Leonardo Del Vecchio rose to fame in 1991 as ‘the richest man in Italy’. He worked his way up from the lowest rungs of the social ladder, and amassed a personal fortune of more than $30 billion. He was born in Milan in 1935, and founded Luxottica in 1961, a small factory in Agordo, in the province of Belluno. The company went on to become a global leader in the eyewear industry.
Leonardo was the youngest child in a family of immigrants, who moved to Northern Italy in search of their fortune, and grew up in a house for the poor on the outskirts of Milan. Del Vecchio did not know his father, who died from acute interstitial pneumonia (AIP) just before he was born. His mother worked in a factory and had no one to care for Leonardo while she was at work, so she had no other option but to hand her son over to the Martinitt orphanage when he was seven years old. The rules at the orphanage were extremely strict and the discipline was harsh, but its philosophy shaped Leonardo’s young mind: it did not matter if you were a nobody, or if your start in life put you at a disadvantage; if you persevered and had strength of character, you could go far in life and achieve success. He learnt that perseverance makes the difference between success and failure, and can be developed from an early age. It is no coincidence that several other boys who grew up in the Martinitt orphanage, such as Edoardo Bianchi, the founder of Bianchi bicycles, and Angelo Rizzoli, who founded RCS Media Group, also became some of the most important and visionary Italian entrepreneurs of the 20th century.
Leonardo completed his primary education but then had to leave school, and one of his biggest regrets was that he was unable to finish his studies. He left the orphanage at the age of fourteen, and started working towards his dream of founding a company of his own. He found work as an apprentice in Milan at Johnson’s, a factory that produced medals and trophies, where he learnt how to make moulds. He became a skilled engraver and printer during his time at the factory. When his bosses realised how talented he was, they enrolled him in drawing and engraving courses at the Brera Academy, where he studied in the evenings. The three and a half years he spent at the Brera school changed the course of his entire life; when he was asked to engrave decorations on the temples of a few pairs of aluminium glasses, Del Vecchio realised the potential of the eyewear industry. He graduated as an engraver and began to live by his simple life philosophy: work hard, whatever your job may be, and be the best. Throughout his career, as soon as he saw an opportunity for growth, he picked it up and ran with it.