such an eventful past.
“I was born in Sicily, and if you look over the centuries it has a very colourful history with the number of different people who have tried to invade it. It’s survived, and I look at BOC in the same way. It’s survived all the curses that have been put on it,” he says.
Today, BOC supplies and services ophthalmologists, corporate and independent optometry, optical dispensers, hospitals, universities and government facilities.
“We have helped a lot of businesses get going, that’s a major part of our history, helping people and practices get better,” Cosentino adds.
“At the end of the day if our customers can’t go forward, then we can’t either, so we’re in business to make sure the customer is successful.”