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Leader keeps optics firm focused on customers

A summer internship set the stage for Andrew Kulawiec’s career.
 
While pursuing his undergraduate degree in California, Kulawiec worked for a company that made optical instruments for biomedical applications. He enjoyed the work.
 
"Optics is very practical," he says.
 
The internship ultimately led to a career in the optics industry. The 44-year-old has been the president of Rochester-based QED Technologies International Inc. since 2010.
 
QED, a homegrown firm, develops and manufactures automated magnetorheological finishing systems. The systems use magnetic fluid to polish surfaces, such as optical lenses, instead of traditional labor-intensive methods. Magnetic fluid can finish high-precision elements in minutes or seconds, replacing manual technology that requires hours, weeks or even months.
 
QED has 55 workers, the majority in Rochester. Employment has been relatively flat over the past few years.
 
Kulawiec replaced company founder Donald Golini, who left to pursue other business opportunities. Golini started QED in 1996, and the company was acquired in 2006 by Cabot Microelectronics Corp. for $21.8 million.
 
Today, QED machines are used by customers worldwide. Kulawiec enjoys interacting with QED customers, speaking with those who use the company’s equipment to get feedback on how it is running.
 
"I like to see our machines running at a customer site," he says.

California raised
Kulawiec grew up in California, in the San Francisco Bay area.
 
Always good in math and science, he received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the State University of California at Berkeley in 1989. He then came to Rochester for post-graduate work.
 
Kulawiec knew he wanted to pursue higher degrees in optics, and at the time, only two schools offered them in his area of study: the University of Arizona and the University of Rochester.
 
His older brother, Bob, had received a doctorate in chemistry, and the idea of earning a Ph.D. was appealing to the younger Kulawiec brother.
 
"He was an inspiration to me," Kulawiec says.
 
He went on to receive a master of science degree in optical engineering in 1992 and a Ph.D. in 1994 at UR.
 
After graduation he took a job at what is now Corning Tropel Corp., a manufacturer of precision optical subsystems and metrology instruments. Kulawiec held various technical and management positions at the company.
 
He left the firm in 2006 and went to work at Semrock Inc. of Fairport, a developer and manufacturer of high-performance optical filters for the biotech and analytical instrumentation markets.
 
At Semrock, Kulawiec served as vice president of operations and was responsible for manufacturing operations, including thin-film optical coatings and finishings, the supply chain and logistics, facilities and quality.
 
Kulawiec had met many of the QED staff while attending UR and had remained friendly with them over the years. He noted that Tropel was the firm’s first customer.
 
When he joined QED, it was the third time the issue of a job had come up over the years, he said. One time he was not ready to leave his job, and another time was in the midst of the Cabot acquisition.
 
"The third time was a charm," he says.
 
Before landing the top spot, Kulawiec headed QED’s metrology business and optical engineering department. In that role, he led technical development, commercialization and marketing of QED’s Aspheric Stitching Interferometer, which was introduced in 2009.
 
The machine allows for more precise measurements of aspherical lenses than traditional methods and also reduces the cost and lead time, the company says. Since its introduction, the machine has been adopted by customers in Asia, Europe and North America.
 
When Golini announced that he would leave the business, Cabot began searching for a successor. Kulawiec sought and won the job.
 
"I applied and went through the same process as others," he says.

At work
Kulawiec’s office is neat and organized, mirroring the efficiency he projects on the job. There are pictures of his family, a wooden clock his daughter made in school and gifts from customers. His diplomas are hung behind his desk, and a side area with a table and chairs serves as a space for small meetings.
 
Kulawiec normally begins his work days between 7:30 and 8 a.m., when his responsibilities involve management meetings and customer updates. Since QED has satellite offices as far away as Japan and Europe, there is an emphasis on teleconferencing.
 
Typically, Kulawiec travels once a month to a trade show and on customer visits. He makes three to four trips abroad annually.
 
While management duties take up the bulk of his days when he is in town, Kulawiec enjoys going into the QED lab and checking out the projects in the works.
 
"I like to interact with the engineers out in the lab and stay up to date," he says.
 
Kulawiec tries to be hands-off and let others at QED do their jobs, setting general goals for employees and holding them accountable for results.
 
"I try to hire people who are smarter than me and better than me at what they do," he says. "Once we agree on the goals, I don’t tell them how to do their jobs."
 
Leo Catarisano, QED’s director of finance and administration, has known Kulawiec since he came to QED.
 
He has worked closely with Kulawiec over the past couple of years and has grown to know him as a good leader with a flawless character and a commitment to excellence, Catarisano says.
 
"Andrew makes all his decisions with honesty and with the highest integrity," Catarisano says. "He has a keen understanding of the optics industry and the markets that we serve."
 
