Secret, discreet, incredibly unobtrusive. The elegant Italian Leonardo Del Vecchio, who died Monday June 27 at the age of 87, never spread in the press, reluctantly accepting, says his entourage, to grant at best one interview per year to comment on the results of his company, Luxottica. He hadn’t even spoken, at the beginning of 2017, when his big and beautiful baby, specializing in frames and sunglasses from famous brands – Ray Ban, Persol, Oakley, etc. –, had merged with the French Essilor, champion of corrective lenses, to become the world number one in glasses, weighing today 62.3 billion euros on the Paris Stock Exchange and employing 180,000 people around the world. Along the way, he became the reference shareholder of the new giant, with 32% of the capital in his hands.
The octogenarian had let his accomplice Hubert Sagnières, then number one of Essilor, tell the story of this union, one of the biggest contemporary deals of European capitalism, until March 2019. On this date, Del Vecchio put on the skirmisher costume. In a press release, then in an interview with Figarohe accused Sagnières of having appointed without consulting him four managers, all from Essilor, “with whom he seeks to manage EssilorLuxottica alone”.
Suffice to say that this internal squabble will intrigue the small business world. Because Hubert Sagnières reacts, speaking of “serious and false accusations” and going so far as to affirm that “a certain number” of Leonardo Del Vecchio’s actions “de facto reflect an attempt to take control of the new group, without a bonus for the shareholders”. Atmosphere… “I invested my fortune, the fruit of seventy years of work, in exchange for 32% of EssilorLuxottica”, recalled Del Vecchio to the Figaro.
The outcome of the battle? What was supposed to be a marriage between equals, according to the terms of the initial agreement, turns, little by little, to the advantage of the cunning Italian. His foal Francesco Milleri takes the helm of the whole, and he, in 2021, control of the group. Something to displease on the French side, of course. It is thus rumored that this Franco-Italian comedy prompted the BPI (public investment bank) to create the Lac d’Argent fund to support the large French groups of hostile foreign attacks… What is certain is that n 2021, the establishment becomes a shareholder of Essilor-Luxottica and even obtains a seat on the board of directors.
The merger with Essilor should allow Del Vecchio to put his estate in order: he is the patriarch of a “multiple family”, in his words, with six children from three different marriages; to add a little salt to this picture, he got married a fourth time, with the one who had been his second wife. In 2016, he said he “would not condemn[t] never “one of his own” to lead such a large company”: “I hope that my children will lead the good life, they just have to not set foot in the company. »
According to the official account – Del Vecchio has always refused to expand on the subject – the latter started from nothing – really – to become the second fortune of Italy, behind the Ferrero, but, with almost 25 billion in his wallet, in front of the Agnellis, Berlusconi and his friends, the Benettons. Forbes the class 59e wealth in the world. Fatherless, this Milanese from a family in southern Italy was entrusted to a religious establishment by his mother, from the age of 7 to 14, where he worked like a beast to learn the profession of incisor. He forges and decorates medals. His first bosses pushed him to take evening classes in drawing and engraving at the very famous Brera Academy. He does a string of jobs. And loses part of his index finger because he was in too much of a rush to make a delivery.
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The greatest Italian entrepreneur of the post-war period
At the age of 26, he moved to the Dolomites, to Agordo to be precise, to open a workshop-laboratory where he designed microelements for eyeglass frame manufacturers. Very quickly, he began to fashion frames himself and offered a collection. No more outsourcing, make way for Luxottica products. Before the conquest of the United States, the weaving of a powerful distribution network, the frantic purchases of major brands – Ray Ban, Oakley –, the agreements with luxury giants to sell glasses in their name – Armani, Burberry, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, MiuMiu, Versace…, the merger with Essilor. An Italian novel. It becomes the symbol of a conquering country. “He is certainly the country’s greatest post-war entrepreneur. He succeeded in transforming a family business into a world leader”, summarizes the author Tommaso Ebhardt, in a poadcast broadcast by He Sole24ore.
Because the orphan’s appetite didn’t stop at glasses. It offered stakes in the investment bank Mediobanca (less than 20% of the capital), the French Covivio – formerly Foncière des Régions – (about 27%), and above all the insurance juggernaut Generali (8 %). In March 2022, he again delighted the Italian business community by triggering a battle to dismiss the Frenchman Philippe Donnet, number one of the transalpine company. In vain. What idea did he have in mind? According to Tommaso Ebhardt, he “dreamed” of reproducing the same scenario in the finance sector as in eyewear. Transforming Italian companies into global giants.