KALAMAZOO — The $6 million expansion of Rx Optical Laboratories Inc.’s corporate campus in Southwest Michigan will support further steady growth for the company.
Key to the project on South State Street in Kalamazoo is expanding Rx Optical’s capacity for training opticians and retail employees, a function that President Steve Jepson calls a fundamental element of the company’s corporate culture and strategy.
The expanded training center at the corporate campus “is all about building great people for the long term,” Jepson said.
“What we aspire to be when we grow up is a people-development company that happens to be in retail optometry and optical. We just want to create great professionals,” he said. “We want to give them the chance and provide a resource so that they can grow themselves personally into stronger professionals and citizens. We think if we do that for all of our people, then our company, ultimately, and our patient base will be well-served.”
Rx Optical employs about 325 people, 114 of them in Kalamazoo, and serves more than 100,000 patients annually at locations across Michigan and Indiana. The company makes all of its eyewear at the Kalamazoo lab and provides pre- and post-operative care for patients undergoing Lasik eye surgery.
When complete, the expanded Kalamazoo campus will provide “the platform for our growth for the next 25 years,” said George Jepson, Rx Optical’s vice president of marketing and Steve’s brother.
“This is the foundation for our future,” he said.
Much of that future is predicated on the professional and personal development of employees, which became a major focus for Rx Optical in a corporate culture shift that occurred about four years ago, said Steve Jepson. One measure of the company’s performance today is how well employees are moving along their personal career path.
The emphasis on professional development takes on heightened importance in today’s tight labor market and low unemployment where many employers have difficulty recruiting and hiring skilled workers.
“If you do look at the labor market, there’s a finite amount of people and you have to invest in people to give them the inspiration and the resources to grow as an individual,” Jepson said. “If we’re moving people forward in their career path, then we’re doing something really good.”
The company started the expansion project last fall and expects it to be completed by the end of September. The project doubles Rx Optical’s headquarters to 36,000 square feet and follows a previous $3 million expansion that included a patient care area, retail space and laboratories at the site.
The latest expansion will house optician training facilities, talent management and recruiting, insurance billing and other administrative groups for Rx Optical.
Posting high single-digit revenue growth over the last several years, the privately-held Rx Optical has expanded steadily and today has 50 retail optical stores in Michigan and three in Indiana.
Mostly recently, Rx Optical opened stores on Drake Road in Kalamazoo and at Knapp’s Crossing in Grand Rapids, added a third location in Ann Arbor, and combined two locations at Breton Village Mall in Grand Rapids. An optical store in Woodhaven, south of Detroit, will relocate to a larger nearby location next month.
Steve Jepson “wouldn’t be surprised” if the company grew to 60 locations “in a few years” by adding two or three new stores annually.
However, the 70-year-old Rx Optical has not specified a target for the number of locations it wants in the future. The company will open a new store where it sees the opportunity, with those decisions led by first answering the questions of “what can we handle as an organization and what can our talent handle,” Jepson said.
“Right now, we’re really comfortable with our general footprint,” he said. “We’re not trying to force anything. Growth is a byproduct of doing all of the other things right.”
Rx Optical does not have any particular market it wants to enter and is “investigating some markets in which we already exist,” Jepson said.
That’s consistent with a strategy of focusing on expanding where the company already has a position, a brand identity, an existing workforce and a customer base to build on, rather than investing in a market and starting anew, according to George Jepson.
“We want to take care of the markets that we’re in,” he said. “It just adds more opportunity to the work you’ve already done. You can capture more patients from a market that you’ve been working for years, as opposed to starting from scratch in a new market.”