He also brings a blend of skills, from his technical engineering background to his insight on operations and finance, making him an all-around effective leader, Catarisano says.
 
Kulawiec most enjoys the mix of technology and business in his job.
 
"I love the combination," he says. "I get to use my business skills but am still able to provide some technical input, too. I can still really get my hands in a project."
 
Kulawiec had no early aspirations of being a business leader. His early professional goals involved scientific research, he says. But becoming a business leader was a natural evolution, he says.
 
When Kulawiec was starting out and working as an engineer at Tropel, he would often go with the sales staff on customer visits to describe the technological aspects of a product. Shortly after, he was giving nearly all of the sales talks.
 
What he likes least about the job is when customers have an issue.
 
"I never like to hear problems, that they are having trouble fixing a machine or are losing production time," he says.
 
When it comes to business role models, Kulawiec looks to his former boss at Tropel, John Bruning, who was the firm’s president and CEO while Kulawiec worked there.
 
Like Kulawiec, Bruning was a scientist with a combination of technical and business skills that enabled him to run a company.
 
While there are many benefits to his job and to working in optics, Kulawiec also notes some challenges. One of the biggest, as he sees it, is that the precision optics industry is not well-defined; it is fragmented because it touches so many other industries, from defense and medical to consumer and semiconductor.
 
"They all are different, and there is no technology road map," he says. "Getting a set of standard products that meet each (industry’s) need can be extremely challenging."
 
To help, QED relies on customer feedback and its own expertise and experience to anticipate future needs.

Financial focus
Kulawiec declined to disclose financial results for QED, whose fiscal year ends Sept. 30, but said the firm started seeing recovery from the 2008 global recession during the second half of fiscal 2010.
 
While 2009 was tough because the economic downturn severely affected capital equipment providers such as QED, Kulawiec noted that 2011 was a record year in sales, and he expects to top that in 2012.
 
New product development is a major focus.
 
The firm recently introduced a Q-flex polishing product, which is manufactured locally by Peko Precision Products Inc. QED focused on the technology, polishing and metrology processes, as well as the software and sales and customer support functions.
 
QED went with Peko to make its computer-network-controlled technology platform because of various factors, including cost, technical capabilities and proximity, Kulawiec says.
 
"The end result is that we are now building this product exclusively in Rochester, and many of these machines are being exported all over the world," he says.
 
Last fall, QED added a service, providing optics polishing and metrology services under a new entity within the company, QED Optics. Kulawiec said the service came after numerous customer requests and is a way for the Rochester-based firm to expand its business and make it less cyclical through diversification.
 
Although in its infancy, the service is bringing benefits to QED, he says.
 
QED Optics is housed in leased space next to the QED Technologies main office on University Avenue. The firm has moved equipment and some staff to the site.
 
The company is providing the service for some customers, including many in the area, Kulawiec says. Many have used it because of overflow issues at their own businesses or because QED has a machine that the customers do not have.
 
Duncan Moore, vice provost for entrepreneurship at UR, was Kulawiec’s thesis adviser in the early 1990s and is now his neighbor. Moore describes Kulawiec as intelligent and a good listener who worked well in groups. He believes those traits have been a key to Kulawiec’s success as a business leader.
 
Moore also calls Kulawiec down-to-earth and a family man.
 
"He’s simply a nice guy," Moore says.
 
Kulawiec lives in Fairport with his wife, Julia; son Kevin, 16; and daughter Diana, 14.
 
Because he is the father of two teens, much of his free time is taken up with school activities. His children are active in sports and music; both play the violin and tennis.
 
In addition, Kulawiec likes to hike and bike and recently found trails near his home for those activities.
 
The family also enjoys traveling. Kulawiec’s parents have access to condo resorts through a time-share vacation club, and the family and grandparents have traveled together to Florida, Hawaii, South Carolina and Southern California. This summer, they plan to travel to Colorado.
 
Professionally, Kulawiec plans to focus on his current job and company.
 
"I see plenty of opportunities for professional growth within this role," he says. "QED has great products and technology, a strong reputation in the industry and a great team of people. I hope to stay with QED for many years, to help the company achieve its long-term growth goals."

Andrew Kulawiec
Position: President, QED Technologies International Inc.
Age: 44
Education: B.A. in physics, University of California at Berkeley, 1989; M.S. in optics, 1992, and Ph.D. in optics, 1994, University of Rochester
Family: Wife Julia; son Kevin, 16; daughter Diana, 14
Residence: Fairport
Activities: Family activities, hiking, bicycling
Quote: "I really like to see our machines running at a customer site."

3/30/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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