American Optical History

AO Recollections-

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”                                                   
— Isaac Newton

AO Memories-  Giants and a Little History by Pat Dundas

September 2018: The Optical Heritage Museum, home to the original American Optical Company in Southbridge, Massachusetts, is filled with history that looks back at one of America’s greatest industrial pioneers. The Museum’s Executive Director, Dick Whitney recently asked me, an AO employee of 25 years (1958-1983), to contribute my story. It’s a story that tells of just one AO career; a career that I could not have possibly imagined on my first day. It tells about mentorship, loyalty, and pride rarely seen in today’s business world. 

For me, it began at the Northwest Region’s 6-story office building at 25 Kearny Street in downtown San Francisco. In November of 1958, fresh out of high schoo
l, I was hired by chance, along with 4 other young men to take part in an on-the-job training project. The project was the vision of the Regional Operations Manager, Charles Weesner. Mr. Weesner was looking ahead to the retirement of several branch managers and sales people. At the time, there were 18 branches (optical labs) and an almost equal number of sales representatives in the Region.

The five of us commuted together across the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County and were rotated through jobs such as stock clerk, telephone customer service, optical lab bench and surface room technician, and messenger. At one point, I was charged with the responsibility for ordering lenses from Don Whitney’s Special Prescription Laboratory in Southbridge. An element of the training that is particularly memorable involved once-a-week evening classes at the Company’s small lab in San Rafael. We were each given a hunk of glass (molded blank) and a written eyeglass prescription. Over the next several weeks our instructor took us through the steps of fabricating the Rx: explaining vision correction and ophthalmic terminology, how to read and transpose the prescription, set up machines, grinding, polishing, edging and mounting our own finished prescription lens. Mr. Weesner showed his commitment by attending each session and treating us to after-class refreshments at a local restaurant. 


Within about year, the vision was realized. Paul Caletti and Bruce Sauer were promoted to positions in the Oakland and Stockton labs where they later became Branch Managers. Mike Tiernan, and to my best recollection, Tom Morrison, were each given sales territories. I remained in the regional office as Assistant to the Regional Ophthalmic Instruments Sales Manager, Fred Rinaldi.

Notable: In 1970 Mike Tiernan purchased Peninsula Opticians which now operates as Tiernan Opticians in San Carlos. In 1972 Bruce Sauer (1940-2008) was hired away from AO to become the founding manager of the VSP lab in Sacramento. In 1979 Paul Caletti became President of Northwest Northern Optical. Tom Morrison went on to have a successful career in the contact lens industry. All these moves followed the Warner Lambert acquisition of AO.

Anxiously, I found myself in a big private office on the 6th floor executive level in the midst of the most senior managers: Fred Rinaldi, Charles Weesner, Distributor Sales Manager, Henry Skinner, and the Regional Manager, Bill Forenti. Fred Rinaldi took me under his wing, taught me all he knew about ophthalmic instruments, and gave me free rein to handle most of the sales and administration duties in the department. I owe him a great debt of gratitude for his friendship and mentoring. Over the next 3 years I became the instrument go-to person for the sales representatives, branches, and customers in the Region. I loved the interaction with so many AO employees, not to mention the on-the-job experience that would pay off later in so many ways. 

In San Jose, the long-time Territory Sales Representative, Karl Wilken, was promoted to Branch Manager. I was offered and accepted the open sales territory. The company was well positioned as a full-service provider and my job was to sell eyecare professionals (ECPs) prescription lens services, and the full line of AO manufactured frames, lenses, eyeglass cases, sunglasses, ophthalmic instruments, lab equipment, dispensing furniture, tools and supplies. Karl had a wealth of product knowledge and was revered by customers. Once again, the mentoring culture and commitment to the job came through when Karl got the idea that we should meet at 7:00 am each day at a coffee shop around the corner from the lab. Here he would fill me in on any customer complaints or other significant occurrences from the day before. He would then coach me on how best to sell the customers on my call list for that day. Where he knew it would help, he even called customers ahead of time to set up the sale.

A highlight was the introduction of the Tillyer Masterpiece Lens Series. This next generation corrective curve lens represented a breakthrough that kept American Optical on top and enhanced the selling experience. The introduction was accompanied with lens design education and sales training for the salesforce in Southbridge. As I recall, the training was scheduled for groups of 8 or 10 at a time. Included were lectures and small group Q&A with lens designers John Davis and Arlene Rayner. This was my first professional training experience; a prime example of the company’s investment in people.

