By Robyn Molloy
A small factory in Perth’s northern suburbs is cashing in on global demand for disposable contact lenses and is pumping out millions of lenses a year with plans for expansion.
Perth company Gelflex, which took out last year’s Manufacturing award at the WA Industry and Export awards and was a finalist at the Australian Export Awards in December, is capitalising on a worldwide increase in demand.
Strategic market research company Research Nester predicts the global contact lens market will tip US$18b by 2023, up from US$9.4b in 2015. Demand will be driven by fashion and technological advances that allow production of low-cost disposable lenses.
Gelflex Managing Director David Masel, who has been a part-owner since 2011, now oversees the 45-year-old company, which has offices in Italy, the US and Indonesia, as well as a factory on the island of Batam, also in Indonesia.
Staff numbers have gone from 100 to almost 250 since 2011 while turnover has more than doubled, driven by a year-on-year increase of 20 to 25 per cent in disposable lens sales.
To say he’s eyeing new markets is an understatement. The company already sells to up to 35 countries and is expanding its production lines in Malaga. It is also expecting an influx of orders from Europe and the US as negotiations turn to more orders.
With Gelflex acquiring two of its Australian competitors in Victoria and South Australia since 2012, the company also has 70 per cent of the specialty lens market in Australia.
“Our biggest problem right now is stock as we don’t have enough lenses to fill the orders we’ve got,” Masel says.
“It’s positive pressure and we’ve commissioned a new production line which should be installed in April – so that will be a 40 per cent growth in capacity. We’re also investing in our Indonesian plant and will need to bring in another 40 or so staff up there to expand our capacity.”
There are two streams to the business. Specialty lenses are cut to order with every pair inspected individually. Disposables are a high volume, low-cost operation with robots and just five staff pumping out millions of lenses each year and checking for quality.
Gelflex is manufacturing thousands of designs for cosmetic and colour lenses to meet increased demand from across the world.
Masel says there’s no secret to unlocking global markets – just dedication and hard work.
“Honestly, you wake up and go ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ There is no secret, no magic panacea. It goes without saying, success relies on blood, sweat and tears.
“The key is honestly having a really committed and loyal team, great business partners and never giving up. It was tough for a while but everyone stuck with us as a business. We just kept pushing and never gave up, although there were some nights when you wanted to.”
One issue faced by the company was that no one in Australia knew how to make disposable lenses, a complex process that must pass stringent quality standards for medical devices.
“The sort of problems we’ve had, other overseas contact lens companies have had at some point. But there’s no text book to tell you what’s next. Every time you think there is light at the end of the tunnel, you realise it’s just another train coming and there’s another issue that emerges.
“It’s business. It’s manufacturing. It’s just how it is.”
Managing Director David Masel has been taking part in the CCI-Federal Government Entrepreneur’s Program.
A review by EP business adviser Geoff Brazier recommended the company look at its intellectual property: “When you’re an exporter fighting on a global stage, it’s always challenging. So when CCI and the Government can offer some support, it’s very valuable for us,” Masel says.
“We haven’t put the energy into IP because the focus has been on growing production – so both time and money are issues. The benefit of the Entrepreneur’s Program is that we can now put that on the radar. They are providing us with the support for something that ordinarily we wouldn’t do right now.”
In light of the recommendation, Masel says the company is now conducting an IP review.
“That’s where your value is, in your IP and your brand. But you just get bogged down and, like any businesses, we are still in the SME category so there’s only so much time.
“But this sort of thing triggers you and forces you to reflect, which is really good.”
Matched grants of up to $20,000 are available and you don’t need to be a CCI Member to take advantage of the free initiative. Call (08) 9365 7728 or visit cciwa.com for more information about eligibility.
►Looking to expand your business into new markets? Talk to a CCI International Trade consultant today on (08) 9365 7620 about how we can help you to become export-ready.