WestGroupe’s Future in Good Hands as it Celebrates its First Half-Century

ByJoAnne Sommers

When Rodney Adam Suliteanu founded a frame distribution company in Montrealin 1961, he didn’t realize that he was laying the groundwork for an international optical powerhouse. But half a century later, WestGroupe is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a recognized industry leader with a presence in 47 countries and hopes of expanding into others.

Rodney’s original business plan entailed importing and distributing frames to local opticians and optometrists. Today, in addition to bringing licensed international brands to the Canadian marketplace, the company has a large export business and Rodney’s children – Beverly and Michael – are advancing his vision of being at the forefront of the international eyewear sector.

Although Michael often helped his father with “grunt work” as a young child – assembling catalogue binders and sweeping floors at the office on weekends – he didn’t seriously consider joining WestGroupe until he was a student a tToronto’s York University, where he completed his BA in economics.

“I wanted to carve out something for myself until a friend pointed out that it’s more difficult to take over a family business than to start one from scratch. He was right – it is harder. But it’s been worth because I have been able to put my own imprint on the company while maintaining the principles on which my father built his business.”

In 1991, Michael began training in the lab and later went on the road selling eyewear. He also completed the optician program at Barrie’s Georgian College.

Beverly Suliteanu joined the WestGroupe team in 1994, after receiving her MBA from Queen’s University and working in marketing in the pharmaceutical industry. Today she is creative director and vice president of product development, while Michael is company president. Rodney, now 76, serves as chairman of the board.

“We’re successful because Bev and I respect the company’s history and dad respects our vision for the future,” Michael says. “He is our confidant and knows everything the company is doing. And the three of us make all important business decisions collegially.”

Nonetheless, there are clear areas of responsibility:Beverlyis in charge of creative design and product execution, while Michael runs the office, oversees sales and generally moves the business forward. The model works well, says Michael, “because our roles are very different and we respect one another’s opinions. We don’t hold decisions against one another and never say, ‘I told you so.’ When we make a mistake we learn from it and move on.”

WestGroupe’s family environment – which is one of its core values – extends to its employees – 60 of whom work at the Montreal corporate headquarters and 22 sales representatives who are scattered across the country.

“They’re our life force, our hands and feet in the marketplace,” Michael says. “Many of our employees have been with the company for years, which I think speaks volumes about us. We need the corporate systems for the sake of efficiency but our business has always been about people, not numbers.”

Another key to WestGroupe’s success is its long-standing, close-knit relationships with customers and their international distributors.

“Dad taught us to be honest and ethical at all times and to do the right thing for those we work with,” says Michael. “For us, it’s less about doing a high volume of business than it is about doing business the right way.”

Interestingly, says Michael, Rodney Suliteanu didn’t sign contracts with his customers or vendors. “His mantra was, ‘All you have is your word,’ and he sealed every business deal with a handshake.”

The heart of WestGroupe’s business is its product. “At the end of the day if the product quality is poor or it doesn’t sell you have nothing,” Michael notes.

Westgroupe has two divisions: Western and Wescan. Western’s brand portfolio includes in-house designed brands such as Superflex, Bertelli, Levi’s and Izumi, as well as distributed designer brands including Perry Ellis and Elizabeth Arden. The Wescan division has developed several distinctive and highly successful eyewear brands of its own, including Fysh UK, Kliik denmark and Evatik.

“We’re very proud of the fact that our proprietary brands are distributed in 47 countries and we’re looking forward to moving into the next 40 countries,” Michael says. “The brands we’ve created are becoming household optical names outside Canada: in the U.S.we work with two distributors and over 70 sales people now carry our brands, while worldwide we have approximately 165 salespeople who sell our brands in over 12,000 optical doors.”

But despite their growth plans, he says, WestGroupe never loses touch with its roots. “We invest in reaching consumers and eyecare professionals around the world and bring home what we learn there. The main lesson is the importance of marketing. Optical shops and optometrists are the same world over – they all need frames that sell and we want them to sell our frames.”

