Billionaire founder of Luxottica and Ray-Ban owner, Leonardo Del Vecchio, dies aged 87

The founder of the Italian eyewear company had a net worth of $25.7bn at the time of his death

MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 23:  Giorgio Armani and Leonardo Del Vecchio attend Giorgio Armani - Luxottica Event on February 23, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images)
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Leonardo Del Vecchio, the Italian entrepreneur who started with a tiny optics workshop in Italy's Dolomite mountains and ended up as the undisputed world leader in eyewear, has died. He was 87.

His death was reported by Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Monday. A spokesman for his company was not immediately available for comment.

Raised in a Milan orphanage, Mr Del Vecchio struck out from the northern city to set up shop in the town of Agordo, in the Alps north of Venice, starting off as a small supplier of frame parts to local spectacle makers.

His company, EssilorLuxottica, rode a series of acquisitions to eventually become the world leader in the industry.

Globally recognised names Ray-Ban and Oakley were among the scores of eyewear brands Mr Del Vecchio bought on his way to the top.

His net worth was $25.7 billion as of June 1, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Mr Del Vecchio held a controlling 32 per cent stake in EssilorLuxottica, the French-Italian eyewear business that resulted from the 2018 merger of Luxottica with French lens company Essilor.

The company, which makes frames for luxury houses such as Armani and Prada, in addition to owning brands such as Ray-Ban, has more than 180,000 employees, operations spanning the globe and a foothold in the luxury and medical technology sectors.

EssilorLuxottica is both the world’s top eyewear retailer and its biggest producer of corrective lenses.

Shy and secretive by nature, Mr Del Vecchio spent decades carefully avoiding the media spotlight.

During a rare conversation with a reporter earlier this year, the tycoon was asked how he built his empire.

“I have always strived to be the best at everything I do — that’s it,” he said.

Describing the drive that took him to the top, he simply said, “I could never get enough”.

In addition to a controlling stake in EssilorLuxottica, Mr Del Vecchio’s holding company Delfin also had stakes in Italian financial companies such as Mediobanca, Assicurazioni Generali and UniCredit.

Born on May 22, 1935, Mr Del Vecchio grew up poor in Milan. Unable to care for her son, his mother — widowed five months before he was born — sent him to an orphanage when he was seven.

He began working as an apprentice to a tool and dye manufacturer in Milan when he was 14.

Mr Del Vecchio moved to Agordo in the 1960s and started a small business making glass frames designed by others. He founded Luxottica in 1961 with 14 workers on land he received free of charge from the town in a bid to stimulate the local economy.

Luxottica started to produce its own designs in the late 1960s. In the 1980s, Mr Del Vecchio began buying companies in the US. In 1999, he purchased Ray-Ban for $640 million.

The headquarters of Italian eyewear company Luxottica in Milan. Billionaire founder Leonardo Del Vecchio died on Monday at the age of 87. AFP

In the early years of his career, Mr Del Vecchio said he “put work before everything else”, dedicating little time to his children.

“The factory became my real family,” he said, adding that he had made up for some of the lost time in recent years, spending most days with his extended family in Milan, or at his homes on France’s Cote d’Azur and the island of Antigua.

Mr Del Vecchio’s final goal, he said in one of the last interviews he granted, was to push EssilorLuxottica into the exclusive club of companies valued at more than €100bn ($107bn).

He was the biggest shareholder in investment bank Mediobanca, with a stake of slightly under 20 per cent, and one of the main investors in Assicurazioni Generali, Italy’s top insurer.

He was part of a group of investors that tried unsuccessfully to force out Generali chief executive Philippe Donnet in the first half of 2022.

At Mediobanca, he periodically clashed over strategy with chief executive Alberto Nagel.

Mr Del Vecchio said his skirmishes in the finance industry resulted from thinking big.

“You need to be brave enough to keep doing things, to move forward,” he said.

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Updated: June 27, 2022, 10:36 AM
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