MILAN — Luxottica founder and chairman Leonardo Del Vecchio, who became chairman of EssilorLuxottica after the merger of the French and Italian groups, died Monday morning at age 87 at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan.
One of the wealthiest and most influential entrepreneurs in Italy, Del Vecchio was the embodiment of the self-made man. He was born in Milan on May 22, 1935, but his father died five months prior to his birth and his mother couldn’t afford to support her five children, so he grew up in an orphanage from age seven.
He began his career as an apprentice to a tool- and dye-maker in Milan, but decided to turn his metalworking skills to make spectacle parts and moved in 1961, when he was 25, to Agordo, in the province of Belluno, to found a new company: Luxottica.
He was also one of the key figures on the Italian economic scene, as one of the main shareholders of giant bank Mediobanca and Generali insurance company.
Under his watchful and hands-on lead, Del Vecchio grew Luxottica to become a leader in the design, manufacture and distribution of fashion luxury and sports eyewear. Its portfolio includes proprietary brands such as Ray-Ban, Oakley, Vogue Eyewear, Persol, Oliver Peoples, Arnette, Costa del Mar and Alain Mikli, as well as licensed brands including Giorgio Armani, Burberry, Bulgari, Chanel, Coach, Dolce & Gabbana, Ferrari, Michael Kors, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany & Co., Valentino and Versace. It has also been producing ophthalmic lenses for more than 20 years.
Del Vecchio also spearheaded the merger between Luxottica and Essilor of France, which focused on lenses, forming in 2018 an eyewear colossus with a market capitalization of about 57 billion euros, which transformed the sector’s global landscape.
Publicly listed on the Paris Stock Exchange, EssilorLuxottica has more than 140,000 employees and sales in more than 150 countries.
The merger hid road bumps almost immediately from disagreements between Del Vecchio and the Essilor management over who actually ran the combined group, proving how the entrepreneur’s willpower had not waned in time. In 2019, Del Vecchio succeeded in seeing the EssilorLuxottica board approve the hand over of integration responsibilities to Francesco Milleri, his longtime right-hand man and former Luxottica CEO.
Before that, in 2017 at 82 years old, Del Vecchio did not hesitate to take back executive responsibilities in his own hands after repeatedly shaking up the group’s management structure at Luxottica following the abrupt exit of longstanding CEO Andrea Guerra in 2014. Del Vecchio took a more active role reorganizing and simplifying the structure of the company.
In 1988, Luxottica signed a key licensing deal, the first of many with fashion brands, but one that would also cement a strong bond with Giorgio Armani.
“I learned of Leonardo Del Vecchio’s passing with deep sorrow,” Armani said on Monday. “First and foremost, I lost a friend, with whom I have shared a long and pioneering professional adventure. Together, we invented a phenomenon that did not exist before. When we first met, we immediately realized that glasses, from simple functional objects, would become indispensable fashion accessories. And so it was. We found each other at first glance, kindred in character and experience. Our generation lived through hard times that tempered it: the years of war and reconstruction. At a certain point there was nothing and we had to rebuild from scratch and this scenario offered many possibilities, which we both, each in our own way, seized. We had big dreams, and we made them come true. Of Leonardo I will always remember his direct way of communicating, his practicality, his loyalty. I will miss him very much.”
The two men were so close that Armani became a shareholder of Luxottica, and over the years, rumors periodically surfaced about a possible deal between the two companies — the stuff of dreams for investors and bankers, but an agreement never materialized.
According to Forbes, Del Vecchio had a personal net worth of $25.1 billion, ranking him number 52 in the list of world billionaires. He reportedly once told Forbes that “work always came before everything.”
However, Del Vecchio was not one to forget his humble beginnings and was an enlightened entrepreneur who introduced innovative welfare packages for his employees, always taking concrete steps to expand Luxottica’s social policies over the years — often singled out by the unions as best in class.
In 2016, he introduced a “life bonus” for his employees and kicked off the “generational pact” as part of an agreement with INPS, the country’s national social security institute. This was the first such initiative for the private sector in Italy. The goal was to support the new generations, as more than 100 employees that were three years away from their pensions (five years if they were ill) would be able to ask for part-time jobs, halving their hours, without any incidence on their pensions, offering younger people the opportunity to step in. Luxottica would pay social security to INPS for those employees that would adhere to the initiative.
The generational pact was aimed at 10,000 Italian employees in the production centers of Agordo, Cencenighe, Sedico, Pederobba, Rovereto, Lauriano and Milan.
Luxottica’s welfare system was first launched in 2009, at the height of the international economic crisis, and also includes health care, micro-credit, counseling and scholarships, among other initiatives. Del Vecchio was known to pay for study holidays to the children of employees.
Luxottica has launched several initiatives for the protection of landmark territories, such as the national park of the Dolomites surrounding Belluno, a UNESCO heritage natural site standing near the company’s Agordo headquarters; the investments made in plants producing energy from renewable sources; the production of sustainable eyewear collections and the promotion of the local cultural heritage.
Celebrating his 80th birthday in 2015, Del Vecchio granted shares with a value of around 9 million euros to his employees at Luxottica. “With this small gesture, I would like to show how important the employees are to me: I truly feel as if we are family,” he said at the time.
In 2017, he established the Leonardo Del Vecchio Foundation to support charitable and nonprofit initiatives and through the foundation he donated 10 million euros to the new hospital created at the Milan fairgrounds at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Luxottica introduced a number of initiatives to support its employees impacted by the health emergency.
While his industrial activities helped develop and flourish the Agordo town and the eyewear manufacturing district in the area, Del Vecchio always had global views for Luxottica and in 1981 he set up the company’s first international subsidiary in Germany. In 1990, he publicly listed Luxottica in New York and this was followed in 2000 by a listing in Milan.
When in 1999 he decided to buy Bausch & Lomb’s sunglass business, which included the venerable Ray-Ban brand, for $640 million in cash, analysts hailed it as an audacious move at the time, but he turned it into an international success.
His nearest collaborators knew him as an assiduous hard-working, hands-on industrialist “with a new idea every day, and he cherished a challenge and shaking things up,” said one person, who asked to remain anonymous. His battles to change the status quo and boards at Generali or Mediobanca made headlines for years here.
For all his influence and wealth, his three marriages and six children, he famously shied away from interviews and did not lead a very social life.
In 1986, he was awarded the honor of “Cavaliere del Lavoro” by the President of the Italian Republic.
In May 1995, he received an honorary degree in business administration from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. In 1999, he received a Master honoris causa in international business from MIB – Management School in Trieste, and in 2002, he received an honorary degree in managerial engineering from the University of Udine. In March 2006, he received another honorary degree in Materials Engineering from Politecnico of Milan.
In December 2012, the Foundation CUOA awarded him an honorary master’s degree in Business Administration.
Del Vecchio was chairman of his family holding Delfin S.à r.l. and Aterno S.à r.l., and vice-chairman of European investment and real estate development company Covivio S.A. and chairman of the strategic and investment committee of the same company.