Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Damian Lewis rocks them in Billions. Liev Schreiber sports a pair in Ray Donovan. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell use them to get their swagger on in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Tom Cruise also amps up his cool quotient with Randolph Engineering aviator sunglasses in the movies American Made and Oblivion. And in Top Gun...?

"Unfortunately, Ray-Ban is the one that had those," says Peter Waszkiewicz, president and CEO of the second-generation family business. "But we have been in more movies than I can begin to tell you. Now everybody in Hollywood knows Randolph."

Cruise is also a Randolph Engineering fan in private life. But more important to the company's story have been real-life versions of his Top Gun Navy pilot character--as well as Air Force and Army pilots--who for decades have worn frames engineered by Randolph for performance in extreme conditions. The only manufacturer of metal eyewear still operating in the United States, the company is based in a brick factory in Randolph, Massachusetts, a former shoemaking powerhouse about 12 miles south of Boston. There, just over 100 employees produce more than half a million pairs of sunglasses a year--generating between $15 million and $20 million in annual revenue from both military and private customers.

Randolph used to be 100 percent a government contractor. The company has designed glasses that fit behind a pilot's face shield and can be removed without taking off a helmet. It has also created frames for use with night vision goggles and inside gas masks, as well as ones that fit lenses resistant to laser attacks. And in 2000, Randolph landed a contract to provide all five branches of the military, as well as NASA, with sunglass frames for everyday wear.

Now, however, the business leans commercial. Sixty percent of revenue comes from consumers buying sunglasses virtually identical in appearance to the military versions, although not constructed to exactly the same specs. "It is our staple style," says Waszkiewicz, who took over as CEO of the family-run business in 2007. "We are not a Gucci, nor do we want to be." 

The production process involves 200 steps that progress from shaping and milling the wire to soldering each piece to tumbling: a way to polish frames by putting them into rotating barrels filled with ground-up walnut shells. Including electroplating--a process applied to the product's metal finish for durability and scratch resistance and the only step performed out of house--it takes roughly six weeks to make a pair of sunglasses. Eighty percent is done by hand.

Sunglasses, in both men's and women's styles, range from around $200 to $389, with the top tier including features like precious metal plating and glass polarized lenses. At Shades of the Bay, a sunglasses store in Annapolis, Maryland, owner Linda Mann has sold around 60 pairs this year, a number she calls impressive. Mann displays the product in her window and "it is amazing how many people come in and say, 'Oh, you have got Randolph Engineering. I have been looking for those,'" she says. "We have a lot of Naval Academy alumni coming into town, and I'm not surprised they know the brand. But there's also a lot of interest just from your average affluent consumers."

Mann explains Randolph's broader appeal: "Their styles are classic," she says. "And the quality is phenomenal."

A pilot project.

Randolph Engineering's co-founder Jan Waszkiewicz was 18 when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Jan escaped to France and then to England, where he joined the Royal Air Force, flying Lancaster bombers. Working alongside U.S. soldiers, Waszkiewicz absorbed their America-as-land-of-opportunity message. In 1958, he moved with his English wife and first child to Boston, home to a distant relative.

An engineer by trade, Waszkiewicz became head toolmaker at Marine Optical, a Boston eyewear manufacturer. He hired as a machinist another Polish immigrant, Stanley Zaleski, and they became best friends. In 1973, Waszkiewicz and Zaleski left Marine to start their own business building machinery and tooling for the optical manufacturing trade. "When I came into the business, 90-plus percent of the eyewear frames sold in the U.S. were actually made here," says Peter Waszkiewicz, who along with his brother Richard joined the company in the 1970s.

Then began the exodus of manufacturing to China. "Our customer base was leaving," Waszkiewicz says. "We said if we don't diversify, we will be out of business." The founders had expertise building eyewear from their years at Marine, and they designed and built their own soldering and milling machines. Their decision was at once logical and--given the rising competition overseas--counterintuitive. "We said, let's manufacture our own eyewear," says Waszkiewicz. "It was the best thing we ever did."

Randolph Engineering began making plastic frames from acetate, then switched to gold-filled metal frames in three shapes: hexagon, octagon, and circle. Waszkiewicz and Zaleski private-labeled the frames and sold them to distributors.

Then in 1978 a military contractor came calling. He was an Air Force veteran looking for someone who could manufacture frames for pilot sunglasses. Randolph acted as subcontractor on that business for four years, then won it outright after the contractor got sick.

The learning curve for military contractors is steep. Waszkiewicz recalls sitting up until 3 a.m. studying quality control inspection manuals to master the requirements. Randolph Engineering was shipping 25,000 frames at a time. For every shipment, an inspector spent a day at the company poring over paperwork and randomly checking product to ensure it conformed to specs.

"They were very strict on quality, and rightfully so," Waszkiewicz says. "When someone is flying a million-dollar jet--now it would be a billion-dollar jet--and wearing a pair of Randolph Engineering aviator sunglasses, a screw had better not pop out and the lens fall out."

Over the years, Randolph Engineering developed products for all branches of the military. In 2000, the company won the contract for the military's new Frame of Choice program to outfit service members outside the cockpit with its eyewear.

Military tough. Fashion cool.

Government contracts are good business, but not reliable business. "We will always be grateful for that work," Waszkiewicz says, but by the mid-2000s "we wanted to be able to control our own destiny." That meant creating a consumer brand. In those days, few people outside the military knew the name Randolph Engineering. But they had seen celebrities and service members wearing the glasses. They recognized them. They thought they looked cool.

Still, "eyewear is a very competitive industry, and at that time, nobody needed another brand," Waszkiewicz says. "We had a hard time getting placed." The company finally broke through in 2010 at New York Fashion Week, where the company's leaders talked with journalists about their military and made-in-the-U.S.A. heritage. GQ and other magazines wrote stories.

That coverage earned Randolph a foothold in fashionable men's clothing stores, including Steven Alan, Sid Mashburn, Mr. Sid, and the high-end shoe company Allen Edmonds. Optical stores and eye-care professionals began taking notice. The company got into chains like L.L. Bean, Gander Mountain, and Cabella's with eyewear designed for the clay-target-shooting market. 

Today, the consumer market accounts for 60 percent of revenues, with almost half of that direct online. Hoping to double revenues in three years, Waszkiewicz recently has begun investing heavily in a U.S. sales force. "I think we are poised to become the Ray-Ban of the U.S.," he says.

Trouble is, most people think Ray-Ban is the Ray-Ban of the U.S. "It's unfortunate that the general consumer sees them as an American brand," Waszkiewicz says. In fact, Ray-Ban was acquired 20 years ago by Luxottica, the Italian 800-pound gorilla of the industry that also owns a slew of household-name brands like Persol and Oakley, and retailers including LensCrafters and Pearle Vision.

Waszkiewicz likes to point out that Ray-Ban and Randolph Engineering have similar histories. Both supplied sunglasses to the U.S. military (Ray-Ban in World War II). Both benefited from exposure in Hollywood. But Waszkiewicz believes that, given contemporary consumer values, Randolph Engineering holds an advantage. "We are family-owned and operated: made in the U.S.A. and putting Americans back to work," he says. "These days people really appreciate that."

Published on: Jul 15, 2019