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, WestGroupe moved into a new 34,000 square foot facility earlier this year. It boasts state-of-the art technology and offers a wide array of on-site products and services.

As to the future, Michael has 15-year-old twin daughters who may become involved with the company at some point. “The business is there for them if they want it but I won’t push them just like my dad never pushed me. It’s their decision.”

Whatever happens in the future, Michael Suliteanu considers himself a fortunate man. “I love my work and I think our employees love their jobs, too. I wake up happy every morning because each day is a new and exciting challenge.”

Optiq Continues High-End Moves

By Paddy Kamen

eyeonindustryJoe Nadler didn’t dream of being in the eyewear business as a young man. In fact, he was working on his undergraduate degree at Montreal’s McGill University and headed toward a law degree when a chance meeting with a friend of his father nudged him into leaving school and entering the world of business.

Business was, ultimately, more fun than university for Nadler.  And he was only 21 when he went into the business of manufacturing frames right here in Canada. Why did he do that? “Because I was stupid,” he says, with a laugh. “I learned the manufacturing process from the ground up. The education proved to be invaluable but, ultimately, it was very difficult at that time to compete with Japan and Hong Kong.”

Fortunately, Nadler was able to sell his manufacturing business to American Optical. “It was fun, challenging and exciting, and at the same time, I was happy to make a small profit and move on,” he recalls.

Nadler decided that importing frames was the next avenue for him, so he started Optiq when he was 24. “Importing just made more economic sense and it gave me the opportunity to bring more variety to the market. I had been manufacturing plastic frames and metal was picking up speed.”

It proved a tough market to break into. “At that time frame distribution was tightly controlled by Imperial Optical, plus a few other strong companies,” says Nadler. “But I gradually made progress. I sold private label product to large importers in theU.S., as well as to chains and a few independents inCanada. I was aggressive in pricing and had a good inventory so my customers could depend on me to deliver. While Optiq wasn’t a household name, I was doing quite well in the mid-price-point niche market.”

His close relationship with American Optical (AO) led to Nadler innovating in the safety frame market. “I recognized an opportunity when AO’s sister company, AO Safety, wanted to get out of manufacturing and were looking to source safety frames. I took my best-selling fashion frames and used them to design a revolutionary collection of Rx safety frames. This hadn’t been done before; until that point safety glasses were all ugly clunkers. So I educated myself in the safety frame business, while continuing to grow Optiq.”

When AO had a change in leadership and decided to source its own product, Nadler went out on his own with OnGuard Safety. It was 1989, and there wasn’t a lot of competition in the field. “Within five years we were number two inNorth America,” he notes. Nadler’s style didn’t change; he continued to offer products equal or superior to the competition, at a lower price point. He also made sure he had a stock room full of the frames he offered his customers. One of his successful advertising campaigns, which he recently brought back, had him apologizing to the market on behalf of his competition, who were unable to fill orders placed by trusting clients.

Selling OnGuard hadn’t been on Nadler’s radar but when the proverbial ‘offer too good to refuse’ came about four years ago, he accepted it. But did he slow down?

“I turned my concentrated attention back to Optiq, but the landscape was very different,” he says. “Most of the small chains, many of our traditional customers, were gone, victims, or in some cases beneficiaries, of the consolidation of optical retailers. So we rebranded the company, took on more sales reps across the country and up scaled our house brands, including ‘Urban’ ‘Respec’ and ‘Minimize’. We added brand names like Marilyn Monroe, Bratz, Spiderman and CAT. But the most exciting news of all was our launch of the Monika Schnarre eyewear collection last May.”

Schnarre is a Canadian fashion icon who strongly believes in affordable fashion. The youngest woman ever to win Ford’s Supermodel of the World competition, Schnarre has a fantastic reputation among Canadian women over the age of 30. The Monika Schnarre eyewear collection of prescription frames and sunwear features designs that embody Monika’s fashion philosophy of simple sophistication and affordability. “The women I design for are working women, like me,” says Schnarre. “They don’t have a fortune to spend on eyewear and yet they insist on designs that further their self-expression and sense of style.”

