Woman CEO - Manufacturing Laser Industry - Manufacturing in Focus Magazine

Posted by Ana Walters on

Made in America
American Photonics

Written by Claire Suttles

American Photonics (APC) manufactures precision laser optics for the CO 2 laser industry. The
company has earned its place in a competitive market by providing replacement laser parts
for customers who want high quality products without paying the high prices charged by the
OEMs.

The high-tech operation has homegrown roots going all the way back to 1940, when Jack
Walters Sr. started American Torch Tip Company (ATTC) in a small garage. The company grew
and thrived, paving the way for several business ventures. In 2001, the founder’s grandson,
Steve Walters, recognized the market potential for optic manufacturing and launched
American Photonics as one of the eleven companies currently under the Walters family
umbrella. “It’s a family with four generations of manufacturing,” says APC CEO Ana Walters,
who married into the manufacturing dynasty and hit the ground running. “[APC] is really
managed every day by me and my husband. It is a family business.”

The family-run business is proud to manufacture in America. In fact, the Walters family
founded the company specifically to bring an American presence into the laser lens industry.
APC is the only optics company that manufactures 100 percent of its products in the United
States. The business has done remarkably well, despite competition from a major
manufacturer with a lock on the lion’s share of the market. Less than two decades removed
from its founding, APC sells products to 3,000 customers in 58 countries.

Much of this success comes from the company’s high-quality American manufacturing. “The
main competitive advantage that we have against [international competitors] is
manufacturing here in the United States,” Ana Walters says. “We have the freedom by the
government to use some chemical elements that they don't have.” She explains that these
chemical elements allow APC lasers to last two to three times longer than other lenses on the
market. This quality and longevity comes at a cost, but it pays for itself in the long run. “You
really receive what you pay for,” Ana Walters says. “You pay a little bit more for my price, but

the product is a better quality and it lasts.”

The company uses the latest, most advanced CNC machinery and robotic equipment to
produce the best possible product. In addition, APC specially engineers its machines to get
the results customers want. With decades of experience under his belt and 18 patents to his
name, Steve Walters knows how to get the most out of manufacturing equipment. “He has
the ability to customize machines,” Ana Walters says. “And we have the only machines
customized by him. He is the only one who knows how to do it. It's almost impossible to
copy.” This customization gives customers a “more boutique” solution with greater precision
than is available on standard equipment.

American Photonics utilizes the ISO management system to enhance their commitment to
quality. In addition to utilizing state-of-the-art machinery, APC keeps a close eye on quality
control and utilizes Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to track and analyze operations. The
team incentivizes employees who meet quality standards. “We like to give rewards for [doing
a] good job,” Ana Walters says, and the results have been astonishing when it comes to
customer feedback of the finished product. “Last year we had three products returned with
questionable quality problems,” she shares. “Three! Three in the whole year.”

APC is a small, close-knit company that cares about its employees. “We do things here that
you cannot find in another company,” Ana Walters says. “I think the fact that the CEO is a
woman brings things that [people] do not expect. For example, I have free breakfast and free
lunch for my employees every day.” The company also provides an all-day salad bar to
encourage healthy eating habits and a bonus for quitting smoking. Once a month, the
Walters’ host a birthday lunch for all the employees with recent birthdays. The sit-down gives
the bosses and employees a chance to touch base. “It’s the moment to listen to what they
have to say,” Ana Walters says. “The financial manager always complains to me that I spend
too much of my personal money doing that,” she jokes, “but it helps me to listen to what
they have to say.”

Walters even invites employees to personal events. “I invited all the employees in the
company for my wedding party,” she recalls. “My job is my life and my employees are my
family.” The positive environment keeps workers engaged for the long term, with many
staying ten or fifteen years. “I don't remember the last time I had an employee leaving the

company to go to the competition,” Ana Walters says. “It is a nice environment. If you ask
the employees and the suppliers and the customers, everybody's going to say that it’s a
different company because it is extremely people-oriented.”

Keeping skilled, dedicated employees on board is critical to success. “We need to survive
together,” Ana Walters says. “It's a very competitive market.” A major, global competitor –
with virtually limitless resources – holds most of the market share, so small family companies
like APC must work hard to earn their slice of the pie. “The only way for me to survive is to
have 100 percent of my employees’ engagement,” Ana Walters explains.

Certainly, a strong commitment to customer service helps the company earn – and keep
–business. “There is no way to survive against a competitor who has more than sixty percent
of market share if your customers change,” Ana Walters says. “If I lose a customer, it is going
to hurt me too much; if my competitor loses a customer it doesn’t mean anything. For me,
my customers matter.”

One of her strategies for superior customer service is to never pass the buck on to someone
else. “You’re going to have problems in life,” she says. “The difference is how you’re going to
face the problem and how you’re going to fix it.” Rather than assign blame, she looks for a
solution. “Normally I don’t care who is responsible. If it is a problem; let us find a solution.
Who is responsible is irrelevant. If customers need someone to blame, she steps up to the
plate as CEO. “Sometimes, when you have conference calls with customers they say, ‘no, I
need to know who is responsible.’ I am responsible… because I am responsible for
everything.”

This level of service and accountability, coupled with great products, is winning the company
some big clients. Aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company have both
started working with the team on major defense projects. “We are doing projects with them
that we never imagined doing before,” Ana Walters says. “The engineering department
embraced it and we are doing missile projects, satellite projects, and all kinds of custom
projects with different kinds of materials that we never did before.” These long-term projects
have opened the door for even more opportunities and further product diversification.

The team is eager to keep growing and will continue to pursue defense projects, particularly
now that they have become compliant with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR),
which regulates the manufacture, sale and distribution of defense and space-related articles.

Walters’ personal goal is to secure a seat on a board of directors for a large company in the
manufacturing, retail, or telecom industries while growing APC to 300 employees over the
next decade. To attract more international customers, the team is in the process of launching
an ecommerce website that will translate languages and adjust currencies, all for a seamless
shopping experience. With a new website for global distributors and end users, top quality
products, and committed customer service, APC is prepared to take business to the next
level. “We are ready to be worldwide.”

Focus quotes:
“The Walters family founded the company specifically to bring an American presence into the
laser lens industry. APC is the only optics company that manufactures 100 percent of its
products in the United States.”

“APC keeps a close eye on quality control…”

“My job is my life and my employees are my family.”

“Aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company have both started working with
the team on major defense projects.”

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