Italian Eyeglass Magnate Likes to Stay Out of Sight : Profile: Leonardo Del Vecchio built an international business empire on designer eyewear yet few in his own country know of him.


He doesn’t own a soccer team or TV stations, hasn’t been photographed yachting off Sardinia, and remains untouched by the corruption scandals that have rocked Italy the past three years.


Leonardo Del Vecchio certainly isn’t your typical high-powered Italian industrialist.

The man the Italian media calls “Mr. Nobody” for his low profile has built an empire in an out-of-the-way Alpine village, turning Luxottica Group S.p.A. into the world’s leading manufacturer of eyeglass frames.

His business generated sales of $504 million in 1994 and earned $78 million.

In its latest conquest, Luxottica completed a $1.4-billion acquisition of U.S. Shoe Corp. this spring, enabling it to take over LensCrafters and its 590 retail stores in the United States.


Luxottica sold 12.8 million eyeglass frames last year, and hopes to increase its sales in the United States of designer brands and sunglasses with the acquisition.

The 59-year-old Del Vecchio is an Italian version of Horatio Alger. A product of a Milan orphanage, he has become one of Italy’s richest men and was listed last year as the country’s largest taxpayer.

“I don’t like paying taxes, but I like sleeping at night,” Del Vecchio said recently when asked about his image as an Italian Mr. Clean.

“I am proof that you can you make money in Italy and be honest,” he said, sitting tie-less and in shirt sleeves for an interview at his headquarters in the Dolomite mountains, about a 90-minute drive from Venice.

It has been a remarkable success story for Del Vecchio, whose father sold vegetables on the streets of Milan and died before Leonardo was born. His income puts him a league with Gianni Agnelli of Fiat and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, but his name is little known in Italy. He’s not even listed in the Italian “Who’s Who.”

In his 20s, Del Vecchio worked as an apprentice making parts for eyeglass frames, then went into business for himself. He moved from Milan to Agordo in 1961, taking advantage of an offer of free land in a bid by the village to provide employment and keep young people from emigrating.


The company’s 1994 annual report proudly shows the company’s evolution, moving from a trailer to a sprawling blue-tinted complex employing some 4,000 people and turning out 65,000 pairs of eyeglasses a day.

“He came into town on a Lambretta [motor scooter], and now he supports the whole town,” said Luigi Caldart, who owns a hunting and fishing shop. “Without him there would be nothing, absolutely nothing.”

Del Vecchio found gold by turning a rather mundane product into a fashion item.

He introduced “designer glasses,” featuring such names under licensing agreements as Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent and Brooks Brothers. Armani has a 5% stake in the company, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Designer glasses represented only 14% of sales in 1989, but now account for 53% worldwide.

Luxottica expanded into the sports field last year when it acquired a 51 percent stake in Briko, maker of sports glasses, helmets and skiing accessories. In an unusual entry into the world of celebrities, Del Vecchio is pictured beside Italian ski hero Alberto Tomba in company literature.

Otherwise, he appears content eating in the company cafeteria, chatting with workers on the factory floor and keeping out of the spotlight.

“The values of life are most important,” he said.

Del Vecchio doesn’t wear glasses. But he has left a tribute to the product that has brought him such success--a world-class museum in Agordo tracing the history of eyeglasses.