Leonardo Del Vecchio dies at the age of 87; Transformed eyewear industry

Leonardo Del Vecchio, the Italian multibillionaire who rose from Dickens’ poverty to build a worldwide giant that helped transform the massive, fragmented eyewear industry into a fashion-oriented business, died Monday in Milan. He was 87.

His death was announced by the company, now called EssilorLuxottica. No reason was given. A spokeswoman for the company said he had died at San Raffaele Hospital.

Although largely unnoticed outside the industry, Luxottica, as the company has long been known, achieved just as much dominance in the low-tech eyewear industry as Google and Amazon have in theirs.

Produces glasses for luxury brands such as Ray-Ban, Armani, Bulgari, Chanel and Brooks Brothers and sells them through company-owned retail chains such as Pearle Vision, Lenscrafters and Sunglass Hut, the company that Mr. Del Vecchio started in his home in Agordo, Italy, more than 60 years ago, and became the world’s largest eyewear manufacturer with factories in Europe, Asia and America.

And he became one of Italy’s richest men. Forbes magazine ranked him and his family at number 52 on its list of the world’s richest people this year, and estimated their net worth at $ 27.3 billion.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi called in a statement Mr. Del Vecchio “a leading figure in Italian entrepreneurship” and “a great Italian.”

“He brought the community of Agordo and the whole country into the center of the world of innovation,” said Mr. said Draghi.

Born in Milan on May 22, 1935, Mr. Del Vecchio grew up in an orphanage. His father, a street vendor of vegetables, died before Leonardo was born. His mother, with four other children in advance, was unable to take care of him.

At the age of 14, he was apprenticed as a metal engraver and then went on to a workshop that produced parts for spectacle frames. “I started as a store boy,” he recalled in a company video many years later. “They did not call me Leonardo, but simply ‘boy’.”

In 1961, he moved to Agordo, a small town in northeastern Italy, to open his own frame-making workshop. The city offered free land to anyone who opened a business.

He built his small business, Luxottica, on a riverbank with an adjoining home to his young family. He started his work day at 3 in the morning and had some time for other things.

“There were no kisses, no hugs,” his eldest daughter, Marisa De Vecchio, recalled in “A Far-Sighted Man,” the official biography of Mr. Del Vecchio published by Luxottica in 1991. “Honestly, we were afraid of him.”

Sir. Del Vecchio hit two innovations that would throw him over the competition.

He insisted on controlling all parts of the company, from the production of frame parts to their collection to finished glasses to their distribution through a worldwide network of retail stores.

He was also pioneering the marriage of eyewear and fashion brands, making a utilitarian necessity for a fashion accessory as coveted as Gucci handbags or Air Jordan sneakers. From Armani in 1988, over the next two decades, he signed licensing agreements with Ralph Lauren, Chanel and a dozen other well-known designers. By elevating glasses to fashion, he was able to charge prices that sometimes exceeded $ 1,000 for a pair of glasses.

As his business grew, Mr. Del Vecchio bought such established rivals as Ray-Ban, Persol, Sunglass Hut, Pearle Vision and Oakley.

In 1990, he listed Luxottica on the New York Stock Exchange, a rare move for a medium-sized European company that gave it access to stock capital and financing for an acquisition round.

An oft-cited example of his willingness to expand was his hostile takeover in 1995 of the Ohio-based United States Shoe Corporation – a conglomerate with five times the market value of Luxottica. His only interest was the company’s profitable Lenscrafters stores, the largest optical chain in the United States.

So he bought the company for 1.4 billion and sold everything except Lenscrafters.

In an effort to reach out to all market segments, Luxottica sold cheap frames in developing countries, and sometimes even gave glasses away through charities.

At the time when the rivals captured the breadth of Mr. Del Vecchio’s ambitions had his company exclusive licenses with 80 percent of the major designer brands and the power to put market prices across the eyewear industry.

Approaching 70, Mr. Del Vecchio announced his retirement in 2004 and handed over the management duties to a younger manager, Andrea Guerra. But a decade later, Mr. Del Vecchio surprised its shareholders by taking over the reins of Luxottica.

Over the next three years, analysts raised questions about the stability of both the company and its founder, as Mr. Mr. Del Vecchio dismissed Guerra and then appointed and dismissed three other top executives.

But out of this chaos came Mr. Share Vecchio’s best deal. In 2017, at the age of 81, he announced a merger between Luxottica and Essilor, the French company that made almost half of the world’s prescription lenses. He was appointed CEO of EssilorLuxottica with a 32 percent stake. In a call to investors revealing the deal, he hailed it as “the achievement of a life dream.”

For his Lilliputian rivals, the new conglomerate was a nightmare. “The new company will technically not be a monopoly,” remarked The Guardian. “But in seven centuries of spectacles, there has never been anything like it.”

Sir. Del Vecchio was married three times to two women and had six children. With his first wife, Luciana Nervo, he had two daughters, Marisa and Paola, and a son, Claudio, now CEO of Brooks Brothers, the clothing retailer. He had another son, Leonardo Maria, with his second wife, Nicoletta Zampillo. After divorcing her in 2000, he had two sons, Luca and Clemente, with a girlfriend, Sabina Grossi. He remarried to Ms. Zampillo in 2010. She survived him along with his six children.

Even before the Essilor merger, Luxottica’s market dominance resulted in profits that were “relatively obscene,” Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, told Forbes.

But the merger did not end Mr. Del Vecchio’s ambitions. In 2019, he nearly doubled EssilorLuxottica’s retail network to more than 16,000 stores across the globe by acquiring a majority stake in GrandVision, the Dutch optics retailer.

A company statement called the deal “another step towards our ambition to eradicate poor eyesight in the world by 2050.”

Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.

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