At the Instrument Division in Buffalo, NY, plans where underway to bring in an Assistant Product Manager for the Ophthalmic Instrument Department. A condition in the search was that the person must be brought in from the field. It must be someone who brings firsthand knowledge of customer needs and the needs of field sales representatives. I was called to the San Francisco office. This time it was to meet with Bill Forenti, where I was told about the Buffalo job and their interest in me for the position. 


I traveled to Buffalo to meet with the Ophthalmic Instruments Director, Charlie Riley. He told me what my duties would be and then toured me through “the plant” (mechanical, optics, assembly, and packaging). I met people in all the departments that made it happen; Engineering, Advertising & Promotion, Customer Service and R&D. In Customer Service, I met all those who had helped me when I worked in the San Francisco office. In R&D, I saw a secret pipeline of new ophthalmic instruments and the promise that I would have an influence on their features. In manufacturing, my eyes were opened to a whole new world of metal machining and precision optics production. This was the home of microscope and ophthalmic instrument manufacturing that dominated the markets. Most importantly, I saw unbridled pride and a close-knit welcoming team of people who loved the work.  


In the winter of 1965 I moved to Buffalo. Product Managers John Beverage and Hank Langmyer put me to work immediately on mostly administrative duties while at the same time including me in their meetings and interactions with other departments.  The next six years formed the foundation for a professional career I would have never thought possible. Under Charley Riley’s leadership, and mentoring from John and Hank, I was given the opportunity to help plan and advise on a continuing flow of new products. I learned about optics, refraction, and diagnostic instruments from our on-site optometric advisor, writer and renowned lecturer Dr. Robert Bannon. I witnessed firsthand the work of inventor and consultant Charles Campbell, MD, Chairman of the Ophthalmology at Columbia University. Dr. Campbell was our lead clinical advisor on the development of the first successful American made slit lamp and applanation tonometer, and inventor of AO ophthalmic ruby laser, the first effective alternative to invasive retinal surgery. It was during this time that Dr. Bernie Grolman, together with our R&D professionals designed an instrument that put intraocular pressure measurement capability in the hands of optometrists… the AO Non-Contact Tonometer. What a thrill it was for me to travel with Bernie and the Buffalo team to the World Optical Fair in St Louis for the launch of this breakthrough technology.


As I gained experience, I was handed more responsibility. In the Assistant Product Manager role I began reviewing and advising on sales brochure copy and layout, writing product instruction manuals, and conducting product sales training. 


An important personal note: It was during this time that I met my wonderful wife Donna, a Buffalo native who grew up and lived just up the street from “the plant”.


In 1967, AO was sold to pharmaceutical giant Warner Lambert (WL), who saw potential for more growth. On the surface, this was a power move that provided the company with new resources to innovate and expand. Over time, WL brought in high level management to Southbridge with a new focus on consumer marketing and the bottom line. These two elements began to influence the company’s long-standing attention to products and customers.


The Buffalo operation, with robust profit margins and no consumer products, ran pretty much on its own until 1971. It was then that new management thought that all product marketing managers should be teamed together in Southbridge for a more collaborative strategic approach to customers. This meant that the marketing initiatives for ophthalmic instruments would be led from Southbridge. Everett Aikman was brought in as the ophthalmic instrument group manager and I was asked to move to Southbridge as Assistant Product Manager for the group. Everett and I worked well together, but this move was a huge mistake. AO’s ophthalmic instrument history of success was driven by the family of dedicated professionals teamed together making decisions on the spot under one roof. Important decisions were now mostly made in monthly meetings when Everett and I would travel to Buffalo. This slowed, even stifled, new product development.


Not long after my move to Southbridge, lens product management legend Milt Freeman was moved into the sales department as assistant to Barney Hefner, the AO Distributor Sales Manager. I was asked, more like ordered, to replace Milt as Product Manager for Glass Lenses. The order came from our new Director of Marketing, Rick Feldman. Although my first love was ophthalmic instruments, glass lens product management was critically important to the company. Our sizeable glass lens market position was being eroded by CR-39 plastic lens competition. In my new position, I was charged with strategy development and preparation of marketing plans for the full line of single vision and multifocal glass lenses. I represented the company in the Lens Division at the OMA teamed the other AO executives including the Chairman of the OMA Lens Technical Committee Don Whitney, Henry Burnett, Dick Enholm, and Wilma Baker. I took charge of OEM sales for Executive bifocals. We owned the glass Executive bifocal market with proprietary manufacturing capability. This meant that all of the major lens companies purchased their glass Executive style bifocals in private label packaging from AO. Here I was, barely 30 years old, interacting with the presidents and vice presidents at OMA meetings and on Executive Lens sales calls. Thankfully, I had guidance from senior management on marketing plans preparation, my friend Milt Freeman, to coach me on glass lens product management, and support from Pete Burger, Glass Lens Manufacturing Manager. Not to mention Rick Feldman, who gave me an eye-opening experience into creative strategy development and marketing. Rick was a hard charger and highly competitive. His support of my work included approval for me to attend an Association of National Advertisers Seminar on Creative Advertising in New York City.


