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Molding a future with optics

Neal Elli is one of many local business leaders excited about Rochester’s selection last year as the headquarters for the $600 million American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics.

Elli, president and CEO of Rochester-based Empire Precision Plastics, believes the center will create opportunities for his firm, which recently has seen the optics side of its business grow.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth over the past several years and optics has been a catalyst for that,” Elli says.

Empire Precision, founded in 1992, has grown from its start as an injection molder to a full-service systems manager providing product development, prototyping and component assembly as well as injection molding services.

The company ranked 10th on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of optics and imaging firms. It employs nearly 100 workers and logs annual sales of roughly $12 million.

Elli, 60, started the business after working in sales and management roles at manufacturing firms.

Building a successful company—both through organic growth and acquisitions—is his focus.

“I want to build a company that will last for generations,” Elli says.

Career start
Elli received his bachelor of science in biology from St. John Fisher College in 1980.

No longer interested in a career in biology after graduation—the idea of long hours in a lab was not what Elli decided he wanted to do—he instead went into sales. His first job was in industrial sales, selling nuts, bolts and screws.

From there, he worked in sales for an industrial supplier and a machine shop before landing a job in injection molding, a field that hooked Elli.

“I fell in love with the industry,” Elli says. “I love everything about it.”

So he took a chance at age 36 and formed Empire Precision with two other partners no longer with the business.

Although he was new to being an entrepreneur, Elli did not hesitate to move forward with the business.

“I wasn’t afraid at the time,” Elli says. “The risks were there, but I was confident.”

The business began as a pure injection molding shop doing mostly overflow work for other businesses, he explains. Over time it would extend its capabilities, offering more services and expanding its customer base.

Today, Empire Precision serves the health care, industrial, optics, firearms and military–aerospace markets.

Customers are stretched out along the East Coast as far south as Florida and extend west to Washington state. Empire Precision also does business internationally, working with customers in Asia and the Caribbean.

The focus on customers has helped expand sales and staff growth at Empire Precision, Elli says. Sales were up 11 percent in 2015 while its workforce grew 12 percent. Elli expects increases in both areas again in 2016.

He compared recent activity to March Madness in college basketball: The firm has been quoting larger projects, with Empire Precision being in the “final four” for some of them, he says. Factors such as investment in new technology have expanded the firm’s capabilities, which, in turn, have helped to grow the business.

Last year, Empire Precision received sales tax exemptions on $312,445 in renovations, equipment, furniture and fixtures from the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency for the $630,090 first phase of a $4.2 million project.

The project, which should wrap up this summer, includes renovating and adding equipment at its Lee Road facility to create a more efficient and cost-effective space.

The company plans to add 27,000 square feet of space to the facility, some 1,000 square feet of it dedicated to optics operations such as optomechanical assembly and coating. There will be a white room and additional automation systems for medical and optical molding and assembly processes. A white room is virtually free of contaminants, such as dust or bacteria, and is used in laboratory work and the production of precision parts.

The addition also is to include office and warehouse space as well as upgrades for greater energy efficiency.

Empire Precision has been at its current location since 2004. Prior to that, it was on Oak Street, where Sahlen’s Stadium now stands.

Acquisitions have helped fuel the company’s growth. Last month, Empire Precision announced it had acquired passive infrared lens fabrication equipment formerly owned by ORAFOL Display Optics, further expanding its ability to serve the optics community.

In 2012, it acquired Rochester-based Lightwave Enterprises Inc., a provider of polymer optics. The deal expanded Empire Precision’s capabilities in the optics arena and opened new opportunities in markets that include biomedical and lighting.

Precision molding is a competitive market, Elli says, adding that there are thousands of competitors just in the United States.

“You really have to have your stuff together to be competitive,” he says.

The optics focus is what helps to set Empire Precision apart. Its capabilities include engineering, lens design and thin film coating.

“Not many precision molders do optics work,” he says. “It’s amazing what opportunities have opened up since we entered the optics space.”

Matthew Grzeskowiak, an account manager with PolyOne Distribution Co., has worked with Elli for more than 15 years. His firm is a supplier to Empire Precision.

Elli has a principled business philosophy and excels at providing customer satisfaction, Grzeskowiak says. Elli also does things the right way.

“He adds value for his customers and seeks out those who respect and understand that value,” Grzeskowiak says. “Neal is not one to change his philosophy just to gain business.

“That’s what sets him, and Empire Precision, apart.”

Typical day
Elli is an early riser, getting up at 5 a.m. He starts his days at the gym before going in to the office around 7:30 a.m.

He is a member of the Rochester chapter of Vistage International Inc., an executive coaching organization.

John Bayley, a master chair with Vistage, has known Elli for nine years—since Elli became involved with the organization, looking for ways to improve and grow his business.

Bayley describes Elli as a business leader who is willing to learn from others, willing to share with others and finding ways to continue to improve.

“Neal and his team work hard at improving their processes and identifying the next areas of improvement in the company that will gain them the biggest results,’ Bayley says.

Working with customers to find the best solutions for them is the best part of the job, Elli says. That can mean taking an idea and developing a product that is better and more cost-effective than first realized.

“I love helping customers create something that is better than what they had before,” Elli says.

Continuing to find skilled workers who are a good fit with a company that places a value on drive, integrity and technology is an ongoing process, he says. Another challenge is wrestling with increasing costs related to factors Elli has no control over, such as health insurance costs.

Elli describes himself as driven and is charged with taking a big-picture look at the business and where it is headed. He believes there is a solid management team in place qualified to take the firm to the next level.

He is a vocal supporter of his employees and wants to see them succeed.

“I want all the employees to have a win every day,” Elli says.

Robert Zygulski, Empire Precision’s chief operating officer, has worked with Elli the past five years. He describes him as a forward thinker and a visionary.

“I have an immense amount of respect for Neal,” Zygulski says.

Scott Taylor has been Empire Precision’s manufacturing manager only since mid-December, but he has known Elli since 2007 when he worked for a consulting group and helped Empire Precision with its lean manufacturing training.

Taylor came to work for Empire Precision because of Elli.

“Neal has a very clear vision for the company,” Taylor says, noting Elli has assembled a strong team to help the firm grow.

Elli also does not quit, Taylor notes.

“If he tries something and it does not work as hoped, he views it not as a failure but as a piece of information that will ultimately lead to the right path,” Taylor says.

Elli and his wife, Kathy, who is Empire Precision’s comptroller, live in Webster. The couple has two children: daughter, Kristen, 31, and son, Kyle, 28. They also have a new addition to the family, their grandson, Trevor.

When Elli is not working he enjoys taking his Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic out on the road. He will often ride it to the family’s cottage on Canandaigua Lake, where he likes to unwind.

On the job, Elli has no plans to slow down.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” he says.

Neal Elli
Title: President and CEO, Empire Precision Plastics
Age: 60
Education: B.S. in biology, St. John Fisher College, 1980
Residence: Webster
Family: Wife, Kathy; daughter, Kristen, 31, and son, Kyle, 28
Hobbies: Exercising, Harley Davidson riding, lake living
Quote: “I want to build a company that will last for generations.”

3/4/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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