A Culture of Precision, Performance and Fun
Optimax continues the legacy of precision optics manufacturing in upstate New York
Rick Plympton is very proud of the work being done at Optimax Systems Inc.
After all, as chief executive officer of the Rochester, N.Y.-area company, he oversees an operation that manufactures the precision optics behind some of the latest breakthrough technologies across a wide swath of industries – including aerospace, defense, medical and consumer electronics.
But if you ask the Empire State native about the most rewarding elements of his position at the 23-year-old company, his go-to answer just might come as a surprise – culturally speaking.
“One of the things that’s so beautiful about being a small business owner is that within your four walls, you can do things for your employees that bigger corporations wouldn’t do,” he said.
That freedom is best manifested by a monthly profit-sharing program to reward the workforce that has produced success.
“Optimax offers its team members 100-percent tuition assistance, so if they want to take any kind of coursework or training – as long as it fits within their career path – it’s 100-percent paid for,” Plympton said. “Once you get out of school, you don’t stop learning. You have to keep getting better and better, to create more value – to compete effectively in a global marketplace.”
Other, less formal workplace initiatives include an in-house recreation committee that plans parties every month, and a beach club that has access to a condominium in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Also, tie-dye T-shirts are what Plympton labels as the Optimax “corporate uniform,” further tying into a leadership mindset that insists on effort, but recognizes performance and welcomes individuality.
“It embodies the culture and the attitude here that it’s not about how you dress, it’s about what you can do and the value you can bring. Everyone has natural talent. People that are in positions to leverage their talents will be superstars, so we really try to focus on alignment and positive attitude.”
Optimax was one of 10 mid-sized companies – those employing between 125 and 399 – recognized by Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in its 2014 listing of the region’s top workplaces.
Survey feedback included phrases like “I am allowed to make suggestions and carry out improvements” and “Outside training directly related to the products I make,” the latter of which speaks directly to a policy enacted to make sure the company’s staff stays on the cutting edge.
The creative spark that led to the founding of Optimax first appeared in the late 1980s, when a group of workers at Kodak – which was then Rochester’s largest employer – were searching for a method that would enable them to more quickly produce prototype optics. They did it, Plympton said, with a combination of innovative computer-controlled technology and attitude.
The founders ultimately began coming up with those technological building blocks while moonlighting in the basement of a barn, and, within six years, the company had accumulated so much know-how in the field that Kodak made Optimax its go-to supplier for those very prototype optics.
By 1996, Optimax was able to use its computerized machining capabilities to manufacture prototypes within a week, far faster than the then-industry standard of 10 weeks. Its Kodak roots were again rewarded when the film giant committed to funding 75 percent of Optimax training costs as the company expanded from 20 employees to more than 100.
Kodak, itself, has downsized from a peak of 70,000 employees to less than 5,000, but the Rochester area has nonetheless evolved into an innovative hotbed, thanks in part to the number of companies – including Optimax – that spun off as the larger entity declined over two decades.
“Unemployment is down below 7 percent,” Plympton said, “because there’s so much technology that was developed at Bausch & Lomb (whose local staff plunged from several thousand to less than 2,000) and Kodak that stayed within the community, and others that are taking it to the global markets.”
These days, Optimax’s operation is housed within a 60,000-square-foot building, whose recent expansion both doubled the company’s manufacturing space and necessitated a jump in staff that took it from 140 employees to more than 200. The workforce had initially reached triple digits near the start of the 21st century and then rose slowly and steadily over the subsequent 13 years before the decision was made in 2013, Plympton said, “to double-down and really go after growing the business again.”
Optimax’s customer list prompts a mix that covers a wide variety of applications, including consumer products to medical devices to military/homeland security functions and semiconductor applications – where photonic technology is needed to make the super-tiny electronic devices that contribute to smaller and smaller mobile phones and other devices.
“We’re dedicated to small volume, high quality and quick delivery,” Plympton said. “From the beginning, we felt that there was a market need and that this was a defensible niche. Making the prototype optics and providing on-time delivery with very high quality product, always ensuring that what we produce meets the customer’s requirements, so they can be successful with their projects.”
A few percent of the company’s annual workload comes from NASA-based programs, through which Optimax made all the camera lenses for the Mars rovers – Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity – that have been active on the surface of the red planet since 2004.
“It’s only a small part of the business,” Plympton said, “but it’s wicked fun. It brings us great pride when we work on programs where we’re literally helping mankind see something for the first time, or we’re benefitting mankind by helping a team get a new medical device to the market.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Optimax Systems Inc.
WHAT: Manufacturer of prototype optical components for applications in aerospace, display technologies and solar power; and maker of OEM production optics for semiconductors, military uses and medical instruments
WHERE: Ontario, N.Y.