Future eyewear global leader Essilor-Luxottica in the final race
*After a few glitches due to red tape, European eyewear-specialists Essilor (France) and Luxottica (Italy), are inches from finalizing their joint venture. When the agreement is implemented both companies will become the largest eyewear producer in the world, in preparation of a fierce economic and intercontinental battle to come. *
Essilor is no stranger to fusions : indeed, it is itself the co-product of the fusion between Essel, a Parisian lens-producer founded in 1849, and Silor, a 1931-founded competitor. Throughout its history, and though it does produce frames, it has maintained its expertise on the high-tech segment of lenses. Historically, both parent companies contributed outstandingly to eyewear in Europe through the invention of Orma 1000 lenses, a revolutionary lightweight glass which permitted the generalization of wearable glasses, and of progressive lenses (1). Progressive lenses ended the need to sport several pairs of glasses by mixing three lenses into one, for near, mid-range, and long-distance sight.
After its founding in 1972, Essilor continued to push technological limits through constant research and development efforts, and concentrated on plastic progressive lenses (2). From the 1980s to today, Essilor maintained its focus on lenses, leaving frame technology to other producers, and maintained international development at a heavy pace. Essilor developed patents such as Airwear (lightweight unbreakable lens material), Crizal (scratch-resistant coatings) and Transitions (photochromic lenses which adapt shade levels automatically within the lens).
Luxottica, the Italian leader, has throughout its history focused on frame more than on lenses. It became a world player less than 50 years after its creation in 1961. Unlike Essilor, which chose a value-added growth strategy, Leonardo Del Vecchio, Luxottica founder, opted for a vertical integration strategy and acquired its own distribution network (3). Both strategies included strong international expansion, and both strategies worked. It was able to cover the entire spectrum of glass frames with partnerships with high-profile companies such as Armani (one of the first clothes designers to launch into eyewear), and Google with a technical partnership on the Google Glass project (4). Luxottica was tasked with the highly technical frame of the new-generation glasses. The company today owns a majority of the luxury eyewear brands, such as Bulgari, Dolce & Gabbana, or Chanel sunglasses, and the mainstream brands Oakley and Miu-Miu, along with many others (5).
After founder Leonardo Del Vecchio attempted several times to appoint a successor (6), the joint venture project was engaged with Essilor. Both companies aim to unite their respective expertise and create synergies (7). Indeed, with two separate and complementing specialties (lenses and frames), there will be few duplicates, reassuring the workforces of each firm as to redundancies. Research and development (8) will also be brought together, with connected eyewear (9) filling the gap between lenses and branches in the future. Luxottica and Essilor are facing increased competition from the East and the West, and aim to become a continental champion to prevent the dismemberment of the European market. With large companies such as GAFA pouring large investments into medical equipment (10), competitive attacks will come from the higher end of the market, on the American side. With slow but steady progress in Asian lens manufacture, China and other Asian producers are likely to attack Europe on the low end of the market. With the synergies found within the fusion, the new entity will be able to fight off both sides, high and low. Economist Valentina Za reported for Reuters that (11) “The 46 billion euro tie-up between Del Vecchio’s Luxottica (LUX.MI) and France’s Essilor (ESSI.PA) creates a global powerhouse in the fast-growing 95 billion euro industry, in which the Italian entrepreneur will be the biggest shareholder.”
The deal, which has gone smoothly between the two companies, did however run into setbacks from the European Union, concerned with the monopolistic potential of the joint venture. EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager suspended the talks in September, stating (12) “it was too early to say whether approval may require the companies to make significant concessions […] and a careful examination was necessary given the size of the two companies.” The overall size of the company, once the fusion comes through, will be approximately 46 billion euros. Such “market impact assessment” studies are standard in the case of large mergers, and the size and complexity of each parent company may cause Brussels to further delay the operation, costing valuable time for the new giant to prepare the European market’s defense.
Meanwhile, the joint venture has been receiving other approvals, with Canada as the latest one (13). The joint venture is aiming to seize a short window of opportunity, with a current lapse in the US sector, and sub-mature production capacities in Asia. Eyewear analyst Anna Cheng says (14): “eyewear is valued at US$121 billion globally in 2016, up by a modest 0.5% on the previous year. This is primarily due to weakening currencies against the US dollar, resulting in poor performances in Eastern Europe and Latin America affecting the global market. Nevertheless, the outlook for eyewear remains bright, with growing demand for eyewear in developing countries and for disposable contact lenses in developed countries.”
With the demographic dynamics currently rooted into European populations, Europe is seeing the urgency in getting battle-ready, placed in a vice between America and Asia. Between high-tech high-price producers in the United States, and low-tech low-price producers in Asia, the fight will be fierce to protect a market worth of 31 billion euros, which will grow along with the increased access to eyewear and the aging of European populations.