One of Jamie Shyer’s earliest memories is sitting on his grandfather’s lap in Zyloware’s factory in Long Island City, Queens, learning how to put eyeglass frames together.
“I remember going around the factory and knowing everybody,” recalls Shyer, now the co-CEO and chief operating officer of the eyewear firm. “It was one big family.” When the company relocated to Port Chester six and a half years ago, most of the employees — including some who’d been with Zyloware for 30 years — continued commuting to the firm.
Jamie runs Zyloware with his cousin Chris Shyer, co-CEO and president of the firm. As a viable third-generation business, Zyloware — which bills itself as the oldest family-owned optical-frame company in the US — is a rarity. (Only 12 percent of family businesses make it that far, according to the Family Business Institute.)
And Zyloware isn’t just viable; it’s thriving. With about 85 employees worldwide, 70 of whom are based in Westchester, the eyeglass maker generates revenue in the $25-$50 million range and is profitable.
Keeping the business vital has meant navigating many obstacles that didn’t exist when it was founded in 1923.
One challenge is rising competition from the online sale of inexpensive eyeglasses in the Warby Parker era — a trend that agitates Chris when he discusses it. “Eyeglasses are not a commodity,” he insists. “Eyeglasses are about your eyes, your vision.”
Another big threat is the consolidation of the chains that carry Zyloware’s frames. “When there is a lot of consolidation, it limits the pool of retailers we can sell to,” Chris explains.
The rise of managed care has also had an impact. Eyeglasses, Chris notes, are a medical device. “Anytime insurance is involved, that makes it difficult,” he says. “[Insurance creates] hoops that retailers have to jump through to make money.”
Zyloware has navigated many challenges before these, however. The business first opened its doors when Joseph Shyer, the eldest of eight cabinetmakers’ children, needed a way to make a living. He had emigrated from England, leaving behind a family that had little in the way of financial resources. “My grandfather really had a rags-to-riches story,” says Chris. “He was 26 years old when he started the company. He had probably already been working for a decade.”
At the time he started the firm, Joseph had been working as a salesperson for a company that made plastic eyeglass frames, molded from chemicals newly available from DuPont. He soon decided to go out on his own and, teaming up with partners, opened a factory in New York City’s SoHo that he later relocated to Long Island City.
In the 1930s, during the heyday of eyeglass manufacturing, the factory grew to employ more than 350 workers. To keep it humming, Joseph often had to get creative.
“During the Depression, when things slowed down, they used the equipment to make cigarette holders and pocketbooks, in addition to eyeglasses,” says Chris. Later, in the World War II era, the company made eyewear for the armed forces.
By the 1950s, the public began looking at eyeglasses as a fashion accessory, not just a utilitarian tool to help with vision, and that began to shape the business.
As demand for glasses grew, Joseph strongly encouraged sons Henry (Jamie’s father) and Bob (Chris’ father), who were in their early 20s, to join the family business. “My father wanted to be a lawyer and was thrown into becoming production manager,” says Chris.
By the ’60s, the business was having problems tackling competition from European frame makers. What pulled Zyloware out of its slump was investing in the first optical frame made of nylon. Marketed as the Invincible, the very durable, lightweight frame became a sensation, totaling 20 million units sold, Chris says.
“It was absolutely a runaway bestseller,” he says. “You’d see people in 1980 wearing the frames they bought in 1968. Those things didn’t stop working. They were unbelievably well made.”
From that point on, says Chris, growth has been smooth for the company. One reason is that Zyloware’s management team made the painful decision to move its manufacturing overseas in the 1990s to remain competitive. The workers in their US factory were unionized, and labor costs were high. In addition, with consumers looking for trendier frames, the company faced challenges from the need to increase its number of production runs.
“In 1960, you would make one style, and a production run would be 2,400 pieces,” says Chris. “In 1990, a production run would be 200 or 300 pieces.”
The smaller production runs required many different machines and a variety of tools — factors that added to the cost. “You almost couldn’t find [the machines] in the US anymore,” says Chris. When Zyloware couldn’t find the right equipment, it was costly — a big part of the reason domestic production ultimately proved not to make economic sense, according to Chris.
Despite the economic challenges it faced, Zyloware operated its Long Island City plant as long as it could, eventually shuttering in 1994. “We kept the factory open for a decade longer than made economic sense,” says Chris.
