Leonardo Del Vecchio, founder of Luxottica eyewear, dies at 87

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Leonardo Del Vecchio, an Italian entrepreneur who grew up in an orphanage and amassed a multi-billion dollar fortune as the founder and chairman of Luxottica, one of the world’s largest eyewear manufacturers, died on June 27 in a hospital in Milan. He was 87 years old.

His death was announced by his company, now known as EssilorLuxottica, and widely reported in the Italian media. The cause was not immediately available.

Mr. Del Vecchio founded his company in the 1960s and grew its business through acquisitions to include the Ray-Ban and Oakley brands, as well as the LensCrafters, Pearle Vision and Sunglass Hut chains. Luxottica has manufactured frames for luxury lines such as Giorgio Armani, Chanel, Prada and Bulgari, as well as producing its own designs.

At the time of his death, Mr. Del Vecchio ranked 52nd on the Forbes list of global billionaires, with a net worth the magazine estimated at $27.3 billion.

In Italy, his wealth put him in orbit with Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and former prime minister, and the late Giovanni Agnelli, the boss of the Fiat car company. But Mr. Del Vecchio cultivated a calmer presence as he built his empire from the ground up.

Mr. Del Vecchio never knew his father, a fresh produce seller who died before he was born. Unable to support himself and his siblings amid the deprivations of World War II, his mother placed him in an orphanage when he was 7 years old. He went to work at 14, cutting off part of a finger in a work accident.

Mr. Del Vecchio opened his first factory in Agordo, a small town nestled in the Dolomites of northern Italy where he had obtained free land through a program aimed at boosting the region’s economy.

Over the years, Mr. Del Vecchio grew his company, Luxottica, into a giant that manufactured a significant portion of all eyeglass frames worn in the world. At the time of his death, Forbes described Luxottica, which in 2017 merged with French lens maker Essilor in a $49 billion deal, as the “world’s largest producer and retailer of sunglasses and of eyeglasses”.

At the heart of Mr. Del Vecchio’s success was his insight that glasses shouldn’t just be a visual aid perched on the nose. They could also be an expression of personal style, a purchase that reflected both a fashion preference and a medical prescription.

Mr Del Vecchio stepped down from daily management in 2004, but returned to lead the company 10 years later amid turmoil in the management ranks. Of outgoing chief executive Andrea Guerra, The Economist reported, Mr Del Vecchio said his strategy had “diverged” from his.

Mr. Del Vecchio was over 80 when he finalized the deal with Essilor. In 2019, he paid Dutch competitor GrandVision more than $6 billion to form what Forbes described at the time as “the biggest eyewear brand in the world.”

Mr. Del Vecchio was born on May 22, 1935 in Milan, where his parents had emigrated from the southern region of Puglia. Although reticent about his personal life, he sometimes spoke of his experience at the orphanage and how it had marked him.

“For years my lunch was boiled cabbage,” he told The Associated Press. “Its smell reminds me of the great effort, the dream I had of doing something that belonged to me, even if small, but where I could use my ideas and my abilities.”

From an early age, he understood the value of hard work, whatever form it takes, telling Forbes that if he had started life as a fruit seller, he would have been “passionate about fruit”. As it happened, he found an apprenticeship in a factory that made molds for goods, including eyeglass frames.

The region of northern Italy where Mr. Del Vecchio established his business had a centuries-old history of eyewear production. In addition to transforming the industry into a high fashion industry, he brought it to the international market by listing Luxottica on the New York Stock Exchange in 1990. His purchase of LensCrafters in 1995, according to Forbes, was the ” first major hostile takeover of an American company by an Italian company.

Mr Del Vecchio has been married three times, including twice to his second wife, Nicoletta Zampillo, according to Italian media.

With his first wife, Luciana Nervo, he had a son, Claudio, who is the former chief executive of clothing retailer Brooks Brothers, and two daughters, Marisa and Paola. With Zampillo he had a son, Leonardo Maria. He had two other sons, Luca and Clemente, with a companion, Sabina Grossi. A full list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Del Vecchio owes much of his success to the intensity of focus he maintained from his early days as a factory apprentice until the end of his career.

“If you get distracted or rest on your laurels, as I’ve seen happen with various entrepreneurs who started with me, without you realizing it, someone will come and claim your business,” said the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “Once they pass you,” he added, “it becomes very, very difficult to catch them.”

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