Even in his busiest moments, Darrel Fraser never stops thinking up new business schemes. He imagined a good one 13 years ago while using the laser welding machine in his dental laboratory in St. Albert, near Edmonton.
"I've had the equipment, which I bought with personal financing, for about three to four years, and it wasn't in use all the time," says Mr. Fraser, a veteran dental technician who worked 25 years as a dental laboratory manager for a large corporation before starting his own lab business. "So I started wondering, what else could I do with the equipment I already have?"
He looked around and noticed many people wearing eyeglasses, either prescribed by their doctor or to shield sunlight. After a bit of research he learned that most eyeglass frames today are made with titanium, a high-strength metal that doesn't respond well to a traditional torch weld. In fact, putting a flame to titanium makes it brittle and weak.
Mr. Fraser discovered something else in his research: The only way to rejoin broken pieces of titanium was with laser welding in an oxygen-free atmosphere. Using his own spare glasses – as well as his family's discarded and broken frames – he started experimenting with various techniques and temperatures to find a combination that would produce the best results.
"Eyeglasses are something almost every single person has, and some have multiple pairs of them," says Mr. Fraser. "I didn't know at the time how many frames break but I thought, you know, this would be an ongoing business."
Today, Mr. Fraser runs two businesses: his dental laboratory and its eyeglass repair offshoot, Laserfix Ltd. The latter company, which Mr. Fraser says is the only one of its kind in the country, operates out of the same facility as the dental lab in St. Albert and has two other locations in Winnipeg and Victoria.
Mr. Fraser declined to disclose total revenue for Laserfix but says the St. Albert location pulls in about $150,000 in annual sales – not bad for a business that basically started by making existing equipment do double-duty.
"I didn't invest anything but my own time to get it started," says Mr. Fraser, who has since spent about $80,000 to buy additional equipment for Laserfix. "It was mostly sweat equity."
Most Laserfix customers are Canadians who either mail in their glasses or bring them to a Laserfix location, says Mr. Fraser. But an increasing number of eyeglasses are coming in from the United States, he adds.
Initially the company found its customers through referrals by opticians, but now about 80 per cent of customers go directly to Laserfix, says Mr. Fraser.
Running two businesses at the same time is a challenge, he says. This is why he has maintained Laserfix as a microbusiness – a decision that has allowed him to devote more time to the dental lab.
But after 13 years of fixing people's eyeglasses, Mr. Fraser says he's come to love his new baby more than the old one. He plans to phase out his dental laboratory and expand Laserfix, which now also fixes plastic frames, thanks to a new technique developed by Mr. Fraser.
Mr. Fraser says he's already rolled out his growth strategy for Laserfix, starting with the opening of his Winnipeg and Victoria sites. He wants to hire an additional employee for the St. Albert lab, bringing the total number of Laserfix employees to two full-timers and two part-timers.
He's also toying with the idea of selling Laserfix franchises, which would include a turnkey package of equipment and training.
While shutting down an established dental lab to focus on a microbusiness might seem like a questionable move, Mr. Fraser says his logic is sound. Laserfix enjoys a wider profit margin than the dental lab, which has higher material costs.
"And looking into the future, I can't grow the dental lab because there are so many other labs around," he says. "So it makes sense to go with the business that has the higher profits and more opportunities for growth."
Besides, adds Mr. Fraser, fixing people's eyeglasses is more fun than building a dental crown or implant.
"With the dental lab, I don't see customers, but when we're fixing glasses we see 10 to 20 customers in a day and when they leave they're all happy," he says. "People appreciate that it's fast – half an hour while they wait – and it's affordable at $45 per pair of glasses."
Some people come in with their glasses held together by pieces of tape, even those who can easily afford to buy a new pair, Mr. Fraser says.
"A lot of people love the glasses they already have and when it breaks they can't replace it because it's been discontinued by the manufacturer," he says. "The most appreciative customers I have are the ones who like how they look with their glasses, and they're so grateful that we can fix it for them."