One of my many learning experiences centered on our Executive bifocal market share and the aforementioned shift to the consumer. Working with a leading medical ad agency, Wilson, Haight & Welch, we tested the first national print and network TV advertising campaign for a manufacturer’s lens brand. We advertised in Readers Digest and on primetime TV test markets on NBC News, “Rich Man/Poor Man”, “The Tony Awards”, “Rhoda” and “The Waltons”. Despite the advanced sales push and in-store promotional material, we were not able to overcome dispenser resistance to heavy glass Executive bifocals. The test failed in 2 of the 3 test markets. 


Another highlight of the glass lens experience was the annual meeting with Corning Glass where we exchanged each other’s confidential plans for new products and marketing. Corning had developed the first commercially available photochromic glass and we were their largest customer. The meeting locations alternated between Southbridge and Corning. For the Corning meetings, AO people were flown from the Worcester airport in Corning’s private plane. I remember traveling with Rick Feldman, Bill Tillyer, Pete Burger and Owen Carroll.


During my time as Product Manager, I had the opportunity to again collaborate with Bernie Grolman. We were both looking at the early work with intraocular lenses (IOL) for cataract patients. When we jointly presented the promising idea for an AO IOL at a product development meeting, it was promptly shut down for fear it would erode AOLITE Aspheric Cataract lens sales.


After a few years of underperforming to WL standards they brought in the New York based consulting firm McKinsey & Company to evaluate the company’s management decisions. Harvard MBAs converged on the company to work inside and analyze the performance of most every sector of the business (the laboratories, product segments, manufacturing, finance, etc.). They concluded that certain under-performing products should be discontinued and good number of local labs closed so that the company could invest in high margin, high growth products. I learned a lot from the McKinsey people but could see that these moves would wipe out AO’s full-service market position and open the door to competitors willing and able to fill the space. Once customers were forced to look elsewhere for discontinued AO products and Rx lab service, they were going to look elsewhere for other products as well.


It’s now 1977. I’m settled into my Southbridge Product Manager position, married, and living comfortably in East Woodstock. Out of the blue I’m called to Owen Carroll’s office on “Mahogany Row”. Owen and Rick Feldman explained that it was time for me to broaden my skills and experience with sales management responsibility. They wanted me to take over the entire western region from the retiring Region Manager, Bob Stewart. To me this was unimaginable. Bob Stewart was a seasoned senior executive and a giant at AO. The East and West Region Manager positions were among the highest level and most visible. Once again my career would be completely reshaped by an opportunity given to me at AO.


Donna and I decided on San Francisco. It was new and exciting for us, but inside I felt insecure and apprehensive. Here I was back at the office where it all began. But now I’m the Region Manager with responsibility for OPD sales in half the U.S. What happened next is why I loved AO… the culture, the loyalty, the people.


The office staff gave me a warm welcome from day one with an outpouring of pride in my accomplishments. My East Region counterpart, Norm Nelson, made himself available anytime I needed advice. Norm was my coach and partner. Dave Duggin, the West Region Labs Operations Manager, was quick to advise and help with the Rx lab sales plans. My team of District Sales Managers: Bob Shelton, Bob Kerr, Brent Minor, Jack Barefield, Lee Leslie, and John Clove were friends. They too had been successful AO territory sales reps whose performance earned them District Manager promotions.  


The new job was lots of work and lots of travel. I rotated through the Districts most every week, first meeting with the manager, visiting distributors, and then making sales calls with the reps. I learned by watching and listening and was able to impart this real-world experience to Southbridge to help plan the next sales cycle. I was strengthened by the support of my co-workers and formal training programs during my time in the field and in Southbridge; advanced sales workshops and supervisory/management training. I well remember our two full-time trainers in Southbridge; Joel Meltzner & Bill Komulainen. The most valuable for my new job and for my future was the Situational Leadership training for senior managers sponsored by WL in Morris Plains.   


