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No ordinary Joe in optics field

Joseph Lobozzo:
No ordinary Joe in optics field

With characteristic vigor, Joseph Lobozzo was pumping away on his stair-stepper during a recent conference call to Hong Kong.
“I said, “If you hear me breathing hard, don’t misconstrue it,”’ the 52- year-old dynamo chuckles.
Doing at least two things at once is typical for the founder and president of JML Optical Industries Inc.
Like training for last Sunday’s New York City Marathon–he finished somewhere in the last third of the pack– while catching up on an overseas venture. Such drive has propelled JML from a one-man start-up 23 years ago to a multimillion-dollar contender in a field renowned for knocking out less-surefooted firms.
The U.S. optics industry, particularly lens-makers like JML, watched business bleed away during the past two decades, mainly shifting to competitors in Asia who undercut U.S. prices with cheap labor and high productivity.
But Lobozzo took an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em view of the scene and began working with Japanese vendors who manufacture lenses designed by JML. Early on, JML manufactured 40 percent of its products in Rochester and imported the rest from Japan. Today, 75 percent of its lenses are made in Japan.
That strategy, reflected in an office packed with Japanese knick-knacks and artwork, has paid off for JML: The firm is on target to hit $12 million in sales when its current fiscal year ends June 30.
And if track records count for anything, JML is sure to post a profit–as it has every month since 1972.
JML’s dapper, silver-haired leader hardly suffers from complacency at such consistency, though. To ensure the firm keeps its edge, Lobozzo began a push for total quality management in the early 1990s.
The transition has been somewhat choppy, but Lobozzo believes most workers are now committed to the effort.
“I think it probably takes a decade to really get the culture to change, and probably forever to keep it,” he muses. “Human nature would allow it to fall back if it’s not driven constantly.”
Human nature played a role in Lobozzo’s entree into optics, which was driven in part by libido. The tale begins one day in the early 1960s, when a group of students from a parochial high school in New York City stayed after school to hear a guest speaker.
“We were all 17-year-old, pimply kids with the hormones going, and this gorgeous woman walked in,” Lobozzo recalls.
That woman turned out to be a designer of optical lenses for aerial reconnaissance. She advised these college-bound students to take as many optics courses as they could–very few schools offered degrees in optics at the time–if they wanted to travel a similar career path.
For Lobozzo, that advice stuck. By the time he graduated from City University of New York in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in physics, he had taken every optics class the college offered.
He accepted a post with Boeing Co. in Seattle, but got cold feet a week before he was due to leave.
“A little second-generation Italian kid is not going to make it too far away from his family–I knew that, I really did,” Lobozzo recalls.
So he answered a New York Times ad placed by Varo Inc., an optics firm that ultimately offered him a job as junior optical engineer. That took Lobozzo to Chicago, where he stayed for two years designing lens barrels, filters, shutters and the like.
Home ties pulled, however, and by 1968 Lobozzo was back in New York City as Varo’s East Coast sales rep.
A year later, Lobozzo got a call from a former Varo manager who headed operations at Ilex Optical Inc., an optics firm based in Rochester. He offered the young salesman a salary 40 percent higher than what Lobozzo was making with Varo, plus the promise to pay tuition for a master’s degree in optics from the University of Rochester.
Lobozzo bit. He moved here in 1969 and for the next four years handled the firm’s East and West Coast customers.
“The only thing that irritated me was that Ilex would take a customer order with very little regard for being on time for delivery,” Lobozzo says. “They’d say at their meetings: “Get the order. We’ll get them on the hook and then deal with late deliveries as they present themselves.’ Well, I’d never heard of total quality or TQM or anything like that, but something was clearly wrong with taking orders with no regard to delivery.
“I said, “Gee, these guys (at Ilex) are real successful, they seem to make a whole bunch of money, but they don’t seem to have any regard for their customers. It would seem to me that if someone did what they’re doing with a little more regard for the customer, that would be a recipe that couldn’t fail.”’
In summer 1972, Lobozzo left Ilex to test that recipe on his own.
JML began as a classic out-of-the-basement operation. Yet from the start, the venture seemed charmed, as events conspired to bring business through the door at opportune times.
That November, Lobozzo bought inventory and roughly $80,000 worth of unfilled orders from Dynamic Optics, one of the many local optics firms to go belly up over the years. JML also got orders from customers who knew Lobozzo from his years at Varo and Ilex.
Then in early 1973, Wollensak Optical, another local firm, went on the block. Lobozzo bid actively at auctions here and in West Virginia, loading up five trailer truckloads of equipment to haul back home.
But where to put it?
The answer came from the owners of Optical Gauging Products Inc., which had purchased Wollensak’s building on Hudson Avenue and wanted to rent space to JML. Lobozzo moved there in April 1973 and began JML’s first foray into manufacturing.
All this was pulled off on a shoestring budget, Lobozzo says.
“I had no money. I was just doing this on a few pennies my mother loaned me, and whatever money Marine Midland would dare loan me,” he says. “I had no salary for a year. I have no idea how I put that all together. I was taking Valium –I remember that. I never took a pill in my life before that.”
Key employees from Ilex began migrating to JML: Richard Bachelder, now JML’s vice president of operations; Jack Schifano, an expert in lens polishing; Angelo DeBona, JML manufacturing manager; and Geraldine Lynch, JML vice president of lens design.
