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.