The response from Canadian women has been very strong, indeed, says Nadler. “I sense a kind of national ownership of Monika’s great success. Working women identify with her, like her, and are proud that she is Canadian.”

The recent hiring of Toronto-based hotshot apparel designer Lucian Matis as Optiq’s creative director solidifies the Optiq trend toward high-end frames. Look for some startlingly original designs from this exciting young man. Nadler is aiming to debut Matis’ designs in 2012, hopefully at the spring trade shows.

At age 62, Nadler shows no signs of slowing down. The business that has served him so well for the past 40 years is still exciting, challenging and enjoyable. When asked who his right hand man is, Nadler replies that it’s his son Ryan, and then changes the answer. “Actually, I think I am his right hand man,” he says. So a family business with a strong customer service ethic continues to thrive.

Nadler is proud that Optiq still has the lowest back-order rate in the business. “It’s the same great value proposition that it has always been,” he explains. “I have my frames made in the same high-end factories as the competition, and sometimes I feel that I have to apologize for the fact that the competition charges so much more than I do. I know what it costs to make great quality frames and I know that I can sell them at a reasonable price. I’ve always been willing to realize lower margins, providing my customers with the best value, and my frames exceed the expectations of my customers. That is not just another cliché.”

The Optiq rebranding is well on its way and in very good hands, with a strong message in the logo: Look No Further. Who knows what Joe Nadler and his son Ryan will be up to next? Whatever it is, we’ll be watching.

Bo Optik Builds Vibrant Future Upon a Stellar Past

By Paddy Kamen

eyeonindustryCelebrating its 20th anniversary next January, Bo Optik moves into 2012 with an impressive new deal.

What do you get when you combine an education in philosophy with one in statistics? In the case of Michael Bohbot, you get a very successful niche player in the optical scene.

Bo Optik is 20 years old come January 2012, and it has managed not only to survive but to thrive, thanks to the unique combination of chutzpah and planning that Michael brings to the business.

It appears that a sense of daring and adventure runs in his genes. His father, Jacques Bohbot, came toCanadafromMoroccoas a young man. He had the proverbial next-to-nothing in his pockets and ended up doing very well in the real estate business inMontreal. Michael also had two uncles in the eyewear business. One worked for Sàfilo inMontrealand helped Michael get a job there as a teenager; later, the same uncle employed Michael at his Montreal-based distribution company, EMA. The other uncle was an optician with a store near the University of Montreal, where Michael also worked.

It was at EMA that Michael was able to turn his love of statistics into business acumen. “My uncle asked me to help him out when he was away on a trip. When he came back I had done a statistical analysis of ordering quantities and product lifecycles. After analyzing the sales by item, I found that it was illogical to purchase the same quantities across colours and sizes, since historically certain colours, sizes, and shapes had greater sales than others. If sales were not identical, why were the purchases identical in quantities? He eventually hired me and promised me a partnership.”

Michael went on the road as a salesperson, eager to conquer the then-mysterious buying habits of Ontarians. “Having been raised in Montreal, we had a preconception that Ontarians had no fashion sense and only liked the colour blue,” he allows. “But I thought, well, they represent 40 per cent of Canada’s population and half of the country’s GDP. They have to be buying something.”

Michael loved meeting customers and thrived on the interaction. He built a solid network in Ontario by pounding the pavement, which kept him away from his home in Montreal for seven out of every eight weeks. This was between 1989 and 1991. By early 1992 when the promised partnership didn’t materialize, Michael was at a crossroads. “I didn’t have enough capital to start my own business but I left EMA and then my father offered to back my brother Daniel and I in our own frame distribution business. I had a network of established retailers who liked me and wanted to support the new company.”

A move to Toronto made sense for Michael and his wife Rhonda, the company’s operations manager. Daniel stayed in Montreal and began building the customer base in Quebec, while taking the lead in product development. From their modest beginnings with just the three of them, they’ve built a company that now supports 45 people, including office and warehouse staff and sales agents.

