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Alumni Spotlight: Looking Ahead with Freedi Friedfeld ’83L Freedi Friedfeld '83L steers ClearVision Optical through COVID and beyond.

freedi-800x533 Alumni Spotlight: Looking Ahead with Freedi Friedfeld '83LDavid “Freedi” Friedfeld ’83L

David “Freedi” Friedfeld ’83L admits he was a fish out of water at W&L Law. He remembers people asking, politely, “How the heck did you get here?”

The question didn’t offend him. Friedfeld hadn’t known many lawyers growing up and confesses that he didn’t know much about the law. But he had a promise to keep.

“My great-grandfather came to this country in 1892 from what today would be Ukraine,” said Friedfeld. “He was about 90 years old, and I was 13 when he came up to me at my bar mitzvah and said, in broken English, ‘Promise me you’ll be a lawyer.’”

Friedfeld’s father was a licensed optician, and his parents owned an optical company on Long Island. As a 6-year-old, Friedfeld’s first job in the family business was sorting the tiny screws into packages of 100. Later, he tested lenses for safety by dropping a metal ball on them to see if the glass would shatter.

“Part of having a family business is that your father gets to employ your friends,” Friedfeld said. “During summer vacations, holiday vacations, and weekends, I’d always have my friends at our company doing different things that my dad needed us to do. I found those jobs interesting, but they also got me familiar and comfortable with the business.”

After graduating from Lehigh University with a degree in government, Friedfeld took a year off and traveled overseas before pursuing his great-grandfather’s wish by enrolling at W&L. He chose W&L over larger schools in big cities because he thought there would be fewer distractions and more attention from professors—plus it was a great place to run.

“All things were true,” he said. “I enjoyed my time at school meeting people from all over the country and with different backgrounds, and I loved the academic environment. If I could have stayed for an extra year of law school, I would have been happy to do that.”

At W&L, he was on Law Review and represented the law school on the University’s Student Activities Board. As president of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity, he led the chapter’s Juvenile Justice Program, which worked with students in the Rockbridge County schools. He also coached the undergraduate track and cross-country teams for several seasons.

Friedfeld has lasting memories of his professors and, even now, will quote them in conversations. He still remembers sitting in Professor Bill Geimer’s backyard after graduation when Geimer told him, “You should be a businessman. You know that, right?”

“I didn’t think he was saying I shouldn’t be an attorney, but he knew, as did several other of my professors, that I organized myself differently and approached law school from a less typical point of view,” Friedfeld said.

After graduation, Friedfeld handled mostly real estate transactions for 18 months at a small Long Island law firm. The fact that he can’t remember the firm’s name is telling. In December 1985, he entered the family business and is now partner with his brother Peter and president of ClearVision Optical. The year 1985 was auspicious in another way. That is when Friedfeld met his wife Vicki Seltzer at a 10-year high school reunion. The couple has been married 39 years and have four children.

When he rejoined the company, ClearVision had 15 employees and was distributing eyewear in a four-state area. Today it’s one of the largest family-owned eyewear distributors in North America with 180 employees and 12 different brands being sold to customers throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and half of South America with new markets opening in the Middle East and Europe.

Friedfeld said his law school background paid immediate dividends, from tax law with the late Tim Philipps to contract law with Sam Calhoun, to courses in property law and labor law and international law.

“Some people who enter a business may have a learning curve on legal issues,” he said. “W&L gave me not only specific knowledge but also the methodology of studying, writing, speaking, time management, teamwork, research, and on and on.”

The eyewear business has been transformed during Friedfeld’s 39-year tenure, and he now calls ClearVision “a technology company that happens to sell frames, lenses, reading glasses and sunglasses. We are a classic distributor model but our approach to business is through technology, robotics, software development and AI.” A prime example of technology’s impact is 3D printing. Friedfeld has been studying 3D printing for more than 20 years and watched it become both less complex and less expensive. Today ClearVision’s in-house designers can print working prototypes of frames in less than an hour, email files to factories and also send working models to clients all over the world.

More recently Friedfeld and his brother formed Tech Print Industries with a Dutch partner, Marc Notenboom. The company developed proprietary CAD software and uses that software to design and produce 3D printed eyewear. The software will enable manufacturers to produce locally, thereby reducing transportation time and decreasing the carbon footprint generally associated with eyewear production.

“We’ve been in the R&D phase for six years, and we’ll be fully commercial in 2024. It’s been an exciting project. Our team is fully remote. We work in different time zones, and the skills and backgrounds on the team are completely a new experience for me,” Friedfeld said.

Friedfeld considers himself the steward of the family business, and the COVID pandemic tested his stewardship with an existential threat. When the governor of New York shut down all businesses on March 13, 2020, ClearVision was left with millions in unpaid bills and no income stream. The company had a disaster recovery plan, but it had never imagined COVID.

“I had no revenue coming in. I owed millions to vendors. My employees were all furloughed by no choice of mine,” said Friedfeld. “There was the thought that, ‘Hey, we might go out of business’.”

The company had enough cash to exist on life support from March to November. Friedfeld and his team developed payment plans with vendors, asked senior staff to take a small reduction in pay, and set up a remote training and customer engagement plan, among other initiatives. Although 2020 sales were down 30 percent—a massive drop—the company came out of the year better than Friedfeld had hoped and was able to regain all the lost ground in the following year with assistance from a PPP loan and a larger than expected rebound in sales.

At the same time, Friedfeld used the crisis as an opportunity to make major changes. For instance, all but 25 of the 180 employees continue to work remotely. Senior executives have revised roles. There is better interdepartmental communication and more collaboration. The company focused on internal efficiencies and doing more with less. ClearVision eyewear designers quickly pivoted to create a secondary product offering in personal protective equipment, from face shields and masks to countertop sneeze guards. And the company went direct to the consumer for the first time.

“We retooled the entire company during the four months when we were shut down,” Friedfeld said. “In a business environment, you would never get the opportunity to take 16 weeks to stop and rethink your operation. We emerged from COVID a very different company. I became a better leader, delegating more and learning I didn’t have to do everything myself. Our leadership blossomed and staff stepped up to difficult new tasks. Today, the company is more agile, which is paramount for business in the 21st century.”

He added, “I’m particularly proud that during this period we were still able to be recognized as one of the best companies to work for in New York state. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Friedfeld credits the company’s values-driven approach with holding the company together. He said that ClearVision has long emphasized open and honest communication, respect, integrity, compassion, service innovation performance, and fun.

Those characteristics, Friedfeld said, often surprise clients when they discover that the company is based on Long Island. “They thought we were Midwesterners — nice, in other words — as opposed to what you might expect from New Yorkers,” he said.

Friedfeld’s goal is for the company to be in business, privately held, for 100 years. That’s 26 years away.

“I’d be 93,” he said, “and I think it would be a great testament for a family business like ours to reach 100. This will require a third generation of Friedfelds, and that will be another challenge to approach.”

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