How Optimax’s Business is Built to Thrive through Changing Market Dynamics

In a 2022 survey of 5,000+ active tech professionals across the globe, 87% of respondents said they were actively considering switching jobs. Other studies show greater work-life balance is a top priority for talent, and companies with a strong purpose are especially attractive to Millennials and Gen-Z.

Rick Plympton, CEO of Optimax Systems, Inc.
Rick Plympton, CEO of Optimax Systems, Inc.

As employers everywhere are more strapped to find and retain good talent, Optimax Systems, Inc. has recently outgrown its facility and expanded its workforce 20% to reach 460 employees and counting. The Rochester, NY-based world leader in the manufacturing of high-precision optics has plans to expand the plant again and add even more jobs to the region.

CEO of Optimax, Rick Plympton, talked with Luminate about how an employee-centric corporate culture has helped the company thrive — growing revenues by 60% even through the pandemic and fragile economic conditions.

How has transitioning ownership to employees helped your business? 

Rick Plympton (RP): In 2020, we became an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT). Going forward, Optimax is a for-profit C-corp owned by the Trust and has no outside investors or external shareholders. The trustees will ensure Optimax will never be sold, and that at least 25% of the profits will always be shared with employees. For me and my business partner, Mike Mandina, it was part of developing a business succession plan — a legacy that provides the best opportunities for our employees, the Finger Lakes community, and the photonics industry.

Transitioning to an EOT provides benefits for our employees, and also for our customers. Our key accounts know that they can invest in their relationship with Optimax to strengthen their supply chain because they don’t have to worry that a large conglomerate will acquire or disrupt what we’ve helped them build at Optimax. Our mission of manufacturing optics to enable customer success and employee prosperity helps keep us focused on value creation.

How do you continue to empower your individual employees as your team scales the business?

RP: We embrace a tie-dye culture at Optimax, which means the organization is shaped by our workers and not the objectives of a few leaders. Organic leadership is so much more powerful than top-down management, and it’s woven into the systems we use every day.

For example, our employees have access to real-time reports and dashboards to make their own decisions about what needs to be done. We’re also exploring ways to achieve greater efficiencies through robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence. Using AI opens opportunities for us to shift more transactional roles and responsibilities off of our workforce, so they can focus on broader problem-solving.

Optimax 2019 summer interns
Optimax 2019 Summer Interns

What is your biggest focus right now in regards to talent?

RP: Those in the optics industry have known for a long time that there are simply not enough people coming out of training programs and colleges to fill the many open roles that exist today in our industry. With population declines nationwide, this trend will continue to be a challenge, especially since many emerging technologies and products are optics- and photonics-enabled.

Luminate cohort 5 visits Optimax summer of 2022
Startups of Luminate’s cohort 5 outside Optimax before an in-depth tour of the facility, June 2022

Optimax is fortunate to be located near Monroe Community College, which is the nation’s first community college to offer an associate’s degree in precision optics. Its program is being used as a training template to bring this type of educational opportunity to other parts of the U.S. through an AmeriCom-funded initiative. Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) is another great training ground in our region for those interested in careers in advanced manufacturing.

At Optimax, we help supplement this learning by running an onsite apprentice program. This gives students the ability to participate in real hands-on, work-related assignments, while simultaneously taking remote classes. Many of these roles turn into full-time positions at Optimax, which helps us to build our workforce. And because these employees also share in the profits of our company, they tend to stay here to pursue their career goals, growing their skills and thriving in the optics capital of the world.


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