The Bo Optik business strategy is to identify niche segments where they can shine with top-quality product. They also had the foresight to recognize that house brands could handily complement the American brands they were distributing. Daniel and Michael sat down and created a children’s collection called Jungle Animals, which was distributed along with Pez, Hush Puppies and Thalia Girls. Nine years ago, Bo Optik addressed another neglected segment: junior and petite frames for hip kids aged 10 and up, as well as adults with small faces. Here Jungle Juniors and Jalapeños brands were shown alongside the very popular TMX.

Frames for larger men are another segment Bo Optik has taken over with their Safari line. And more recently, Khi Eyewear was created as an entry-level collection for young male professionals who need to look great without breaking the bank on brand name designer frames. “With Khi Eyewear, we give consumers as much detail and style as we can while keeping the price point attractive,” notes Michael.

Leading American partners like Kenmark, L’Amy, and The McGee Group are an intrinsic part of Bo Optik’s impressive and balanced range of collections, which also include Dana Buchman, Jhane Barnes, Thalia, Vera Bradley, and Lunettes L’Amy.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Michael is excited about Bo Optik’s newest partnership. The spring of 2012 will see his company become the exclusive worldwide distributor of Peter Nygard frames. “It is a new direction for us and a great opportunity,” says Michael. “Nygard is huge in Canada. They are very well respected and offer good products at good prices. The line fits well with our focus and how we view brands.”

It is the continuous evolution of the business that keeps Michael Bohbot focused and excited. “I really don’t know how to sit still. I love the fact that we grow our opportunities. I did a minor in philosophy at McGill University and developed an admiration for (French scientist) Louis Pasteur. When Pasteur was told that he was lucky to have invented so many things, he pointed out that there are opportunities in front of people all the time but they get so stuck in the mundane that they never explore them. We are very blessed to have this business and do work that we love.”

Who knows what further excitement the next 10 years will bring for Bo Optik? Given the dynamic team running the business, it will no doubt be worth keeping an eye open for their 30th anniversary in 2022!

A New Vision for Lenses

A New Vision for Lenses
By Paddy Kamen

Daniel Beaulieu could have retired early after selling Groupe Vision Optique in 2005. Instead he went on a mission.

Is Daniel Beaulieu obsessed with lenses? The answer is an unequivocal YES! Beaulieu spent five years traveling the world investigating raw materials, and the manufacturing, distribution and retailing of lenses.India,Thailand,Korea,Hong Kong,ChinaandJapanwere on his itinerary, in addition to 10 European countries and 30U.S.states. He was a man on a mission and he learned a lot.

“I wanted to understand everything about lenses, including the cost of doing business in this field and the overall market,” he says. “I needed to know where the lens business was headed. I learned that the future of the industry is digital lenses and Internet ordering.”

Beaulieu also learned that Canadian eyecare professionals (ECPs) are over-paying for lens products. “Canadian ECPs typically pay 25 per cent more than Americans and much more than their counterparts in most other countries. I was determined to analyze the situation and see if there was a way to change that. While it’s true that very large corporations control about half of the total market, I discovered there is an opportunity for new independent suppliers who can give ECPs great product at a terrific price. The secret is a combination of Internet ordering, local delivery and services, and global sourcing.

“I want to give the independent ECP the means to compete with big players and Internet services that go direct to consumers,” he adds. “If we don’t find a way to help them, I’m afraid many will disappear in the next 10 years.”

The websiteswww.direct-lens.com and www.lensnetclub.com are Beaulieu’s solutions for Canadian ECPs. DirectLab Network is a full-service company offering both standard and customized lenses, along with warranties, coatings and customer service via the direct-lens.com ordering platform. They have both proprietary and some well-known brand products, ensuring that there is a wide range of high-quality lenses to meet any need.

Lensnetclub.com is an Internet-based discount club offering all major lens brands within standard Rx parameters. This is the go-to place for standard orders in situations where one doesn’t mind paying extra for warranties or doing without. The difference between this club and others is the customer service, the availability of fax ordering and the fact that there are 18 materials and indexes available from all major manufacturers. The prices are great and the customer pays separately for everything, including the cost of a fax order (a $2 surcharge when not ordering over the Internet). Lensnetclub.com prices are up to 60 per cent less than the competition. DirectLab Network is the official agent inCanada for this service, which is based in theU.S.

