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in a “dead horse”

Finding life
in a “dead horse”

Michael Mandina is a rodeo rider, of sorts.
“The optics industry has done nothing but go downhill since I’ve been a part of it, at least the optics manufacturing part,” the president of Optimax Systems Inc. says. “It’s kind of like riding a dead horse.”
But this dead horse can buck, giving Mandina, 41, quite a ride.
And nearly a fatal fall. Early this year, his fledgling firm took a hit when three skilled workers–one-third of his work force at the time–jumped ship to join Tropel Corp., another local optics manufacturer. The blow came just after Optimax moved to its new quarters in Wayne County.
“We had a backlog, we were just trying to get our machines going–it just about wiped me out,” Mandina says grimly.
“The people (Tropel) took were very good. But at the time we were short on cash because of the move. Tropel had a need and they just pulled these guys out from under me.”
Mandina is telling this story from his office, a long folding table tucked in a corner of the humming factory floor. Behind him, machines drone and employees shout across the concrete- block expanse. But Mandina–indistinguishable from the firm’s other 12 workers in his jeans, scuffed work boots and fuchsia T-shirt–ignores the din and speaks with quiet intensity.
After a cold winter and spring, Optimax is heating up again, he says. Mandina expects sales to reach $750,000 this year, up from roughly $200,000 in 1993, the firm’s first full year in business.
Optimax makes its mark by manufacturing prototype lenses using the Opticam SX, a computer-controlled machine for lens grinding and polishing. The technology is new: Optimax bought the third machine ever made, in line after Eastman Kodak Co. and the University of Rochester’s Center for Optics Manufacturing, an organization that developed the technology.
Optics is a tradition-steeped industry. Most lenses are made as they have been for decades–even centuries. They are ground and polished by skilled artisans who have honed their craft after years in the field.
Using computerized equipment marks a radical switch from conventional optics manufacturing; Mandina has embraced the technology–at a time when other optics firms express cautious optimism– while noting that the industry still needs the skill of experienced opticians.
Optimax gets a premium for rapid turnaround time on precision-optics prototypes, thanks to the Opticam SX. And that brings customers calling on the Ontario firm. The company also boasts an expertise for making steel molds used in injection-molded plastics.
Mandina’s reputation is another draw.
“He’s very well-known in the optics community, not just locally but at the national level too,” Richard Bachelder says.
As vice president of manufacturing at JML Optical Industries Inc., Bachelder is another member of Rochester’s tight-knit optics community and has known Mandina since the early 1970s. Back then, Mandina was working as a polisher at Ilex Optical Inc., a local optics firm later acquired by Melles Griot Inc.
He also studied part time at Monroe Community College’s optics program, getting his two-year degree in 1974.
Mandina worked in various jobs at Ilex for three years, but hit a wall in 1976.
“Ilex was having a tough time,” he says. “There wasn’t a future there for me.”
So in 1976, at the ripe old age of 22, Mandina founded his first company, Cormac Industries Inc. The business designed and manufactured lens systems like the kind found in copiers and microscopes.
To get a good deal on used equipment for his start-up, Mandina went to Rudolph Novak, a cornerstone of the local optics industry and now president of Wollensak Optical. Novak remembers Mandina as one of the city’s up-and- coming opticians.
“He was very ambitious,” Novak recalls. “He took jobs which most people wouldn’t dare take because they were too difficult. Then when Ilex went out of business, he picked up a lot of that business too.
“He’s an honest fellow,” Novak adds. “And a nice guy to do business with.”
Mandina describes those early days at Cormac as hellacious.
“There was one period where I worked six months straight without a day off,” he says. “It wasn’t uncommon to work 24 hours, into the next day.”
But the long hours paid off. Five years after opening Cormac’s doors, Mandina and partner Warren Carlough sold the business–by then a 22-worker enterprise–to Melles Griot, an optics heavyweight based in California.
Mandina stayed on as production manager at the firm, which changed its name to Melles Griot Optical Systems Inc. and now is located in the Rochester Science Park on South Avenue. In 1987, he was promoted to general manager.
