Second Chance Employer Profile

Pacific Artisan Labs

Pacific Artisan Labs

Portland, Ore.-headquartered Pacific Artisan Labs manufactures ophthalmic lenses, specializing in producing glasses that provide vision therapy and in very high-end production, with some frames costing as much as $1,500 to $2,000.

Although it began as a small operation in 2018, the company is steadily expanding. In 2022, it expanded production capabilities at its Portland facility by nearly 200% and did $5 million in sales. And in 2023, PAL acquired another independent lab in North Carolina and is opening its third lab, Peak Artisan Labs, a new facility in Denver.

The company employs 24 people in Portland, 12 in Denver and 20 in North Carolina. And they do a variety of types of work. In Portland, the departments include surfacing, anti-reflective and finishing (fitting the lenses into frames), as well as inventory, shipping and logistics, and customer service. About 30% of the company’s employees are second chance hires.

An independent lab, Pacific Artisan Labs has a unique business model that operates like a big for-profit coop. Doctors invest in the company by buying equity and then get a share of net distributions on every job that comes in. They also sell PAL’s optical products. The company has 42 doctors in its equity network and expects 100 equity partners by the end of 2023.

Second chance hiring practices

Part of Pacific Artisan Labs’ mission is to hire people in reentry, a situation that Brandon Butler, the company’s founder and CEO, knows well.

“I am a convicted felon and don’t have a high school diploma,” he says. Butler was imprisoned for five years total between the ages of 15 and 23, and had a lucky break upon release. “I started in optics a month after I got out. A guy who dated my sister all through high school was the manager of a Lens Crafter and he lost the background check,” he says.

Although he started in retail, Butler worked himself up through the ranks in various companies, until he realized it was time to start his own. “I thought I could do it better, so I set out to open my own laboratory. To make ends meet I solicited independent doctors to buy equity in my company.”

And some of his employees have come through the optical training program at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore. A joint collaboration between the Oregon Dept. of Corrections, The Oregon Lions Sight & Hearing Foundation, and Portland Community College, it produces eyewear for the population of all the state’s prisons. And women who complete the nine- to 12-month program gain CPO (Paraoptometric) certification. Those who continue training can apply for higher certification.

Butler has been volunteering in the program for eight years. “I started volunteering to tell my story and inspire people,” he says. “There was a bit of therapy associated with it as well. I didn’t realize the amount of PTSD that remained decades after my own experience.”

A benefit of volunteering is being able to source employees from women coming out of the program. He’s also encouraged eye doctors to tour the Coffee Creek facility, since there’s a shortage of opticians, and graduates of the program are certified. He’s placed 12 women in private optometry practices across the state.

When hiring employees, Pacific Artisan Labs does background checks, and if applicants have certain felony convictions – most notably pedophiles and rapists – he won’t hire them. 

Once hired, employees go through training, but it’s not your usual training.

“We start by explaining to the employee that their past is exactly that, the past. And none of that matters to me or anyone else in the building. We want them to come to work not having to look over their shoulder worrying about past history coming up and putting their job at risk, as it could with other companies that are not so keen on hiring felons,” says Butler. “We spend a lot of time training on optics and how to operate our machines. They go through a month-long training course where they will be shadowed by another employee to ensure they have the fundamentals down.”

And then, there’s the Pacific Artisan Labs culture. “Our culture is family. We want them to feel that when they’re coming to work they’re with their second family,” he says.

It’s also about love and acceptance. “If you think why people are in prison it’s all broken families. People aren’t born convicts. That’s a learned behavior. It’s lacking love and having people to accept them. It’s learning to be a good steward and a good human being,” Butler adds.

Because Pacific Artisan Labs is a small company, Butler takes a very personal approach to dealing with his new hires. The first couple of months he checks in with them, watches their body language and observes them to see if there’s any change in behavior that might require intervention.

He believes that the biggest challenge of second chance hiring is dealing with the mindset of those who have been incarcerated, especially the men. “You have to get the prison mentality out of their head. They come from a very violent environment and need to be deprogrammed from thinking they have to punch someone if they’re disrespected. And they have to switch from worrying about their safety and the protection of themselves to becoming a normal citizen,” says Butler.

“Also, some people don’t have soft skills or any work background. So you need to set expectations for the job and offer encouragement along the way.”

In spite of the challenges, the rewards are worth it, according to Butler.

“You change someone’s life, where they can be productive and have more love and respect for themselves. It’s not just their lives, but their whole families,” he says. “I get to see someone’s life change right in front of me. There’s nothing more rewarding than that. It’s knowing that someone loves their job and that you gave them the opportunity.”

As far as advice for others considering second chance hiring, Butler recommends to “Always go with your gut in every scenario. Don’t be afraid to hire someone. It isn’t going to be a 100% success rate, but give it a shot. Don’t be afraid to go out and be part of the solution.”

To learn more about Pacific Artisan Labs