Economy

Exporting: Perfect vision

Written by Andy Holloway

Swiss Army knives. Surefire flashlights. The Hummer. All of these products, originally designed for the military, have been co-opted by mainstream consumers. Jonathan Blanshay is hoping to add another brand to that list: Revision Eyewear. As CEO of one of the biggest developers of military eyewear in North America, he has proven he has what it takes to thrive in new markets.

In 2000, Blanshay left the financial services sector to strike out on his own in a different industry. His childhood friend, Brent Sheldon, had 30 years of experience in eyewear manufacturing, but needed money to branch out. It made sense to combine forces, although Sheldon is no longer involved in the firm. “I knew nothing about eyewear,” admits Blanshay, “but I was able to bring a focus to a business plan, having looked at hundreds if not thousands over my past career.”

That focus was key in raising Montreal-based Revision Eyewear’s revenue to US$22.1 million last year, a 3,217% increase from the US$666,232 it generated in 2002 — earning it 14th spot on the 2008 PROFIT 100 ranking. How it got to be so big in such a niche market — one occupied by brand names such as Oakley and Uvex — is a tale of customer service and strategic manoeuvres to appeal to the lucrative but nationalistic U.S. market.

When Revision launched in 2002, Blanshay began developing products for customers in various niches, including motorcycling and paintball. He’d also taken racquetball glasses, modified their lenses and frames, and added features such as anti-static sprays to make them acceptable for military use. “We knew there was an opportunity to apply technology in performance eyewear,” says Blanshay. The resulting product, called Sawfly, is able to withstand a one-gram projectile fired at a speed of up to 276 metres per second, or about six times the American National Standards Institute’s requirement.

Needless to say, the military market was interested. In 2003, Revision won a bid for 120,000 ballistic eyeglasses from Canada’s Department of National Defence. With a little bit of research, Blanshay discovered that Revision’s protective lenses had an edge over their rivals. “This market niche was not being well served,” he says.

Blanshay guessed right that foreign militaries would want Revision’s product, too. Today, its customers include the U.S., Dutch and Singapore militaries, plus retailers such as Sportsman’s Warehouse and the Army & Air Force Exchange Service. And although Revision has had no problem selling its standard glasses with way-cool names such as Desert Locust, Bullet Ant and the best-selling Sawfly (priced at $100 a pair), it has built a reputation for delivering quality merchandise on spec. “If a customer wants different ears or a different colour on the glasses, Revision will make it,” says Jan Sluyts, director of military sales at R.A.-Company, a Belgian distributor that also sells Revision products in the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Indeed, Revision has played its production flexibility to an advantage over larger competitors, such as Oakley. But its flexibility extends to its management practices. To better abide by procurement legislation, including the Buy American Act, under which the U.S. government must show a preference for domestic products, Revision relocated its manufacturing to Vermont from the Far East despite the added costs. “As a Canadian company, we needed to be holier than the Pope,” says Blanshay. “We decided that 100% of our product would be U.S.-made. Most of our competitors were at 50.1%.”

To the casual observer, Revision even appears to be American. Visit RevisionEyewear.com, and you’ll find no reference to Canada; its address and phone number in Essex Junction, Vt., about a 90-minute drive south of its Montreal head office, is the only contact information provided. “We didn’t want to be perceived as foreign,” says Blanshay. “Military buyers are very patriotic. It’s not that we want to lie about being Canadian; we just don’t want to raise the issue.”

While the company maintains an on-the-ground presence in the U.S. and Canada, it does not have the same luxury overseas. There, it has entrusted sales to agents and distributors, with mixed results. “The military market is slow-moving,” says Blanshay, “so it takes a while before you realize whether an agent is good or not.” Although Revision’s London-based international sales manager and Export Development Canada have helped it identify better partners, the company still doesn’t surrender all of the foreign sales and marketing work. Agents must let Revision staff accompany them to trade shows (about 50 a year) and customer visits, while providing semi-annual reports on their advertising, sampling and in-person sales activities. “You have to manage them as if they were an extension of your company,” says Blanshay. “If you don’t, you find out a lot of these guys are sitting and waiting for you to do the hard work. Then they take their 8%.”

Revision will need all hands on deck as it faces a new challenge: military customers will soon be buying integrated protection systems from one of a handful of big suppliers, such as General Dynamics, British Aerospace or Lockheed Martin, rather than cherry-picking best-of-breed products from an array of companies. In eyewear, that means linking up with built-in heads-up displays, communications systems and laser protection as part of the Future Force Warrior uniform. “Instead of selling, say, a $50 pair of goggles to the army,” Blanshay explains, “we’ll be selling a $250 visor to General Dynamics.”

Although Blanshay’s laser focus on ballistic eyewear has paid great dividends, he now feels experienced enough to revisit other markets for protective specs, such as for motorcycling and border patrol and emergency-response personnel. Why? The market for ballistic glasses tops out at around US$150 million; for motorcycle goggles, it’s three times that.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com