“Running the Rochester division was really like running your own company,” he says. “(Melles Griot) let you do what you wanted to develop your own markets and products. There weren’t many controls put on us, and I liked that environment.”
A believer in open-book management, he held monthly meetings to discuss operations, including sales goals, customer returns and profitability. The company grew to 50 employees with sales in the $5 million range, flourishing even as other U.S. optics manufacturers faltered. During that period, Mandina also studied part time for a bachelor’s degree in applied physics, which he received in 1988 from SUNY Empire State College.
Those halcyon days ended in 1991, when Melles Griot changed ownership and the parent company yanked the reins tight.
Mandina chaffed at the new management style, which he describes as autocratic. The feeling was mutual, and within six weeks Mandina hit the road.
The break was traumatic.
“I put in 15 years building that company,” Mandina says. “That company to a large extent was me. It’s hard not to feel the loss. It’s only in the last year I’ve stopped answering the phone “Melles Griot’ every now and then– it’s a part of me. That hurts.”
Studying was a balm, or at least a distraction. Mandina took classes toward a master’s degree in business administration at Rochester Institute of Technology while sorting out his options.
The most palatable option appeared quickly. Mandina hooked up with silent partners who shared his management philosophy and were willing to help fund another start-up venture. Optimax was born.
Because of Mandina’s connections in the optics industry, his business hit the ground running. In fact, Mandina’s biggest challenge has been putting together the right mix of people.
“You’ve got to develop the right culture in your business,” he insists. “If you do that, the business almost runs itself.”
He looks for people who are communicators, self-motivated problem solvers–“ex-hippies, you might say.”
“It’s a chemistry problem,” he adds. “Once you get it right, it’s kind of self-perpetuating and it’s hard not to be successful in that kind of atmosphere.
“But it takes a long time. I probably go through three people–maybe four–to get one who fits in. So we’ve had turnover, because not only does the person have to be mentally suited for the job, they have to be technically suited for the job, too.”
Mandina believes Optimax has nearly achieved the right balance, including “a healthy level of friction.” The next step takes the firm toward open-book management, which Mandina hopes to set in place later this year.
“I guess I want people going home with a little bit of tightness in their gut at night, worrying about what’s going to happen the next day,” he says. “I think we all do much better that way. And I don’t want to be the only guy going home like that.
“People who prosper under those conditions are going to do very well here, and other people will leave. I’m not sure if everyone will make that transition, but I know the majority will.”
In return, Mandina plans to offer one of the best benefit-and-pay packages of any optics manufacturer in the area.
JML’s Bachelder maintains that a concern for employees is Mandina’s strongest suit.
“I’ve seen him in action, seen how he’s handled situations,” Bachelder says. “He takes his workers’ feelings and thoughts into consideration, especially when he (designs) a new machine or process.
“(Mandina) would never ask anybody to do something he wouldn’t do himself,” he adds.
Such commitment leads to long hours. However, to refute rumors that he has no life beyond the walls of Optimax, Mandina points to his new job as president of the booster club for Webster High School’s football team.
Born and raised in Rochester, Mandina lives only two miles from his childhood home. Mandina says Patricia, his wife of 20 years, and their three children–Paul, 17; Jennifer, 16; and Jonathan, 13–have been a mainstay, especially while getting Optimax off the ground.
“We started this thing on a shoestring,” he says. “We’ve been operating on profits and our own cash flow, which makes it that much more challenging.”
Optimax got a boost late last year when it won $250,000 in funding through the government’s Technology Reinvestment Project. For the two-year project, Optimax is developing a process to produce aspherical lens elements for heat-sensing imaging systems.
While Optimax now makes only conventional spherical lenses, Mandina hopes to offer aspherical-lens manufacturing as a niche service within the next year. The firm might expand into other areas, such as making multielement lenses or lens coatings.
But no matter how high Optimax climbs, Mandina is not likely to sell this baby.
“Oh boy,” he laughs, “I think I learned my lesson.”

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