Leonardo Del Vecchio dies at the age of 87; Eyewear industry transformed

Leonardo Del Vecchio, the Italian billionaire who rose from Dickensian poverty to build a global behemoth that helped transform the boring and fragmented eyewear industry into a fashion-oriented business, died Monday in Milan. He was 87 years old.

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

Though largely unnoticed outside the industry, Luxottica, as the company was long known, achieved as much dominance in the low-tech eyewear business as Google and Amazon have in theirs.

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

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

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

“He brought the Agordo community and the entire country to the center of the world of innovation,” said Draghi.

Born in Milan on May 22, 1935, Mr. Del Vecchio grew up in an orphanage. His father, a street vegetable vendor, died before Leonardo was born. His mother, who already had four other children, could not take care of him.

At age 14, he apprenticed as a metal engraver, then moved on to a workshop that produced parts for eyeglass frames. “I started out as the guy in the store,” he recalled in a company video many years later. “They didn’t call me Leonardo, just ‘boy’.”

In 1961, he moved to Agordo, a small town in northeastern Italy, to open his own workshop to make frame parts. The town was offering free land to anyone who opened a business.

He built his fledgling company, Luxottica, on a river bank with an adjoining house for his young family. He started his work day at 3 am and had little time for anything else.

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

Mr. Del Vecchio found two innovations that would catapult him over the competition.

He insisted on controlling every part of the business, from the production of frame parts to their assembly into finished eyeglasses and their distribution through a worldwide network of retail stores.

He also pioneered the combination of eyewear and fashion brands, turning a utilitarian necessity into a fashion accessory as desirable as Gucci bags or Air Jordan sneakers. Starting with Armani in 1988, over the next two decades he signed licensing deals with Ralph Lauren, Chanel and a dozen other well-known designers. By making eyeglasses fashionable, he was able to charge prices that sometimes exceeded $1,000 for a pair of glasses.

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

In 1990, he listed Luxottica on the New York Stock Exchange, an unusual move for a midsize European company, which gave him access to equity capital and financing for a wave of acquisitions.

An oft-cited example of its determination to expand was its 1995 hostile takeover 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.

Seeking to reach all segments of the market, Luxottica sold inexpensive frames in developing countries, sometimes even giving away glasses through charities.

By the time rivals realized the breadth of Del Vecchio’s ambitions, his company had exclusive licenses to 80 percent of the major designer brands and the power to set market prices throughout the eyewear industry.

Nearing 70, Del Vecchio announced his retirement in 2004, handing over management duties to a younger executive, Andrea Guerra. But a decade later, Del Vecchio surprised his shareholders by retaking the reins of Luxottica.

Over the next three years, doubts were raised by analysts about the stability of both the company and its founder, as Del Vecchio removed Guerra and later appointed and removed three other CEOs.

But out of this chaos came Del Vecchio’s biggest business. 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 named CEO of EssilorLuxottica with a 32 percent stake. In a call to investors to reveal the deal, he hailed it as “the achievement of a lifelong dream.”

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

Mr. 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 store. He had another son, Leonardo María, with his second wife, Nicoletta Zampillo. After divorcing her in 2000, he had two children, Luca and Clemente, with a girlfriend, Sabina Grossi. He remarried Ms. Zampillo in 2010. She survives 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 Del Vecchio’s ambitions. In 2019, he nearly doubled EssilorLuxottica’s retail network to more than 16,000 points of sale worldwide by acquiring a majority stake in GrandVision, the Dutch optical retailer.

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

Isabel Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.

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