Beaulieu takes his companies both global and local via the DirectLab Network, which is currently served by laboratories and manufacturers inAsia,Europe, theU.S. andCanada, representing more than 1,000 technicians working around the clock with the best digital production equipment. Global sourcing gives Beaulieu the ability to lower prices while still being committed to using labs across theCanada to deliver the product to ECPs. Over the next 18 months, the network will have labs in every province. Currently, they can be found inMontreal (in alliance with Ronor),Drummondville,QC,St. Catharines,ON, andSaint John,NB.

The current production capacity is in excess of 50,000 lenses per day. Eighty per cent of Lensnetclub products are delivered within five working days, with the remaining 20 per cent guaranteed for delivery within seven working days. “Our guarantees with Lensnetclub are firm, and if we are late we issue the customer a refund in the form of a coupon for the next purchase,” explains Beaulieu.

All lenses from Direct-Lens and Lensnetclub are available digitally surfaced and two customized free-form products are available through Lensnetclub: Cleari and Innovative. DirectLab Network offers premier products through Direct-Lens: Precision and MyWorld. All products represent the best quality-to-price ratios in the industry, according to Beaulieu.

“I have invested over $3 million to make sure we are outstanding in the field,” explains Beaulieu. “And we have developed an incredible team of more than 50 seasoned professionals to support our growth, including Ted Hahn, vice president of sales for DirectLab Network, David Landry, territory manager for Atlantic Canada, Robert Bell for Quebec, and Roger Morin and Jeff Perkins in Ontario.” Beaulieu’s daughter, Veronique Beaulieu, is onboard at the Trois-Rivières head office, in charge of special projects, development, communications and logistics.

Direct-lens.com and lensnetclub.com give Canadian ECPs powerful tools for ordering and managing orders online. “It’s a new way to purchase lenses for the independent ECP,” notes Beaulieu. “We make it easy to order, manage and trace orders, all while enjoying significant savings. It’s a no-brainer.”

Beaulieu wants to take his Direct-Lens public within five years. “By then, I will have achieved my goal of bringing Canadian ECPs high-quality lenses at a price that will increase their margins and help them not only to stay in business but to prosper. I’m an independent with a firm commitment to support the independent optical professional.”

The Beaulieu family has a strong history in the optical industry. “My father, with over 50 years experience in the business, was my mentor,” says Beaulieu. “I also obtained a law degree, which has been an asset in my business career.”

There’s no doubt that Beaulieu has done incredibly thorough research and established a strong sourcing and distribution business model. As long as ECPs embrace Internet-based purchasing, Direct-Lens and Lensnetclub will thrive, and quite possibly change the balance of power in this competitive market.

While Thinking Globally, Ronor Acts Locally

By Paddy Kamen

Robert Charbonneau and his company, Ronor International Inc., are not shy when it comes to participating in world markets. The 100 per cent Canadian-controlled firm expanded into China in 2006 as one of the first ventures allowed to operate as a wholly owned foreign investment under new central government regulations.

Charbonneau, Ronor’s founder and president, demonstrated his commitment to expansion by moving his family to Hong Kong, where they lived for almost three years. It was a fascinating business experience as well as a tremendous cultural immersion for the whole family. “It was a very positive experience for my son, who was eight at the time, and my daughter, who was ten. She is now fluent in Mandarin, which is a key global language,” says Charbonneau. “And we all learned what it means to be members of a visible minority group.”

Working through 11 levels of government to establish a factory in Foshan City, Guangdong province was, “relatively easy,” notes Charbonneau. “China is a place where you can accomplish great things if you know how. But if you don’t know the rules, speak the language and understand their protocols, things can move at a snail’s pace. The learning curve was much more difficult than anticipated and the project took a long time to get off the ground.”

