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Thursday, July 31, 2014, 10:50 p.m.
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Kirk Warden

Optical company’s second-in-command sees bright future for local manufacturing

By Angela Spencer

This article was published June 22, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Kirk Warden is co-founder of the Arkansas Photonics Industry Alliance and executive vice president of LaCroix Optical Co. in Batesville, which manufactures custom lenses for a variety of defense, medical and other uses. He holds a large prism made by the company.

Forming lenses with intricate specifications is a long process of grinding, polishing and cleaning material to match the size and curves requested by customers. In a building near the school bus depot for the Batesville School District, LaCroix Optical Co. takes on the task of manufacturing custom lenses for various clients, including those in medical fields, astronomy and defense.

As LaCroix Executive Vice President Kirk Warden walked through the building, where people were forming and inspecting optical components, he carefully regarded the work while cheerfully greeting those performing the tasks.

“It’s all about them,” Warden said of the employees. “They’re the ones who make it happen.”

In his role of executive v ice president, Warden is learning the specifics of optics under his father-in-law, Ray LaCroix, whom Warden said is his mentor when it comes to business. LaCroix’s father started the business, which since its inception has remained in the family.

Warden met his wife, Michelle, at the wedding of her cousin and one of his best friends. After their own wedding, Warden went into the family business, learning about optics, mirrors and prisms.

“It’s kind of an interesting situation. My wife — Ray’s daughter — is a radiologist, and my dad is a radiologist,” Warden said. “So she does what my dad does, and I do what her dad does.”

While Warden has learned the specifics of optics while working at LaCroix, the world of sales was not foreign to him.

“I’ve always been in the medical-device sales industry,” he said. “After Michelle and I got married, she was going through residency, and I was working for LaCroix, so I was able to go to school part time and get my MBA, hoping it would help here.”

Nearly 10 years later, Warden is second-in-command, helping run the company that his wife’s family has steered for many years.

“It’s been great to learn under Ray,” he said. “He’s always been a hands-on, nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, and I’ve always been a sales and marketing kind of guy. I’ve learned a lot. That’s why ‘listen before you speak’ is an important quote to me.”

LaCroix Optical Co. was started in 1947 in Chicago, Illinois, but soon moved to Kirkland, Illinois. Warden said that at the time, some people from Arkansas worked out of state because of a lack of jobs in the area, and two brothers from Cushman, Arkansas, worked at LaCroix.

In 1966, LaCroix Optical opened a satellite shop in Batesville, then eventually moved the whole operation to Batesville. Warden credits the people of Batesville for the move.

“The people from this area have grown up independent,” Warden said. “They fix their own vehicles. They have a natural mechanical aptitude and a really good work ethic. It’s really because of the people that the company has done so well over the years.”

Aside from learning the family business, Warden is involved at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Batesville, helped start the Arkansas Photonics Industry Alliance with Walter Burgess of Power Technology Inc. and serves on the board of the Batesville Airport Commission.

When he was growing up, Warden said, he wanted to be a pilot. He did learn how to fly and flew freight for a while earlier in his life. During that time, he was a flight instructor in addition to flying mail, including several strange items.

“People would express-mail chickens,” Warden said. “They were in these stand-up boxes — like a gift box almost. It was the kookiest thing ever. We’d fly at night, and when we’d get done with our run, the sun would be coming up. When we’d cut off the motor, you could hear them crowing.”

Warden is still able to fly in his spare time, but he said his days of shuttling birds around the country are pretty much in his past.

Instead, Warden is looking to the future of LaCroix Optical. Working with many defense contractors that require parts to be made in the United States, Warden said it is important for companies such as LaCroix to continue to improve and thrive amid global competition.

“Manufacturing in the United States has really declined over the last 10 to 15 years, but it’s really starting to experience a resurgence,” he said. “The interesting thing about our business is where 10 or 15 years ago we competed with other American companies, now our biggest competitor is Asia. … We believe very strongly that manufacturing of optics is a strategic capability, and we need to have that in the United States.”

The future looks promising in the optical field, Warden said, and the company is working on new ways to provide their customers with different kinds of lenses and new manufacturing techniques.

“I think the economy continues to improve, and we are working very hard to expand our capabilities,” he said. “We have to do things that we know we can be good at. It all comes down to the fact that we grind and polish glass.”

Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or aspencer@arkansasonline.com.

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