Zyloware ultimately moved about half of its 25 to 30 remaining longtime factory workers into other jobs in the warehouse and elsewhere in the firm, but it had to let others go.
“There was a long, hard process that was very emotional, particularly for my father and uncle,” says Chris. “People were more or less grateful it had lasted as long as it did.”
Today, Zyloware’s frames are manufactured in China, South Korea, and, to a lesser extent, in Italy and Bangladesh. While labor costs are lower, there are no shortcuts. “It’s still primarily a handmade product,” explains Chris.
Raised in Larchmont and now living in Manhattan, Chris joined the business in 1988. Jamie, who grew up in White Plains and currently lives in Easton, CT, joined the business in 1993. Jamie worked in Zyloware’s shipping department in high school and recalls having no idea what he wanted to do after college. But, he adds, “I knew I enjoyed the legacy of being part of a family business.”
One thing that drew Jamie to Zyloware was watching his father, Henry, selling as he was growing up. “Dad’s friends were his customers,” says Jamie. “He had these incredible relationships with people. I wanted that for myself, too.”
Henry and Bob are still involved in the business, but Chris and Jamie gradually took over managing it after being carefully groomed to run the company for years. They have prioritized making the company’s operations greener and, after the 2010 move to Port Chester, retrofitted the building with LED lighting and got rid of fluorescents, investing about $125,000. “I think we made our money back in about a year and a half,” says Chris.
The move to Port Chester has been important, notes Jamie, because the 40,000 sq ft space has provided the business room to grow. Plus, the quality of the area’s talent pool is strong. “When we added employees, we were able to find local people,” says Jamie.
Zyloware’s current customers include midsize eyewear chains such as Raymond Opticians in Westchester and Kennedy & Perkins in Connecticut. “They have some buying power but still want to be treated with a personal touch,” says Chris of such chains.
Another important group of clients is made up of big retailers, like Costco, America’s Best, For Eyes, and Visionworks. “We’ve perfected the ability to work with this type of retailer with a high demand for quality,” Chris explains.
One secret to keeping the company’s frames in demand has been partnering with fashion brands. Zyloware identifies growing eyewear trends and then finds brands that know how to make fashionable styles. That is a departure from a previous approach to licensing, which was to find a celebrity, like Sophia Loren, who would lend their name to an eyewear line made by Zyloware.
“It’s a very subtle [shift] but a complete difference in the way of doing business,” says Chris, who oversees product development. “It’s enabled us to grow, both in the type of stores we sell to and [increase] business outside the US.”
Zyloware’s marketing strategy has meant aligning itself with such sought-after fashion brands as Via Spiga, which is known for its shoes, handbags, and overcoats. “Our customer for Via Spiga is a woman looking for eyewear she knows is from this season,” says Chris. “Association with the brand demystifies the possibly stressful choice one makes when going into an eyeglass store.”
But to avoid creating lines of eyewear that compete with each other, Zyloware has currently limited its portfolio to about 12 brands, among them Daisy Fuentes and Project Runway. “We make sure each [brand] targets our customers’ aesthetics and that we don’t have three brands for the same consumer,” says Chris.
The Shaquille O’Neal Collection, which taps into the “athleisure” trend toward marrying cool technical products with eyeglasses, is one line that has taken off, says Chris. For each branded line, Zyloware negotiates a licensing agreement that lasts from 3 to 10 years.
Retail prices of Zyloware’s frames vary with the retailer selling them and with the kind of lenses and accessories purchased with the frame. (On one online store, for example, Invincilites by Zyloware frames sell for $108.99.) Prices have increased over the years because of higher quality standards for eyeglasses and improved technology. In fact, investments in product quality are among the company’s biggest expenditures, along with sales and marketing (especially for branded eyeglasses), and personnel.
Like their fathers, the cousins have continued a long tradition of supporting charities involved with vision. Among them are the Essilor Vision Foundation, Eyecare 4 Kids, and Von’s Vision Foundation, started by superstar linebacker Von Miller of the Denver Broncos.
It all ties back to a business they are just as passionate about as their fathers have been. “We love what we do,” says Jamie. “We take our business very seriously.” But, he adds: “We don’t always take ourselves seriously. We treat the people we work with like family.”
Elaine Pofeldt is a freelance journalist who writes about entrepreneurship and careers. She is a former senior editor at Fortune Small Business.