But Charbonneau succeeded and the factory is now in its fifth year of production, employing more than 200 people who manufacture Ronor-designed lens cleaning products and cases. “It was surprisingly easy to find a reliable and dedicated workforce,” notes Charbonneau. “They are not particularly loyal to their employers but the vast majority work hard and do an excellent job. One of the most difficult things was to establish a good supplier base.”

While it was frightening at the time, the world-wide economic slowdown in 2008-09 actually helped Ronor to succeed, as Charbonneau explains: “The Chinese economy experienced only a quick purge of the weakest manufacturers, which was, in fact, a good thing. Business rebounded rapidly and there were fewer companies to share the same volume. Economic slowdowns force organizations to review their habits and procurement practices, so this turned out to be an opportunity to meet new customers. Suddenly, thinking outside of the box became urgent and new opportunities were created.

“While the whole venture of setting up in China was, in retrospect, riskier and more difficult than expected, one of the rewards is that we are now, as far as we know, the only Canadian and possibly the only North American-based cleaning lens products and cases company that is 100 per cent vertically integrated.”

Over the past year a rapid and sustained rate of inflation in China has caused a surge in export prices. “Thanks to a strong Canadian dollar relative to the U.S. currency, most of these increases have not yet been reflected in the Canadian marketplace but this can’t continue forever,” notes Charbonneau.

Going global for Ronor also means distributing their accessory products in more than 15 countries, including the U.S.– their biggest customer outside Canada. Most major American retailers, including Luxottica Retail, Costco, US Vision, and Kaiser Permanente, are customers, as are U.S.-based importers like Altair, New York Eye and Nouveau.

Canadian retailers are fortunate in being the first to benefit from distribution of Ronor’s fashion frames, reading glasses and sunglasses. Since going into the frame business in 2000, Ronor has continuously expanded that side of the business and aligned with some of the top names in the industry, including Eschenbach Optik GmbH of Nuremberg, Germany. In fact, the two companies will soon be announcing a five-year renewal of their exclusive contract.

“We are glad that our excellent performance has allowed us to forge such a strong relationship with this first-class German company,” says Charbonneau. “Eschenbach is known for their great design and superior quality and has won numerous international design awards. For at least the next five years, the love affair between Canadian opticians and the Humphrey’s, Brendel and Marc O’Polo brands, among others, will continue to be delivered through Ronor. Dealing with the best in the frame industry helps Ronor become one of the best distributors here at home.”

Humphrey’s is Ronor’s number one collection and the company sells more units of that brand per capita than are sold in any other country among the nine subsidiaries outside of Germany.

The other brands Ronor represents include New York Eye/Hart Specialties and house brands Nordic, King Size and 4U&I. The ‘Boutique Wholesale’ subsidiary Voila Vision Inc. distributes French designer frames Azzaro, Thierry Mugler, Smalto and licensed brands IKKS, and X-One.

Eighteen full-time sales reps bring the Ronor focus on service and customer satisfaction home to more than 3,500 accounts across Canada. “The caliber of our salespeople, most of whom have been with us for over 10 years, makes me confident that each and every contact point with our customers will be satisfying for them. We want every ECP to feel at ease trying all of our products and services because we stand behind them 100 per cent,” says Charbonneau.

Where is Ronor headed? True to form, there will be expansion both at home and abroad. “Here in Canada we will be growing by leaps and bounds with a mix of acquisitions and structural improvements aimed at making us the best service provider ever to Canadian ECPs,” notes Charbonneau. “A company like Ronor, with units outside Canada and customers worldwide, is best poised to deliver added value through our commitment to ‘think globally, act locally’.”

Robert Charbonneau, who has made the local and global growth of Ronor his life’s work, is expecting to hand over the reins of his company to a younger team within the next few years. “Ronor is the story of my life,” he says. “And before long I will enjoy watching it continue to grow while lying on a beach somewhere beautiful and sunny.”

No doubt Charbonneau will be thinking globally when he considers which beaches to visit between September and May. Come the Canadian summer, he’ll have plenty of ‘local’ beaches to choose from in La Belle Province and elsewhere in Canada. Don’t forget the sunscreen — and sunglasses from Ronor!