This article originally appeared in the November/December print issue of IMPO.
The paint is fresher. The pavement is smoother. Infrastructure updates abound. But regardless of whether it was a crumpled map or smart phone that brought you down Lexington Avenue in Rochester, NY, the years have failed to strip away the one constant for this location: A constant that is even spelled out with a most fitting symbol that sets an immediate and perfect tone at the entrance.
These buildings and roads at 1600 Lexington are nurtured by a seemingly endless supply of innovative energy that permeates the air and grounds. So whether one is visiting Kodak Company’s massive distribution center from the late 1960s, (the largest building east of the Mississippi in its day) or Optimation Technology’s primary manufacturing and assembly facility today, Optimation Place is more than just a destination; this address invites you to be part of a legacy in Rochester.
Bridging the gap between the past and present is current Optimation President and CEO Bill Pollock, a formerKodak engineer. During Pollock’s tenure with the former giant of industry over three decades ago, Kodak employed over 60,000 people. However, he quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit for him.
“It felt like they really prevented you from digging in and taking ownership of things,” he states, recalling a culture described as “rigid.” Despite being able to draw from unique experiences that range from growing up in Africa as the son of missionaries to training as a marathon runner, Pollock was about to embark on a unique path that would continue very close to where it started.
Forward to the Beginning
Pollock founded Optimation in 1985, first working with smaller contract manufacturers brought to the area by Kodak-related opportunities. The company focused on designing operational processes and assisting with systems integration.
“We were able to take advantage of the distributed controls trend that hit manufacturing,” recalls Pollock. With the increased adoption of personal computers for plant floor operations, there was a tremendous need for related expertise. “We were among the first to really understand the different computing platforms that were available to manufacturers, along with the related solutions that would provide better functionality,” states Pollock.
The rate at which manufacturing embraced these platforms meant a systems integrator like Optimation needed to continue adapting. This was a challenge, but not as difficult as the barriers to entry for new vendors. So as the technology expanded in scope and specialization, so did Optimation’s business.
Optimation would go on to open regional locations in Syracuse and throughout New York before abandoning a local hub approach in favor of a centralized Rochester headquarters as a base for national growth. In 2002 the company began acquiring other systems integrators and developed a reputation for “fixing whatever was broken.” This strong regional awareness would be key as Optimation continued to grow and expand, often serving as a broker in outsourcing assembly and production of the equipment, machinery and infrastructure that were part of their integration projects.
In 2006, Pollock and Optimation began the next important leg of the journey. Realizing that the next step meant becoming the source of the equipment used in their design and integration projects, the company acquired Kodak’s maintenance and facility engineering and skilled trades groups. “We essentially doubled the size of the company, but when we saw the opportunity we knew we had to move,” offers Diane Trentini, Vice President of Marketing & Sales. “This is where the concept-to-completion dynamic of our company really took shape,” she continues. ”We became a one-stop shop, which is unique for a systems integrator and why our customers keep coming back.”
Optimation’s growth caught the attention of Owner Resource Group (ORG), a private equity firm based out of Austin, TX. A deal with ORG, which was finalized in 2012, allowed Pollock to acquire Kingsbury Corporation, a leading industrial design and manufacturing firm, and resulted in Optimation joining ORG’s portfolio of companies. In addition, the members of Optimation’s employee stock ownership program (ESOP) reaped the benefits of selling some of the stock.
Throughout the early days of the company, Pollock also taught at nearby Alfred State University. In addition to pilfering the school’s most talented engineering prospects (he hired the valedictorian five years in a row and four of those individuals are still with Optimation), Pollock also garnered added perspective on best practices for his growing enterprise.
“I learned what to do and what not to do at Kodak and as a professor, in terms of the way you treat people and the way they react to the way they’re treated,” he recalls. “When you cut a budget and take books and supplies away from teachers, you don’t get their best efforts and the students suffer. It’s the same dynamic in business in terms of employees and customers.” It’s a lesson that paid off during a tough stretch in the late 2000s.
Like many in manufacturing during this stretch, Optimation was facing some challenging financial times. However, unlike most, the company was able to scale back without eliminating any positions. The company banded together as a community, sharing 20-hour work weeks and emerged from the recessionary period as a stronger, closer knit company.
“Whatever the Customer Needs”
Regardless of how the question was posed to Trentini, Pollock or Marketing Communications and Public Relations Manager Jennifer Palumbo, the answer was nearly always the same. What have been the keys to Optimation’s growth? What does Optimation focus on in retaining customers? What drives contract manufacturing work? “It all comes back to delivering whatever the customer wants or needs,” says Trentini.
“We’re structured around flexibility,” she continues. “Our customers have one company for everything. We’re a founding member of CSIA (Control System Integrators Association), so leveraging best practices in designing and implementing complex control and automation systems is a core competency.
“Combining that expertise with ISO-9000 certified manufacturing capabilities means we can also do the fabrication and electrical production work needed to produce the system-specific equipment and machinery our customers need. So basically, we can design it, make it and then implement everything within their facility.”
Most of the fabrication work for Optimation’s customers is done in Rochester, at the Lexington Avenue location now deemed Optimation Place. The company has over 148,000 square feet dedicated to fabrication, assembly and testing, which offers a tremendous amount of flexibility in customizing work flow, production and personnel allocation to best match project or customer needs. Highly skilled trades workers specialize in areas such as sheet metal fabrication, welding, rigging, control panel design and assembly, pipe fitting, machining and much more, with final assembly and installation usually done on site.
Feeding these positions is a six-year-old apprenticeship program with trainers and night classes. Most participants end up staying with the company — a compliment to the culture Pollock hopes is a stark contrast to what he experienced nearly 30 years prior.
“Bill works very hard to make Optimation the kind of place that he would want to work at,” offers Palumbo. “Everything is focused on taking care of the employees’ needs so they can focus on the customers’ needs. We offer on-site child care and a fitness facility because Bill feels that if employees are able to more easily balance their personal responsibilities, it will lead to better productivity when they’re at work.”
“Our employees really define the company,” continues Trentini. “It’s our hope that all 300 of them feel plugged in and empowered as part of a team. After all, the work they do is our best sales tool. We’re all focused on helping the customer solve their problems.”
This focus plays a large role in helping Optimation address some of their most significant challenges — the majority of which are customer-based and beyond the control of those involved. “Mergers and acquisitions, supply chain disruptions and the unpredictable ebbs and flows of the market all impact our outlook,” offers Trentini. “There’s not a lot we can do to influence these factors so it’s key that we’re working closely with our customers and that everyone is on the same page. We work really hard at being good listeners.”
Listening and evaluating new ways to improve customer production approaches consistently results in new projects with current customers and expansion into new market segments. An example is the development of an oil and gas testing system that ended up increasing the value of one contract by a multiple of 10. Trentini sees similar opportunities in areas like renewable energy, the industrial Internet of Things and food safety, where smaller manufacturers are struggling to find the expertise and larger companies are not sure about the proper level of investment.
Every other summer, Bill Pollock returns to a place he’s known since childhood to help provide shelter and clean water to small African communities. Upon his return, he’s welcomed by a large metal sculpture outside of Optimation Place that showcases overlapping Os. The inscription below it perfectly encapsulates the man, the company, the journey and its future:
“At Optimation we have learned that people come first. We value the relationships we have with our clients, our employees, their families and our suppliers. While there is no O in family and no O in team, to us the bounding O and circle of continuity it represents has come to fully signify both. We dedicate Optimation as an incubator for industrial innovation, today and for future generations at Optimation.”