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SPIE Professional January 2008

C.K. Coatings: A Sister Act

Cheryl Koschara and Linda Wright find the keys to entrepreneurial success for C.K. Coatings in old-fashioned hard work, knowledge of technical details and processes, and the support of family.

By Cheryl Koschara

photo of Cheryl Koschara and Linda Wright of CK CoatingsThe story of C.K. Coatings, a successful women-owned company on the rise, is one of hard work, determination, and the support of family.

I founded C.K. Coatings near Rochester, NY, in 2003. My sister, Linda Wright, joined me as my partner in the fall of 2005. C.K. Coatings designs and provides thin-film coatings on precision glass, polymer lenses and diamond-turned metal optics. Our capabilities include BBAR, V-coats, mirror, beamsplitter, single-layer, gold and silver coatings used in medicine, military, lithography, and other industries.

I have more than 18 years of experience with optical thin-film coatings using high-vacuum deposition processes and have taken optics courses at Monroe Community College in Rochester. Linda has more than 20 years of experience in sales, including 15 spent in the sales of optics.

We grew up in Kendall, NY, (Population: 2800) where there isn't much around except a yellow traffic light and a corner grocery store. Growing up on our grandfather's farm, Linda and I were no strangers to hard work. During the summers of our teenage years, we were up at 5 a.m. and home at dusk. On weekends, we would get up at 3 a.m. to go to the public market.

We earned our own money for school clothes. In fifth grade, Linda's teacher asked students to raise their hands if they did dishes every night. Linda was the only one in her class with her hand raised. She was furious with our Mom but realized that Mom instilled a good work ethic in us right from the start.

In 1989, our uncle, Angelo DeBona, the manufacturing manager at JML Optical Industries, told me of a job opening there. I started in the optical assembly department and a month later transferred to JML's coating department.

I worked at JML for 10 years as a coating technician before accepting an opportunity at Melles Griot as group leader in its coating department. After that, I went to OCLI to learn coating on polymer lenses. When OCLI shut its doors in Rochester, I joined Lightwave Enterprises. These jobs brought me a tremendous amount of technical knowledge and experience for coating glass and polymer optics as well as designing coatings.

Eager and Curious to Learn
As a technician, I was always eager to learn something new when it came to coatings. I worked with automated and manual high-vacuum equipment from single-layer magnesium fluoride coatings monitored by eye in an 18-inch glass bell jar to a 24-layer filter coating in a 48-inch automated box coater. I also have experience with electron beam and thermal deposition processes using optical and thickness monitors. My expertise with multiple coating design software programs helps meet customers' requirements at C.K. Coatings today.

I also have experience with cryo and diffusion pumps. This may sound "old school," but I enjoyed running the manual high-vacuum equipment over the automated because it forced me to understand the entire vacuum process and to recognize when something wasn't running quite right.

I learned how to read gauges and understand what they mean. Being a technician, I also learned how to change the oil in the pumps and troubleshoot leaks in the chamber. That's very important, especially when training someone. A great technician ought to understand why s/he is turning a switch on and what it actually does.

This detailed understanding of the optical coating business led me to recognize my ability and interest in managing and organizing my own enterprise. I also recognized my love of creatively solving problems for customers and my success taking advantage of opportunities to improve on processes and operations.

So, in 2003, I started C.K. Enterprises as many entrepreneurs do; the business was located in my garage. With one small bell jar and one customer (for whom we still supply coatings today), I was on my way.

Linda's Story
In 1990, Linda was hired as a catalog assistant at JML Optical Industries. A couple of years later, she worked her way up to group leader of the OEM division. This sales position was challenging, and she met and worked with some great people. Linda loves being on the front lines with customers because you gain a respect and understanding of what customers' needs are, and building relationships with customers is the name of the game.

After 15 years at JML, however, she felt the need to make a change and to engage the risk-taking part of her character. She was already working part time as a real estate agent and had ventured out on her own in that business. (She still has her license today.)

Linda had mixed emotions about joining me in business. After all, you never go into business with family, right? After careful consideration, she agreed, and we haven't looked back since.

photo of CK Coatings ownersWhen we started our partnership, it was more work than either one of us had imagined, but we were committed and up for the challenge. I can honestly say that the first year is the most stressful. It was truly a gratifying learning experience: finding a location for the business, buying more equipment, and increasing our customer base.

New Beginnings for C.K. Coatings
The beautiful building in which we started our joint venture is the original Jell-O factory in LeRoy, NY. You know the old slogan, "There's always room for Jell-O"? Well, it turns out there is always room in the Jell-O factory. In 2007, we expanded from 1500 square feet to 3000 square feet. We plan to expand even more as our business grows.

We pitched in our savings to avoid debt and purchased our first 48-inch box coater. Frugal in our spending, we purchase refurbished equipment online instead of new whenever we can (eBay has been our best friend), and my husband builds and maintains the machines. In just two years, we are now up to six coating machines to handle customers' various requirements.

C.K. Coatings' Winning Business Philosophy
As a young startup company, our philosophy has been to take care of our customers first and the rest will fall into place. We understand that coating is one of the last processes that lenses go through, so when the lenses reach us, time is really of the essence. We are very sensitive and in tune to our customers' needs and do our best to turn parts around in a timely manner. Through cross-training, we are able to be more efficient and maintain a steady work flow.

Another key to our success is that I pay strong attention to detail and have a great deal of patience. With C.K. being a small company, we can really keep a handle on every part that goes out the door. Linda, on the other hand, is very aggressive and not afraid to approach new opportunities. That's what makes us work. We balance each other out.

In today's market, we are seeing a difference that forces us to continuously improve our techniques. For instance, our customers' components are now often made from plastic instead of glass because plastic is less expensive. The plastic molding injection process has become so precise that in some cases the polymer lenses meet the same specifications as glass lenses. However, our customers require coating specifications just as stringent as for glass.

It's important to stay on top of the processes and although we've had our challenges, we always seem to overcome them.

We also know not to put all our eggs in one basket as there can be slow times in this industry as well. Strategically targeting customers in various industries has helped us get through some of the slower times.

Hiring the right people is important, and our location near Rochester makes it perfect to recruit employees who have the knowledge we require. In January 2007, we hired Kara Roggow, who worked at Eastman Kodak's Digital Imaging and Optics Department for 12 years. Kara also has a degree in science and technology from Genesee Community College and has been a tremendous help with her hard work and ability to bring new ideas to the table.

Family is also very important. Our grandmother works in our office two to three times a week. We have learned that you can work with family and be successful. As a matter of fact, we owe our success to the support and love of our families who appreciate our love for the business, and we know that it will pay off. It already has.

C.K. Coatings Owners Featured
In 2008 SPIE Women in Optics Calendar

photo of Cheryl Koschara and Linda WrightSPIE members Cheryl Koschara and Linda Wright of C.K. Coatings are featured in the 2008 SPIE Women in Optics Daily Planner.

The 2008 calendar features numerous women in exciting and varied optics careers. "The best part of our jobs is that they don't feel like jobs," the sisters say. "We love what we do and hope to continue to grow our business for many years."

Koschara and Wright's optical thin-film company is one of the few women-owned optical thin-film companies in the United States and serves the medical, military, dental, security, communications, and lithography fields.

SPIE provides a free copy of the 2008 calendar to members on request. Free copies are also available for career counselors, science teachers, and community clubs while supplies last.

Please send your request to pascale@spie.org

Cheryl Koschara is the founder of C.K. Coatings in LeRoy, NY.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200801.02

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