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Bausch & Lomb focus to benefit bay area

Bausch & Lomb's moves to concentrate on eye-care businesses should benefit its Tampa Bay manufacturing facilities.

At Tuesday's annual meeting, held at the company's Tampa manufacturing and testing facility, new chief executive William Carpenter remained optimistic about Bausch & Lomb's makeover amid signs of shareholder impatience.

The company's sales, $1.9-billion in 1997, have slid about 1 percent from their 1996 levels, which were flat compared with 1995. Net income has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past two years.

Bausch & Lomb's best-known products _ contact lenses, Ray-Ban sunglasses and other eye-related lines _ have long been complemented with health care products like Miracle-Ear hearing aids. But the diversification hasn't produced great results and has made it more difficult to fix problems with the company's core eye products.

The company's sales troubles led to the management change a year ago and a new strategy to cut costs and to consider selling the health-related businesses. Earlier this month it sold its skin-care products division to the Andrew Jergens Co. for $135-million.

Meanwhile, the company is broadening its reach in the optical industry. In December it completed the acquisition of two eye-surgery companies, Chiron Vision and Storz Ophthalmics.

The increased focus on eye care is good news for the company's Tampa operations. Its facility in Hidden River business park makes 83 products, many used in and after eye surgery. The 583-person work force could grow as demand increases for promising new products such as Lotemax, a steroid used to help the healing process after eye surgery.

In addition, absorbing the operations of the two eye-surgery companies will mean the movement of some jobs from a Claremont, Calif., plant to Bausch & Lomb's Clearwater facility, where 236 people make products associated with cataract surgery.

Carpenter said the company doesn't know yet how many workers would make the move, but the Clearwater facility runs just one shift currently, giving it room to double or triple in number of employees. Meanwhile, Bausch & Lomb's Sarasota facility recently underwent a multimillion-dollar upgrade, Carpenter said.

While Carpenter thinks the company's attempts to cut $150-million in costs from its businesses are on track, the demand for shareholder return remains strong in the booming stock market.

Bausch & Lomb stock closed Tuesday up 6\ cents to $49.62{. The stock has ranged from $30 to $60 a share for much of the '90s, failing to match the market's strong rise.

A shareholder effort Tuesday to ask Bausch & Lomb's board to sell the company to the highest bidder failed with only a fraction of shareholders approving it, while a move passed that will require board members to run for their seats annually. The company last year settled a $42-million class-action suit against its former executives over the stock's miserable performance.

Sales of Ray-Ban and other Bausch & Lomb sunglasses dropped nearly 6 percent in 1997 compared with 1996. Carpenter blamed "woefully" small marketing budgets (which have been doubled for this year) for the sales decline. Sales have been stronger in the first quarter of this year, he said. Ray-Bans appearing in successful movies such as Men In Black have also boosted brand image.