In the 1970s, the Rochester optics firm Joseph M. Lobozzo II had recently started faced daunting competition. Japanese precision lens makers were bleeding business, forcing many U.S. firms to scale back or go under.
Lobozzo, who died at 79 on May 12, founded JML Optical Industries as a one-man operation in 1972, naming the fledgling firm with his own and his father’s initials.
The dilemma for U.S. manufacturers like JML was that Japanese competitors’ cheaper labor costs and high product quality made it nearly impossible for U.S. companies to outsell or even match their overseas competitors.
Rather than curse the virtually unbeatable overseas competition, Lobozzo decided that it was smarter to join them. Within two decades, JML was importing 75 percent of its product line from Japan, ensuring not only the Rochester firm’s survival but its vigorous health while other U.S. optics firms faltered.
Lobozzo started JML by acquiring $80,000 worth of unfilled orders from Dynamic Optics, one of several local optics companies that had gone belly up in the face of Japanese competition.
JML began making its own product in 1973 after Lobozzo moved the company into a Hudson Avenue space in Rochester. He leased the space from another local optics firm, which had moved into the facility after the closing of its original occupant, the Wollensack Optical Co. Lobozzo had previously purchased several truckloads of Wollensack’s equipment at auction.
In addition to bank loans he managed to secure, Lobozzo financed the startup with money borrowed from his mother, Lily Lobozzo, himself taking no salary for the company’s first year.
“I have no idea how I put that all together. I was taking Valium—I remember that. I never took a pill in my life before that,” Lobozzo confided in a 1995 interview.
Deals he struck with Japanese vendors arranged for Japanese lens makers to produce product made to JML’s specifications. By the mid-1990s, JML’s revenues topped $10 million.
By 2014, when JML acquired California-based Harold Johnson Optical Laboratories Inc., JML employed 80 at a Linden Oaks facility.
Lobozzo sold the company in 2011, but stayed involved with it as an adviser and shareholder.
In January, JML was acquired by BB&T Capital Partners for an undisclosed sum and merged into Thorlabs Inc., a global high-tech manufacturing concern with operations in North and South America, Europe, Japan, and China.
The company, renamed Thorlabs Lens Systems, employs 95 at its 70,000-square-foot Linden Oaks facility.
Lobozzo was a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business as a member of the first class in the school’s Executive MBA program.
Recruiting Lobozzo to the EMBA program was “a big event for me because I knew we had a winner and I could use his name to recruit others,” wrote RIT professor Donald Zrebiec, in a note posted on the Falvo Funeral Home’s tribute wall.
Four years after earning an MBA in 1995, Lobozzo joined RIT’s Board of Trustees and became a significant contributor to the school. Awards the school bestowed on him include the Saunders College of Business Distinguished Alumni Award, the Herbert W. Vanden Brul Entrepreneurial Award, and the RIT Outstanding Alumnus Award.
During a 2017 acceptance speech for RIT’s Nathaniel Rochester Society Award, Lobozzo announced a $3 million gift to the school.
RIT secretary Lisa Chase credits that contribution and others Lobozzo made previously and since with helping to fund RIT’s Lobozzo Alumni House, the Lobozzo Center for Executive Education, the Lobozzo Photonics and Optical Characterization Lab, the Lobozzo Endowed Professorship, and the Lobozzo EMBA Program Fund.
After retiring from the school’s board in 2013, Lobozzo retained the title of emeritus trustee.
Lobozzo, who earned an M.S. in optics from the University of Rochester, also was a generous contributor to UR, where he endowed the Lobozzo Professorship in Pediatric Surgery and served as a UR Medical Center trustee for a quarter of a century, stepping down in 2008.
Lobozzo “was unfailingly polite and approachable, a problem-solver with no hidden agendas. If Joe spotted something he thought needed to be done to improve the Medical Center, he would support it, no questions asked,” URMC CEO and UR Medical School Dean Mark Taubman M.D. wrote in an email notifying URMC trustees of Lobozzo’s passing.
Lobozzo grew up in the Bronx, where he attended a Catholic high school. He graduated from the City University of New York in 1966 with a B.S. in physics.
He had nurtured an interest in optics after hearing a talk as a high school student by a designer of aerial reconnaissance optical lenses. Though he attributed his initial interest in optics to teenage hormones excited by the female lens designer’s good looks, as a CUNY undergraduate he took every optics course the school offered.
On graduating from CUNY, Lobozzo landed a job in Seattle with Boeing, but backed out after deciding that the West Coast job would take him too far from his East Coast family. He then took a job with Varo Inc., an optics firm that first sent him to Chicago as a lens designer and two years later brought him back to New York City as its East Coast sales representative.
Recruited by a former Varo worker who had joined Rochester-based Ilex Optical Inc., Lobozzo moved to Rochester in 1969 to take a sales job that offered a significant boost in pay.
An Ilex employee, Marie Patricelli, looking to make a match between her niece, Joanne Julian, and Lobozzo, arranged to have Julian hired by Ilex and set the couple up for a luncheon date. The pair hit it off and married in 1969. In later years, they separated, and Lobozzo reconnected with a childhood sweetheart, Barbara Colleric. He and his former wife remained friends.
During four years as an Ilex sales rep, Lobozzo found himself increasingly uncomfortable with what he saw as the firm’s cavalier treatment of customers.
“I said, ‘Gee, these guys (at Ilex) are real successful, they seem to make a whole bunch of money, but they don’t seem to have any regard for their customers. It would seem to me that if someone did what they’re doing with a little more regard for the customer, that would be a recipe that couldn’t fail,’” Lobozzo said in the 1995 interview.
After Lobozzo left Ilex to found JML, a steady stream of Ilex workers also left to join his company. When Ilex went under in 1979, JML hired several of its remaining employees and acquired some of its equipment.
In private life, Lobozzo, who owned and rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, showed a taste for adventure, periodically taking extensive road trips with several close friends.
Recounting some of Lobozzo’s road trips on the Falvo Funeral Home tribute wall, Barbara Marino recalled trips her husband, Advanced Glass Industries owner Anthony Marino, and Lobozzo had taken, writing that along with “their friend, Horst Koch, (the three men) had some crazy adventures traveling—riding motorcycles in the desert outside Las Vegas, rock climbing and riding four wheelers in Costa Rica, getting lost in the streets of New Orleans, and who knows what else.”
Her husband particularly respected Lobozzo’s deep Catholic faith, Marino added, noting that Lobozzo had once been been named the Catholic Family Center’s Man of the Year.
Lobozzo is predeceased by his parents, Joseph and Lily Lobozzo; brother-in-law Jimmy Walsh; and his mother-in-law and father-in-law, Anthony and Nan Julian. He is survived by daughters Jeanna (Tom) Ross and Jodi (Ted) Aman, and son Joe (Peggy Sammon) Lobozzo; a sister, Carolyn Walsh; grandchildren and nieces and nephews.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.