Sunday, March 21, 1999

LensCrafters CEO has uncommon vision


Balanced foundation of faith, family, fun and firm

BY LISA BIANK FASIG
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dave Browne does not have perfect eyesight. But when it comes to priorities, he has impeccable vision.

        As if reading the letters off the top of an eye-test chart, the chief executive of LensCrafters without hesitation recites the priorities of his life — his faith, his young family, his company.

        An easy task to declare these values, but harder to maintain them in the competitive business world. Mr. Browne is determined to balance work and family, even as he ascends the corporate ranks. Recently appointed co-chief executive officer of Luxottica Group SpA, the Italian parent of LensCrafters, the 39-year-old skillfully negotiated a plan to keep himself, his family and his company fulfilled.

        “I am blessed with a lot of elements in life that give me fulfillment,” he said. “It's a peace that I'm doing what God wants me to do. Part of that is to be the best father and husband I can be, and part of that is to be the best businessperson I can be.”

        These values are not lost on the top bosses at Luxottica. Four years ago, when the Italian eyeglass-frame maker acquired LensCrafters from U.S. Shoe Corp., the brass wanted Mr. Browne to stay on as CEO. Luxottica management liked the profits and culture at LensCrafters, and knew that Mr. Browne was part of both.

        Last year, when asked to accept added duties as co-CEO, Mr. Browne hesitated. He was concerned that the extra travel and workload would take him away from his family life. He shared his concerns with Luxottica.

        In the end, they struck a deal. Mr. Browne took the position at Luxottica, representing its retail arm. In turn, he was promised freedom from travel in the summers — the time most important to his wife, Debbie, and two young sons. He also received a house close to his Italian offices, where his family can join him for extended stays.

        “Dave Browne is a top-level manager who has successfully managed a dynamic company which has experienced continuous growth,” said Leonardo Del Vecchio, chairman and founder of Luxottica Group. “Dave has shown a very strong sense of loyalty toward Luxottica, in addition to excellent professional skills.”

        LensCrafters' success is why Luxottica wants to keep Mr. Browne, CEO of LensCrafters since 1990. He is the consummate family man, a Little League coach with a bounding laugh and a Chevy Blazer. But he is also a shrewd businessman who competes to win.

        Mr. Browne is very much a part of LensCrafters' culture. Founded by Procter & Gamble Co. executives 16 years ago as a profoundly team-driven company, LensCrafters has always been family-friendly.

        This culture complements Mr. Browne's faith, and it hasn't been bad for capitalism, either. Sales since 1989 have more than doubled, to $1.11 billion in 1998 from $532 million in 1989. The number of stores leapt to 745 from 363. The U.S. optical market is worth roughly $16 billion.

        Today, LensCrafters is the world's largest eyeglass retailer in terms of sales.

        “This is clearly a guy who's worked hard,” said Marge Axelrad, editor of Vision Monday, an optical industry newspaper. “He is an extremely keen competitor; he is not just all warm and fuzzy.”

        But it is the touchy-feely quality that distinguishes Mr. Browne to many who know him.

Keeping values
        Mr. Browne's values, in their simplest form, boil down to doing what's right. His faith as a Christian provides the direction. His personal dedication to family and firm get the job done.

        Mr. Browne calls his two sons, almost 8 and 10 years old, “God's gift” and his best friends. At work, he tries to instill a sense of celebrating what's right.

        When Mr. Browne walks through the halls of LensCrafters' corporate offices in Sycamore Township, workers openly joke with him. They lightly refer to some of his favorite work-related pastimes, such as handing out ice cream at company picnics, as “Stupid Dave Traditions.”

        Alison Kaar, his senior director of communications, said getting a long-distance call from Mr. Browne made her feel “like a favorite uncle had called.”

        Mr. Browne is a member of Hope Evangelical Free Church in Mason. The pastor there, Jonathan Burnham, knows that Mr. Browne strives to keep his priorities straight with God.

        “He's worked hard,” Pastor Burnham said — “and realized his top priorities are his relationship with God and family. How many guys who run big companies coach Little League?”

        Pastor Burnham remembers when Mr. Browne took part in a church program called the Father's Ministry, which helps men ground their spirituality with job and family. Mr. Browne then turned around and led the program for a number of years.