Lynch, who has “designed every lens we’ve ever sold,” in particular was crucial to JML’s success, Lobozzo contends.
“She’s probably the catalyst that really made JML what it is,” he says. “If I was the driving force, she was the catalyst.”
Lynch says her decision to join JML was sparked by Lobozzo’s enthusiasm for the business and his seemingly boundless energy–more than the average Joe, you might say.
But Lynch, who owns shares in the firm, has stayed with JML more than two decades because she has such fun working there.
“I’m past the retirement age, but I’ll be damned if I’ll quit,” she says, breaking into a laugh.
The group of a dozen workers in mid-1973 grew to 30 by 1977. Sales swelled at an even quicker pace; from 1974 to 1979, the firm marked 100 percent revenue gains each year.
At the same time, Ilex was slipping fast.
In 1979, creditors took over Ilex assets, and Lobozzo began negotiating to get a piece of that pie. JML picked up much of the failed firm’s inventory and equipment; Lobozzo also hired many of Ilex’s workers who found themselves suddenly on the street.
And in a courthouse-steps auction in late 1979, Lobozzo bought Ilex’s 72,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on Portland Avenue.
Pumped by the prospect of finally having a home for the company, Lobozzo and a cadre of JML workers–the firm by then had a staff of 55 employees–spent the first month of 1980 gutting, painting, dropping ceilings and building new rooms, totally transforming the decrepit building.
“It was a labor of love,” Lobozzo says. “We worked all night long. I worked 20-hour days. I never saw my wife or kids during that month.”
His wife Joanne, whom Lobozzo had met and married while at Ilex, was “incredibly understanding,” he says. By this point, the couple had three young children and much of the child-rearing responsibilities fell on her shoulders.
Meanwhile, JML continued to grow.
Its employment peaked at 105 in 1991, when the firm bought Trans-World Optics Inc., a Long Island-based lens-coating and prism manufacturer that employed 20 workers, and moved that business to Rochester. Only six of those workers made the transfer, however. JML’s work force has stabilized at roughly 85 employees in Rochester.
All senior managers who joined Lobozzo in those early days–except for Schifano, who retired in the early 1990s –are still with the firm. That’s because JML feels like a family, DeBona says.
“If something happens to someone here, it’s like it happens to part of your family,” the manufacturing manager says.
DeBona recalls the time a co-worker’s house burned down and the whole company pitched in with clothing, money and moral support.
“Joe always makes time for you,” DeBona says. “And especially with all he has to do, I think that’s very considerate.”
In the early and mid-1980s, JML bought stakes in two overseas ventures.
The firm holds a 25 percent interest in General Optics Asia Ltd., an optics manufacturer based near Madras, India. JML also owns 40 percent of the International Optics Group, which operates factories in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and southern China. Those firms hike JML’s worldwide employment past the 400-worker mark.
Over the years, JML has survived during a period when most U.S. optics manufacturers were losing out to rivals in Japan.
“We joined the Japanese instead of fighting them, so that helped,” Lobozzo explains. “And Gerry Lynch’s designs are quite unique in that they’re generally easy to manufacture, use inexpensive raw material, fewer components (and) fewer lens elements than our competition.”
Lynch is passing down those skills by training a young lens designer, Lobozzo says. JML’s engineering manager, an optical engineer who logged 28 years at Eastman Kodak Co., also is under Lynch’s tutelage.
JML’s consistent profitability is another point of pride for Lobozzo.
“We watch our expenses, like through microscopes,” he laughs. “We do–we’re a very, very efficient, low-overhead company.”
There are no secretaries at JML, for example. All executives, including Lobozzo, manage their own schedules and do their own typing.
Lobozzo has fine-tuned his typing skills over the past two years by churning out papers for the executive MBA program at Rochester Institute of Technology. As a member in its first class of students, Lobozzo completed the program this spring.
Going back to school was motivated in part by JML’s total quality initiative, Lobozzo says.
“I thought if I set the example, it would be hard for people to say, “Oh, sure–he wants us to go to BOCES and he just goes home at night in his fancy Japanese car.’ So I eliminated the potential that that would happen.”
In fact, the two-year program–classes met every other Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.–sucked up more time than Lobozzo had anticipated.
“This was incredible. Two o’clock in the morning, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock sitting at this desk, falling asleep on the couch, going into the conference room with five or six people doing a study group. But I loved every second of it.”
Lobozzo also chips in with community service work, as vice chairman of finance and administration for the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. and board member at the Visiting Nurse Service of Rochester and Monroe County Inc. and First National Bank of Rochester.
Carlos Carballada, FNB’s CEO, has known Lobozzo since the early 1980s and nominated him for a director’s seat in 1992.
“(That) gives you some sense of how I feel about him,” Carballada says, citing business acumen, integrity and frankness among the qualities he admires in Lobozzo.
And like anyone who encounters the man, Carballada is impressed by Lobozzo’s nearly unbelievable energy and drive.
On top of all this, since 1982 Lobozzo has found time to train for and run the New York City Marathon. Son Joseph, 21, and daughter Jodi, 23, each have run the race with him. His 24-year-old daughter, Jeanna, is the only holdout, “but I keep bugging her about it,” he jokes.
“I don’t run it very fast–as a matter of fact, I run it very slowly,” he says. “But it’s fun.”
Except for the speed, just like running JML.

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