By opening new lens fitting labs in Victoria and Queensland in 2023, Rodenstock isn’t only making a substantial investment in itself, but in independent optometry too.
In recent years, Rodenstock found itself at an important juncture in its Australian operations. As an increasing number of independent optical practices were opening accounts with the German lens manufacturer, it was becoming increasingly important to sustain its level of service as far as lens orders were concerned.
“Rodenstock has amazing products, but working with Rodenstock in the past wasn’t always the easiest,” Rodenstock Australia general manager Mr Tim McCann says.
“People love the product, so they have been willing to persevere, but this wasn’t ideal. We wanted to serve the independent market to the best of our ability, which meant re-examining our supply lines and changing them to improve the accessibility to our products.”
Rodenstock HQ in Munich, Germany, agreed, and has made a significant investment so Rodenstock Australia could establish new lens fitting labs in Brisbane and Melbourne. The project has also seen several experienced optical industry figures join the business, with former CR Surfacing commercial director Mr Sasha Sergejew appointed to assist with the rollout.
Previously, Rodenstock’s only Australian fitting lab was in Sydney, so McCann says independent practice customers in Queensland and Victoria can soon expect faster turnaround times. Customers can also call on the expertise of their local labs for troubleshooting and general inquiries, allowing for a more personalised service.
“The other major change we have implemented is moving the production and surfacing from Europe to Bangkok. Once the lenses are produced, it means we can bring them much faster into Australia on an overnight flight. Customs is also easier to clear in Thailand, so we have a lot more consistency of supply into Australia,” McCann says.
“Establishing new fitting labs in Brisbane and Melbourne is about being closer to the customer. We didn’t want to become a large, impersonal lab. So, on the one hand we’re bringing the manufacturing closer to Australia – with all the benefits of a large international company in terms of consistency, quality of product and the benefits of scale – alongside a more localised fitting service. For many customers, it also means they will no longer be shipping frames long distances across the country, ultimately leading to faster turnaround times.”
Rodenstock’s lens lab expansion is against industry norms, in a time when many lens makers are consolidating and centralising their fitting services. But McCann says the approach makes sense when you consider the handcraft involved, and the fact that high quality product and services are the hallmarks of successful independent practices in Australia.
Setting up the labs
Rodenstock’s new Brisbane lab came at an opportune time. The owners of independent lens fitting firm C&S Optical – which provided a service for some of the major lens manufacturers – were seeking a partnership, so Rodenstock Australia acquired the business and its experienced employees. Originally located in the inner northern suburb of Windsor, Rodenstock has moved the lab to Banyo.
“Our Brisbane lab is close to the airport, which is great for bringing lenses into Brisbane and also dispatching to regional Queensland,” McCann adds.
The Melbourne lab was a greenfield project, set up in the south-eastern suburb of Mount Waverley. It is centrally located within a spread of Rodenstock customers and close to the Monash Freeway for easy courier access via National Optical Distribution who can drop into the site for delivery and pick up as many as three times a day.
The Melbourne lab is equipped with an edging machine manufactured by Italian company MEI – considered a global leader in this space.
“But our machines are just tools at the end of the day. We need to have the right people and I’m very happy with the calibre of staff we have in our labs. All of our staff are trained dispensers and mechanics, and if they’re not, we are putting them through the Certificate IV in Optical Dispensing,” McCann says.
“Effectively every single job that comes into the lab is bespoke. There is a very clear science when it comes to manufacturing the lenses but when fitting them into frames, it’s more of an artform, understanding how the job is going to finish before you start to ensure you get the best possible outcome. And we need people who are skilled in this area.”
A lens lab to lean on
One of the biggest gains to emerge from the growth of Rodenstock’s Australian lab network is the addition of Sergejew to the business, with his 42 years of optics industry experience. Roles at OPSM Laboratories, SOLA Optical and CR Surfacing are all listed on his CV. In particular, during his 16 years at CR he spent time developing the business, before an opportunity came up with Rodenstock in the early part of 2023.
“I keep my ear pretty close to the ground about what’s going on in the Australian optical market and have good relationships with customers all over,” he says. “I could see the direction that Rodenstock was headed and I was impressed. The quality and technologies Rodenstock produces is out of this world and, for a lens nerd like me, to now be involved is exciting.”
Sergejew has history setting up labs in Australia and New Zealand, so he was the ideal candidate to assist in the planning, design and execution of the new Brisbane and Melbourne sites.
It didn’t take long before he got a glimpse into the way Rodnestock goes about its business in classic German fashion: strategic, methodical, and considered.
“It’s been very interesting working with HQ. They’ve got lens labs all over the world and understand the optimal floorspace for a certain number of jobs and the configuration required so they can run efficiently,” he says.
“I drew a mud map on an A4 page and next thing it comes back from the head engineers as a 3D diagram. I’ve learned some swear words in Rodenstock are ‘shortcut’, ‘give it a crack’ or ‘winging it’. They’re very strategic, everything gets planned and tested.”
Sergejew is excited about the value the new lens labs can deliver for Rodenstock customers. Each lab is employing people with around 100 years of collective experience.
“In Melbourne we’ve got people like Andy Poole and Jen Forrest who have been on the phones to assist customers in Victoria for the last 10 years. Andy in his last role, in particular, was handling ‘specials’, which are the more unconventional jobs. We have a philosophy that we don’t ring with a problem, we ring with a solution and that’s a luxury you can have only through years of experience,” he says.
“Independent practices are finding it increasingly difficult to find highly skilled dispensers, so the lens lab is someone you should lean on. We get to see many jobs every day and some of those that are outside the box might only be seen by a practice once a month. I’m really proud of the team we have got here.”
Here to stay
Looking at the big picture, the investment could be interpreted as a sign of the value Rodenstock HQ places on the Australian market. It’s expected more labs will follow in future, which can only bode well for independents operating in the premium space.
McCann says the Rodenstock brand is a powerhouse in Europe, and there’s no reason this couldn’t be replicated in Australia which is home to a comparable market.
“We have a premium product that’s suited perfectly to the independent market. The two aims we have for practices are, firstly, for their patients to be happier with a demonstratable difference in their Rodenstock lenses. And secondly, we support independent practices to become more profitable. If we can do those two things, then we will have a strong position in the marketplace,” he says.
“We know there’s an increase in consolidators and corporatisation, meaning there’s very little choice left for practices seeking premium lens manufacturing from an international supplier with an independent focus. We see an opportunity to do that and believe the market is there – and if we can meet our customers with timeframes, pricing and product quality, we can help set them apart, and all are winners.”