Advertisement
Share

Arnette Retires From Company He Founded

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sunglass maker Greg Arnette, who launched a business from the trunk of a rental car and later sold it to one of the world’s largest optical companies, retired this week at 48.

Arnette’s departure from Arnette Optic Illusions Inc. follows the resignation Monday of the company’s chief operating officer, Bruce Beach. Arnette said the timing of the two departures from the San Clemente sports-oriented sunglass business was coincidental.

Arnette said he had been planning for some time to retire in 2000. Beach, 34, said he left partly because he “probably didn’t agree 100%" with the direction the company had taken recently.

Advertisement

Some industry insiders contend that Luxottica Group, which took over the company in April, has not made a smooth transition into Southern California’s surf and snowboarding market--Arnette Optic’s core customer base.

The Bulluno, Italy, company says that any problems are simply part of the transition.

Arnette Optic makes goggles and sunglasses, including Raven, Catfish, Swinger and Mantis styles, that sell for $55 to $200.

Arnette had sold his business in 1996 to Bausch & Lomb in Rochester, N.Y., for close to $100 million, and stayed on to help guide it. Bausch & Lomb, which also owned the Ray-Ban and Revo brands, sold its sunglass businesses for $640 million in April to Luxottica.

Luxottica’s other eye-wear brands include Anne Klein, Giorgio Armani and Brooks Bros. Luxottica, the world’s largest eye-wear company, also owns the LensCrafters retail chain.

Arnette, an avid surfer and snowboarder, said he wants to spend more time playing in an arena where he has worked since the mid-1980s, when he began designing sunglasses for Oakley Inc. The Foothill Ranch company later became a fierce rival.

“I think it’s going to enable me to do the things I like doing eight hours a day, instead of doing the things I like two hours a day and then going to work,” he said.

Beach, who has been working with Arnette since he started the company in 1992, said he quit partly because of Luxottica’s apparent lack of interest in learning more about the surfing and snowboarding lifestyles around which Arnette shaped his company.

“The brands they own and the businesses they work in are very, very different than the lifestyle and business we started in Southern California and marketed to,” Beach said.

In October, Luxottica shifted Arnette’s distribution operations to the Italian firm’s New York headquarters, laying off about two-thirds of Arnette’s local workers.

Relationships with some retailers soon began to unravel, said Eric John, owner of Laguna Surf & Sport, which has four stores in South County.

“It put a lot of pressure on relationships and friendships we had over the years with people over at Arnette because they lost control of the company,” John said.

For example, before distribution shifted to New York, orders were filled immediately, usually overnight, he said. After the move, John said orders sometimes never arrived and resolving problems became harder.

“It’s not like you’re talking to some surfer on the other end of the line; it’s a lady from New York,” John said. “It’s a whole different vibe, a different feel. All of a sudden, it’s all formal and funky and weird.”

Beach said the company’s transition from Bausch & Lomb to Luxottica has not gone as promisingly as the transition from Arnette to Bausch & Lomb. While the former owner’s employees visited Southern California often to get a feel for the business, he said, the new owner has not been as directly involved.

A Luxottica executive, however, said it left Arnette Optic’s sales and marketing team in San Clemente to keep the vital connection with local businesses and the surfing community.

“Luxottica has the No. 1 customer service department in the industry,” said Vito Giannola, the company’s chief financial officer. “If there are any problems, it’s just transition.”

As a designer and marketer for Oakley, Arnette was credited early on with helping to boost the industry by making eye wear both functional and trendy. He became well-connected in the tightly knit surf community.

After leaving Oakley in 1991, Arnette said, he put a retro spin on his sunglasses to give them “a cool celebrity look.” His first models, the Black Dog and the Raven, were available only in black. The Raven, a dual lens wrap-around sunglass, put the Arnette brand on the radar screen of local surf shops.

Tom Cruise and Madonna helped make the glasses popular by wearing them, Arnette said.

Bucking Oakley, though, had its consequences. Lawsuits erupted between the competitors. One alleged that Arnette took with him the Steel Raven design that Oakley founder Jim Jannard crafted. Arnette maintained that he designed the glasses. The companies eventually settled, with Arnette Optical paying Oakley $750,000. Arnette didn’t admit any wrongdoing.

While the two men still have not spoken, Arnette said Thursday that he is leaving the business without ill feelings toward Jannard.

“Life’s too short to have all that anger build up inside you,” he said. “If I see him, I’m going to say hello and shake his hand--if he’ll shake it.”


Advertisement