Leonardo Del Vecchio, the Italian multi-billionaire who rose from Dickensian poverty to build a global behemoth that helped transform the unwieldy, fragmented eyewear industry into a fashion-focused enterprise, died Monday in Milan. He was 87.
His passing was announced by the company, now called EssilorLuxottica. No reason was given. A company spokeswoman said he had died at San Raffaele Hospital.
Though it went largely unnoticed outside the industry, Luxottica, as the company was long known, gained as much dominance in the low-tech eyewear business as Google and Amazon did 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, the company Mr. Del Vecchio owns at his home in Agordo. Italy, became the world’s largest eyewear maker more than 60 years ago, with factories in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
And he became one of the richest men in Italy. Forbes magazine placed him and his family in 52nd place this year on the list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated net worth of $27.3 billion.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi called Mr Del Vecchio “a leading figure in Italian entrepreneurship” and “a great Italian” in a statement.
“He brought the community of Agordo and the entire country to the center of the world of innovation,” said Mr. Draghi.
mr. Del Vecchio was born in Milan on May 22, 1935 and grew up in an orphanage. His father, a vegetable street vendor, died before Leonardo was born. His mother, with four other children already, could not take care of him.
At the age of 14 he apprenticed as a metal engraver and then moved on to a workshop producing parts for spectacle frames. “I started out as the shopboy,” he recalls 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 city offered free land to anyone who opened a business.
He built his fledgling venture, Luxottica, on a riverbank with an adjacent house for his young family. He started his workday at 3 a.m. and had little time for anything else.
“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. “Frankly, we were scared for him .”
Mr. Del Vecchio discovered two innovations that would catapult him over the competition.
He insisted on controlling all parts of the company, from the production of frame parts to their assembly to finished eyewear to their distribution through a worldwide network of points of sale.
He also pioneered the marriage of eyewear and fashion brands, turning a utilitarian necessity into a fashion accessory as sought after as Gucci handbags or Air Jordan sneakers. Beginning with Armani in 1988, he signed licensing deals with Ralph Lauren, Chanel and a dozen other well-known designers over the next two decades. By elevating glasses in 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 established rivals 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 capital and financing for a wave of takeovers.
An oft-cited example of his determination to expand was his hostile 1995 takeover of Ohio-based United States Shoe Corporation — a conglomerate five times the market value of Luxottica. His only interest was the profitable Lenscrafters stores of the company, the largest optical chain in the United States.
So he bought the company for $1.4 billion and sold everything but Lenscrafters.
To reach every market segment, Luxottica sold cheap frames in developing countries and sometimes even gave them away through charities.
By the time rivals reach the breadth of Mr. Del Vecchio, his company had exclusive licenses with 80 percent of the major designer brands and the power to set market prices in the eyewear industry.
Mr. Del Vecchio, who was nearly 70, announced his retirement in 2004 and handed over management duties to a younger director, Andrea Guerra. But a decade later, Mr. Del Vecchio his shareholders by taking back the reins of Luxottica.
Over the next three years, analysts questioned the stability of both the company and the founder, when Mr. Del Vecchio ousted Mr. Guerra and subsequently appointed and fired three other chief executives.
But out of this chaos came Mr. DelVecchio. In 2017, at the age of 81, he announced a merger between Luxottica and Essilor, the French company that made nearly half of the world’s prescription lenses. He was named executive chairman of EssilorLuxottica with a 32 percent stake. In an appeal to investors announcing the deal, he praised it as “the realization of a lifelong dream.”
For its Lilliputian rivals, the new conglomerate was a nightmare. “The new company will not technically be a monopoly,” The Guardian noted. “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 the chief executive of Brooks Brothers, the clothing store. 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 in 2010 to Mrs. Zampillo. She survives him, along with his six children.
Even before the Essilor merger, Luxottica’s dominance of the market resulted in gains that were “relatively obscene,” Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, told Forbes.
But the merger did not put an end to Mr 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 low vision in the world by 2050”.
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.