My move west coincided with the Ultravue Progressive Addition Lens market launch. We had beaten Essilor to the market in the U.S. and were now challenged with selling ECPs on the lens. The strategy involved pull-through with nationwide consumer advertising and ECP training. The company embarked on a major-market Ultravue seminar campaign utilizing sales reps and lens design experts from Southbridge. We presented and trained in packed-house hotel ballrooms in a crash program that sometimes saw two seminars a night, three or four a week. I attended all the West Region seminars and had the pleasure of introducing the lectures given by Bernie Grolman and PAL lens designer John Winthrop. They presented on lens design/performance and fitting techniques. It included live audio hook-up with Southbridge technical people for Q&A and a preview of the TV advertising.


A few years earlier, WL in Morris Plains began work on promising new soft contact lens technology. They had witnessed Bausch & Lomb transform their ophthalmic business model to focus 100% on soft contact lens product  development, manufacturing, and marketing, while simultaneously closing their network of prescription optical labs and shedding low growth optical products like eyeglass lenses.


By the mid-1970s, WL was manufacturing and marketing a line of AO Soft contact lenses and had moved the management team and sales operation from Morris Plains to Southbridge. Then in 1978 it was decided that the Optical Products and AO Soft Lens Divisions would merge and that the two field sales organizations would be combined. Once senior management duplication was sorted out, I found myself in Southbridge every couple of weeks meeting the new OPD President Dick Wright and new East Region Manager Dennis McCarthy, both from the contact lens group. It had been decided that the sales reps would now be responsible for selling all products. I was skeptical, to say the least. We now faced the challenge of realigning the Districts and sales territories without firsthand knowledge about the people in each other’s respective organizations. But Dick was a savvy “sales guy”, having started as a WL rep, and Dennis was the AO Soft National Sales Manager. As trust built, we bonded to complete the often gut-wrenching work that comes with reorganization.    


Dick Wright was a hands-on manager with great leadership skills. He very quickly orchestrated a week-long national sales meeting at the upscale Doral Country Club in Miami for the purpose of cross-training the sales force and cementing relationships between reps who would be picking up and losing some customers in neighboring territories. They roomed and socialized together.


From there on Dick made it a partnership relying on me for OPD essentials: sales people’s needs, individual performance assessments, key account and ECP customer relations, and optical products knowledge. He led by example, knew who to trust, listened and was quick to take action when needed. To this day we stay in touch and see each other every couple of years.


Being in San Francisco, far from Southbridge, had its advantages. I loved working with my friends in the Region Office and being out in the field with District Managers and sales reps, but looming in the background was concern for the future. I was witnessing a once proud and skilled optical industry workforce going over to the competition or hanging on with hope for a positive move by WL. In 1982 WL sold the company to private investors who began breaking apart the pieces. A great American industrial pioneer was no more.  


The Scientific Instruments Division (SID): Scientific Instruments, Ophthalmic Instruments, and  I believe Fiber Optics was not included in the sale. SID became a division of the Warner-Lambert Health Technologies Group led by AO’s International President Dick Schmidt, who was reassigned to be President of AO Instruments. In still another “out of the blue” moment, I receive a call from Dick Schmidt with an offer to return to Buffalo as Director of Sales and Marketing for Scientific Instruments. By now Donna and I were happily settled in sunny California with friends, a 2-year old daughter and a baby on the way. Torn, we decided to make the move. It was a nice promotion, continued employment with WL, home to Donna’s family, and a job.


Once again I was reunited with former colleagues. We put together a national sales meeting, created and launched the new Reichert brand name and logo, and invested time and travel in reassuring our distributors about the Health Technologies Group. But it didn’t take long for me to see that the business model that had been employed in Southbridge had migrated over to the Buffalo operation. R&D budgets were cut, smothering new product development that was once the life blood of the Division. In addition, much of the ophthalmic product development, engineering and manufacturing was taking place in Keene, NH. It was no longer the same American Optical Instrument Division that innovated and led the market for the past 60 years.


At the October 1983 American Academy of Ophthalmology meeting in Chicago, I happened to see Pete Burger in the Coburn Professional Products exhibit booth. Pete was now General Manager of a new Revlon venture that had embarked on the manufacture of IOLs and had exclusive distribution for Rodenstock Ophthalmic Instruments and Meditec Yag Lasers in the U.S. Pete needed a Vice President of Sales and Marketing and invited Donna and me to Clearwater, Florida the next week. After a tour of the operation, interviews with his staff, dinner with him and his wife Linda (Formerly the AO communications manager for Wade Cloyd), he offered me the position. I accepted, resigned my position at AO and was on the job in November.


I stood on the shoulders of giants for 25 years; one small block in a pyramid that stands today in the history of America’s industrial pioneers - American Optical Company.


Pat Dundas

AO Employee (1958-1983)




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