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

Leonardo Del Vecchio, the Italian multibillionaire who rose from Dickensian poverty to build a world-spanning giant who helped turn a boring, fragmented eyewear industry into a fashion-focused business, died Monday in Milan. He was 87.

His death was announced the company, now called EssilorLuxottica. Reason not specified. A spokesman for the company said he died at the San Raffaele hospital.

Although Luxottica has gone unnoticed outside of the industry, it has long been known as a company to have achieved the same dominance in the low-tech glasses business that Google and Amazon have in theirs.

Manufacture eyewear for luxury brands such as Ray-Ban, Armani, Bulgari, Chanel and Brooks Brothers and sell them through company-owned retail chains such as Pearle Vision, Lenscrafters and Sunglass Hut, a company in which Mr. K. Del Vecchio started from his home in Agordo, Italy over 60 years ago and has become the world’s largest eyewear manufacturer with factories in Europe, Asia and America.

And he became one of the richest people in Italy. Forbes magazine ranked him and his family as the 52nd richest person in the world this year, estimating their net worth at $27.3 billion.

This was stated by Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Del Vecchio “a leading figure in Italian entrepreneurship” and “a great Italian”.

“He has placed the Agordo community and the entire country at the center of a world of innovation,” he said. Draghi said.

Born in Milan on May 22, 1935, 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, was unable to take care of him.

At the age of 14, he apprenticed himself as a metal engraver and then moved into a workshop making parts for spectacle frames. “I started out as a salesperson,” he recalled years later in a company video. “They didn’t call me Leonardo, but simply “boy.”

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

He built his fledgling Luxottica along the river with an adjoining home for his young family. He started his working day at 3 am and had no time for anything else.

“There were no kisses, no hugs,” recalled his eldest daughter, Marisa De Vecchio, in The Visionary Man, Mr. George’s official biography. Del Vecchio published by Luxottica in 1991. “Honestly, we were afraid of him.”

mr. Del Vecchio stumbled upon two innovations that propelled him to the top of the competition.

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

He also pioneered the pairing of eyewear and fashion brands, turning a utilitarian necessity into a fashion accessory as coveted 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 high-profile designers. By bringing eyeglasses into fashion, he was able to charge prices that sometimes exceeded $1,000 for a pair of glasses.

As his business grows, Mr. Del Vecchio bought well-known competitors such 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 mid-sized European company, giving it access to equity and acquisition funding.

An oft-cited example of his determination to expand was his 1995 hostile takeover of Ohio-based U.S. Shoe Corporation, a conglomerate with a market value five times that of Luxottica. His only interest was in the lucrative stores of Lenscrafters, the largest optical chain in the United States.

And he bought the company for $1.4 billion. and sold all but Lenscrafters.

In an effort to reach all market segments, Luxottica sold inexpensive frames in developing countries, sometimes even giving away glasses through charitable foundations.

By the time rivals caught on to Mr. Thanks to Del Vecchio’s ambitions, his company had exclusive licenses to 80 percent of major designer brands and the right to set market prices in the eyewear industry.

At around 70 years old, Mr. Del Vecchio announced his retirement in 2004 and handed over management responsibilities to a younger CEO, Andrea Guerra. But a decade later, G. Del Vecchio surprised his shareholders by returning the reins to Luxottica.

For the next three years, analysts questioned the stability of both the company and its founder, as Mr. Del Vecchio fired Mr. Guerra, and then appointed and fired three other executives.

But out of that chaos came G. Del Vecchio’s Best Deal. In 2017, at the age of 81, he announced Merger of Luxottica and Essilor, a French company that produces nearly half of the world’s prescription lenses. He was named executive chairman of EssilorLuxottica with a 32 percent stake. In an address to investors talking about the deal, he called it “a lifelong dream come true.”

For his midget rivals, the new conglomerate was a nightmare. “Technically, the new firm will not be a monopoly.” noted The Guardian. “But in seven centuries of spectacle, 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, clothes seller. 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 girlfriend Sabina Grossi. He remarried Mrs. Zampillo in 2010. She survived him with six children.

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

But the merger is not over. Del Vecchio’s ambitions. In 2019, he nearly doubled EssilorLuxottica’s retail network to over 16,000 outlets worldwide by acquiring a majority stake in GrandVision, a Dutch optical retailer.

The company said in a statement that the deal is “another step towards our goal of ending low vision in the world by 2050.”

Elisabetta Povoledo provided a report from Rome.