French eyecare company Essilor Group has a long history, dating back 160 years. The company was formed 44 years ago with the merger of French eyewear companies Essel and Silor. The company has three headquarters around the world, and Eric Leonard, president of Dallas-based Essilor of America Inc., joined the company in 2002 as chief procurement officer. Essilor has a reputation for innovation and philanthropy. In 2015, Essilor was named to Forbes magazine’s “Most Innovative Companies List,” among other accolades. Leonard took time to answer questions from Dallas Innovates about the company, its innovations and the work of its foundation.
What makes Essilor an innovator in eye care, whether that’s in lenses or eye-care technologies?
Innovation is at the heart of everything we do at Essilor. Many lens innovations in use today were developed in our labs, including progressive lenses, plastic lenses, and lenses that reduce the impact of Harmful Blue Light on your eyes. We’re dedicated to consistently providing consumers with the newest technology, whether it’s developing lenses to help protect vision throughout a person’s life or revolutionizing the correction of common vision problems.
Perhaps the innovation we are most proud of is the development of new business models to reach the 2.5 billion people around the world who suffer from uncorrected vision and don’t have ready access to vision services. For example, through our Eye Mitra program in India, we’re bringing vision correction to rural and semi-urban communities. We’ve trained 1,400 underemployed men and women to do vision screenings and set up their own business selling prescription glasses. In 2016, they’ll provide more than 1.4 million people with their first pair of eyeglasses.
What recent innovations in your industry have executives at Essilor the most excited?
We’re excited about a new lens feature called Smart Blue Filter. People are spending more time on mobile devices, in front of computer screens and even indoors with LED lighting. All of these devices emit blue-violet light, which isn’t blocked by the cornea and can cause potential long-term damage to our eyes. Now that we’re living longer, we all need to better protect our eyes, and Smart Blue Filter does exactly that.
Essilor’s mission is to improve lives by improving sight, so we’ve added Smart Blue Filter at no additional cost to several of our products: Eyezen for people 45 and under, Varilux digital lenses for consumers aged 45 and above, and Transitions adaptive lenses.
As a Dallas company, what makes North Texas an ideal location to build your business?
Since moving with my family to Dallas nearly three years ago, I’ve seen that people in this area have an entrepreneurial, can-do sense of energy like no place else I’ve lived before. This is a fast-growing city with endless opportunities for companies like Essilor. North Texas has provided us with a rich, diverse talent base, all of whom play a part in making our mission a reality. I’m excited to see how fast the city is growing both from a business standpoint and also as a major cultural center.
What is the most intriguing innovation you’ve seen in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the last year, and why?
Although it’s not an innovation per se, I’m a big fan of Dallas Startup Week. The event connects local entrepreneurs with each other as well as the larger community, giving them a chance to network, share ideas, find mentors and partnership opportunities, and even connect with investors. I think the fact that entrepreneurs – our future job creators — want to work together says a lot about the prospects for innovation in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Have you or your organization ever failed when trying something new or different? If so, what happened and what did you learn from the experience?
I don’t often think in terms of failure, but I do believe if you never fail, you’re not innovating enough and your expectations are too low. For example, we know that everybody needs an eye exam on a regular basis but not everyone gets one. Our industry has to work harder to spread this message. To that end, we’re part of a coalition of key industry players who have partnered with the American Optometric Association to launch a media campaign called “Think About Your Eyes.” We’re making progress but we still have a lot of work to do. One of our goals is to educate parents about amblyopia, which is decreased vision in one or both eyes due to abnormal development of vision in infancy or childhood. It affects 125,000 children in the U.S. every year. We can’t stand by and watch those children lose their vision due to a condition that’s very easy to treat if detected soon enough.
If you could go back in time, and give the 18-year-old version of yourself one lesson about innovation, what would that lesson be?
I would tell my 18-year-old self that if you really believe in something, push to make it happen, even if older, wiser people told you it won’t work.
What is the next big thing in the arena in which Essilor operates, and how does Dallas fit into that?
Fifty years ago, we revolutionized the vision of people over 45 by introducing Varilux lenses, which provides sharp, natural vision near and far without the lines of traditional bifocal lenses. In 2016, we’re revolutionizing vision again, this time for consumers younger than 45 with Eyezen, a lens designed to reduce exposure to Harmful Blue Light while alleviating eye strain caused by today’s heavy use of digital devices such as tablets and smartphones.
How has the work of the Essilor Vision Foundation enhanced innovative thinking within your company, and how have children and others in Dallas, specifically, benefitted from the foundation’s work?
The work of the Essilor Vision Foundation (EVF) helps remind us of our mission every day. We truly believe the work we do with EVF is changing the world and this belief drives us to continually develop newer and better technologies.
EVF is focused on bringing vision correction to underserved communities in the metroplex. Since 2008, Kids Vision for Life Greater Dallas (the local effort supported by EVF) has provided vision screenings for 90,806 students, conducted 17,475 eye exams and dispensed 13,570 new prescription eyeglasses to students within Dallas County. EVF’s mission is to eliminate poor vision and its lifelong consequences, and we fulfill this through our work with schools and missions abroad, and by forming partnerships with other companies.
Your foundation’s work with school children, missions abroad, health fairs, disaster relief, and even the Special Olympics have wide-reaching impacts. Are there more programs in the works for the foundation?
The Essilor Vision Foundation continues to raise funds to expand its programs and meet the needs of the 12 million children in the U.S. who lack the vision correction they need. We have a number of exciting programs and partnerships in the works. With every donation made to our organization, we are able to expand our impact and help more kids have a bright future.
What else should we know about Essilor?
Essilor is a global company serving 1 billion people worldwide and doing amazing things. We have three global headquarters: Paris, Dallas and Singapore. Our U.S. headquarters is located in Dallas and includes some corporate functions, a global research and development lab, and our Omega Lab which operates around the clock producing nearly 6,000 pairs of lenses per day. Dallas also is home to a major distribution center. From here, we oversee Essilor’s 14,000 employees and 120 manufacturing facilities around the U.S.
Essilor is a place where people truly love to work; in fact we were just listed on the Dallas Business Journal’s Best Places to Work list.
Essilor has a unique governance model that dates back to 1849. This model allows our 12,000 employee shareholders to have a voice in key decisions affecting the company, including approving strategy and human resources policies designed by top management.
We’ve also been recognized for our innovation and commitment to sustainability. We’ve been named one of Forbes magazine’s “Most Innovative Companies List” five years in a row. We were featured on Fortune magazine’s inaugural “Change the World” list, and were ranked No. 5 in Newsweek’s 2016 Green Rankings.
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