Leonardo Del Vecchio

The emperor of eyewear

Deirdre Pirro
October 11, 2012

It probably isn't that much fun coming second at anything, but when, over the past several years, the prestigious American business magazine Forbes has ranked you as the second richest man in Italy, with an estimated worth of 11.5 billion dollars, you can't complain all that much. And I am sure eyewear manufacturer and distributor Leonardo Del Vecchio does not. His company, Luxottica, makes spectacle frames, prescription frames and, more recently, sports glasses such as goggles for surfing, skiing and motorcycle racing. However, its biggest market comes from manufacturing very expensive luxury sunglasses for brands like Ray-Ban, Oakley, Versace, Burberry, Prada and Donna Karan. Although its products are sold in over 130 countries, 68 percent of the company's sales are made in America, through the LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut and Pearle Vision chains of over 7,000 optical shops. Del Vecchio also owns EyeMed Vision Care, an eye care provider in the United States catering to more than 30 million members and 8,000 practitioners.


Del Vecchio's beginnings, however, were far from privileged. One of five brothers, he was born in Milan on May 22, 1935. His father, who peddled vegetables on the street, died when he was just five months old. Almost destitute and unable to support her large family, Del Vecchio's mother was forced to send him to the Martinitt orphanage in Milan when he was just seven years old. There, discipline was harsh, but the ‘little Martini,' as the boys were known, learned a trade. At 14, he apprenticed in a tool factory specializing in auto parts and small metal components for spectacles.


In 1958, with a diploma in engraving from the Brera Academy of Art in his pocket, Del Vecchio decided to go it alone, setting up a workshop manufacturing tools and parts for eyewear in Milan. In 1961, with financial backing from two of his customers, he founded Luxottica and moved the factory to the pretty mountain village of Agordo, in the province of Belluno (today also the site of the headquarters of his biggest competitor, the Safilo Group). Within six years, in 1967, the company began making eyeglass frames under its own brand name, and by 1971, it not only had phased out its contract work for other manufacturers but also, that same year, presented its first collection at the Mostra Internazionale Dell'Ottica in Milan.


Always attentive to innovation, in the 1970s, Del Vecchio invested heavily in technology, automating his manufacturing processes, often with machinery he designed himself. This meant that the company soon built a solid reputation for quality and reliability and was able to streamline pricing. He began his global expansion in the 1980s, when he started buying up many of his international distributors, particularly in America, a process he completed in the 1990s with the acquisition of retail outlets. Feeling the pressure from falling profits from insurers for prescription glasses and from increasing competition, in 1995, Del Vecchio bought Lensmasters, his first chain of stores in America. (He had bought these outlets as part of the United States Shoe Corporation, but, with no interest in the shoe market, he quickly sold the mother company to the Nine West group for 600,000,000 dollars.) With the design, manufacturing and marketing concentrated within Luxottica, Del Vecchio's vertical-integration business model paid off handsomely-and still does.


A white-haired, fit-looking man of medium height who still works incredibly long hours, Del Vecchio shuns the limelight and is rarely seen at VIP events or hobnobbing with the social set. One of his few indulgences is his mega-yacht. He has been married and divorced three times and has six children: three with his first wife (Claudio, 55, heir apparent who owns Brooks Brothers, the classic U.S. clothing store; and Marisa, 54, and Paola, 52, who both work for Luxottica); one son from his second marriage (Leonardo Maria, 12); and another two sons from his third wife (Luca, 11, and Clemente, 9). All of his children's financial interests have been protected in special trusts he has created for them.


Today, Luxottica stock is traded on both the New York and Milan stock exchanges. It has six factories in Italy, two in China, one in Brazil and one in the United States. However, because the ‘made in Italy' label is still so important to the company's success, 80 percent of its production remains in Italy. A one-room operation with 10 workers in 1961, Luxottica now employs 35,000 workers worldwide, turns out 1,000 new designs a year and produces 65,000 pairs of glasses a day. Perhaps you have a pair without even realising it.



Optics and Glasses Museum

In September 1991, Luxottica celebrated its 30th year in business. It marked the occasion by opening a museum, Optics and Glasses. Located near the original Luxottica factory in Agordo, it houses a collection of some of the world's oldest spectacles, telescopes, microscopes, optical instruments, binoculars and theatre glasses. Open for visits by appointment only. For more information, see http://tinyurl.com/8k72qgm.


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