Living as a street urchin with her fourth child in war-torn Milan in 1942, Grazia Rocco, a widow, made the unfortunate decision: she applied to the city orphanage to take seven-year-old Leonardo del Vechio.
“I have no one to take care of her,” Rocco, whose days were spent working in a factory, wrote in a heartfelt letter to the untouchables for decades in the file of Del Vechio at the Martinit Institute Orphanage. Moving there, his mother said, would be the best hope of avoiding death for the young Leonardo, who would become one of the richest entrepreneurs in Italy.
Del Vechio, whose father died five months before his birth, will spend the next seven years at the institution. Undo, he was allowed to leave early to start work – at the age of 14.
His goal, del Vechio wrote at the time, was to become “a skilled craftsman”, which he saw as a sure way to ensure that he would never go hungry again – and that he would not have to answer to anyone but himself.
Nearly 75 years later, Del Vecchio finds himself head of the French-Italian spectacles giant EssilorLuxottica SA, which has thousands of employees, expanding its operations around the world and setting foot in the luxury and medical technology sector. The company, which owns the Ray-Ban and Oakley brands and manufactures frames for luxurious homes like Armani and Prada, is also the world’s top spectacle retailer and largest producer of corrective lenses.
In the run-up to his birthday on May 22, Del Vecchio – the 87-year-old – sets himself a new goal: pushing EssilorLuxottica into the exclusive club of companies worth 100 billion euros ($ 104 billion), which is now around 66 billion euros.
Nothing implies in his behavior that Del Vechio is sitting on a vast empire with such bold ambitions. He has suffered from years of being out of the spotlight and, so far, has repeatedly refused to discuss his career and trajectory with reporters, insisting that the company’s performance speaks for itself.
No one looked back, he didn’t try to see his file in the orphanage. In a rare conversation with a reporter, he spoke in simple, down-to-earth terms to find out where he is today.
“I’ve always tried to be the best at what I do – that’s all,” he said, sipping espresso at his private restaurant inside Luxotica’s future Milan headquarters. “I never got enough,” he said, speaking slowly, almost shyly, as he toured the company’s new showroom in the city’s design district.
It fits well with the image of a man who made his fortune in a 20-hour hard day that he says he doesn’t regret a bit, even though his early days as a worker saw him lose a part of his left index finger in a factory accident.
Metal-shop apprentice Dale Vecchio earned his first paycheck after leaving the orphanage in 1949, for just 300 lire, about 15 euro cents for 10 days of hard work.
One of his jobs at the store was to buy lunch for his colleagues, but he was so poor that he could not afford to buy anything for himself, so the future billionaire survived by eating his mother’s cooked cabbage soup, a steaming pot. Work every morning.
At the time, few believed that Del Vechio would one day acquire about $ 30 billion in personal wealth, which would take him along with the descendants of the Nutella-made Ferrero family in the race to become Italy’s richest man.
Although differing in terms of how far Del Vecchio has come, he shares parts of his history with a groundbreaking generation that dominated post-war Italian art. The team includes Silvio Berlusconi, Luciano Benetton and Giorgio Armani, all of whom, like Del Vechio, were born in the 1930s.
“Our generation has faced difficult times that have put us in the mood, years of war and reconstruction,” Armani said in an interview. “There was nothing, and we had to start from scratch,” said the Italian designer, who partnered with Del Vechio, a game changer for the glasses business in the 1980s.
After the 2018 agreement between Luxottica and Essilor in France, about 180,000 people worked for Del Vecchio, from the small village of Dolomite in Aguirre, Italy, where he set up his “factory” in 1961, in the United States, where he listed Luxotica in 1990. The New York Exchange, and later its most daring deal, stopped the acquisition of Ray-Ban. His 100 billion-euro goal is now another such marker.
Reaching that market-value goal, Del Vechio says, will help ensure that the glasses giant is strong enough to survive any technological disruption in the industry. Though he angered the then chief executive officer, Andrea Guerra, by the ouster, this thought explains his decision to return to his 2014 operational role.
As EssilorLuxottica SA, Ray-Ban Stores has promised a 7 8.7 billion GrandVision deal for limited edition Ray-Ban sunglasses, manufactured by EssilorLuxottica SA, displayed inside a Ray-Ban store in Barcelona, Spain. Photographer: Angel Garcia / Bloomberg
Over the years, contestants have complained that the godfather-like abilities of Luxotica del Vecchio have made him an additional influence in the industry. Other critics say he just refuses to let go of another old Italian corporate founder.
Del Vecchio that all shrugs off. “The company has changed a lot in the last 10 years compared to the last 50 years,” he said. “We were stuck. I had to come back to embrace change.”
This led him to focus more on online sales, buy his biggest European retail competitor and gain control of the global lens business. EssilorLuxottica has also given some hints of its future direction through an agreement with the meta platform Facebook.
Sixty years after the founding of Luxotica, Dale Vecchio, a father of six from three different partners, acknowledged that the company has paid a heavy price for its dedication. At first, she spent very little time with her children.
“I put work first and the factory became my real family,” he said. She has made up for some lost time in recent years, and now spends most of her days with her extended family at her home in Milan or the island of C ডিte d’Azur in France and Antigua.
That doesn’t mean he has to stop thinking big. Recent developments suggest that Dell Vechio could play a role in transforming the country’s financial industry.
In addition to building a partnership with investment bank Mediobanca SpA, Del Vecchio was part of a group of investors who challenged the management of Assicurazioni Generali SpA, the country’s largest insurer.
The group fell short of trying to win control over the insurer, but the final game for Dale Vecchio could be more than a mere management jolt. He says he wants to help build a global leader in the finance industry.
“You have to be brave enough to move things forward,” Del Vecchio said of his plan, arguing that other Italian entrepreneurs lack the drive to take their companies to the top.
Italians are “great craftsmen, great artists, but often we stop at that level,” he said. “You have to have the courage to move forward.”