        Now that his intense work schedule calls him out of town more often, Mr. Browne said his involvement in the church is more behind the scenes. Still, he doesn't believe he's made sacrifices — that would imply regrets. Instead, he said he has made choices.

        “I have a real peace that with the right amount of prayer, the right amount of talking it out with the people closest to you, that when you make your choices, they're the right choices,” he said.

        And though Mr. Browne, a dedicated sports enthusiast, is a fierce competitor in business, he said winning is not the prize, but rather what he and LensCrafters can do with the victory. Success certainly satisfies shareholders, Mr. Browne said. It also improves the lives of his associates and supports community programs, such as Gift of Sight, through which LensCrafters provides free eyeglasses to the poor.

        “Sure, money and everything else is important to a lot of people,” Mr. Browne said. “And I'm not going to say it's not important to me. But it's not the driver. The driver is at the end of the day, have you created value in lives?”

        Mr. Browne is among an increasing number of men willing to sacrifice professional achievement for personal success, said Patrick Taylor, a spokesman for a foundation behind Men's Health magazine.

        “It used to be that men were slaves to their jobs,” Mr. Taylor said. ““They're still ambitious in their careers, but they're also carving more time for their family life than their fathers did.”

How he does it
        Luxottica is willing to accommodate Mr. Browne's values because he has shown that they are part of LensCrafters' success. By supporting his family values, Luxottica expects that he will be more productive professionally.

        “Luxottica was established as a family business almost 40 years ago,” said Mr. Del Vecchio, the Luxottica founder. “Despite its exponential growth over the years, which has caused a transition from an entrepreneurial to a managerial organization, our company has not forgotten the value of the individuals who brought us where we are and the importance of their overall satisfaction. ... We want Dave to feel like an integral part of this enterprise, in which family values continue to be fundamental.”

        Mr. Del Vecchio said the company wants Mr. Browne to feel just as much at home in Italy as in Cincinnati.

        Mr. Browne's agreement with Luxottica includes reduced travel in the summer, so he can coach Little League and attend each of his sons' games. In the winter, he flies overseas regularly — more than he was required before accepting the co-CEO position.

        Luxottica bought him a house less than a mile from the factory, in a valley nestled among the Alps in Northern Italy. His wife and two sons spent most of the month of January there with him.

        While there, he took his family through the factories and offices of Luxottica “so they are involved and aware. There's no mystery as to where Daddy goes.”

        Mr. Browne didn't get his way on everything. For six months of the year, he travels more than he wants to.

        Time away from home is one of the biggest challenges for men who value family life, said Tom Heffernan of the Family Success Consortium in Springdale, which consults children and families whose lives have been disrupted. Mr. Browne will have his work cut out for him.

        “This man is going to have to struggle mightily to maintain any semblance of a normal life for him and his children,” Mr. Heffernan said. “I just wish him the best of luck.”

        The new position with Luxottica is another change. The new job requires more time spent learning the wholesale side of the eyeglass business; that alone is now taking up about two-thirds of his time. That means less attention to LensCrafters.

        In the end, Mr. Browne said the people at LensCrafters were ready to “take it up a step.”

        “Our biggest advantage is our culture and our people, and I want to keep it that way,” he said. “The idea of being able to create value in lives on a global scale kind of is what made the final decision.”

Future of a CEO
        To watch Mr. Browne quietly share his values, seated behind his organized desk, is to witness a kind of tranquility. He is calm, assured, modest. He does not need to say he is a success. He is a man confident in his choices and his future.

        All this began with Irish immigrant parents in Philadelphia. His father is still a mechanic operating from the same shop since the 1950s. His mother took night courses to become a practical nurse while raising her son. She died from cancer in 1984, six years before Mr. Browne, at 30, became the Wunderkind CEO of LensCrafters in far-off Cincinnati.

        Mr. Browne once said the only job better than his is the commissioner of baseball.

        He fully applies this sports sense, his sense of competitiveness, to his work. As Mr. Browne takes on his new Luxottica responsibilities, he has established key goals at LensCrafters that involve improved services and a new thrust in managed vision care.

        As for growth, LensCrafters is on or ahead of target in the last year of a three-year plan. The company had expected to open 200 to 250 stores in the period, and has opened 229 with about a year to go. Sales from 1996 to 1998 rose about 22 percent.

        Concept stores such as SunCrafters sunwear and Specttica eyeglass boutiques are moving forward. SunCrafters is adopting a new format as a kiosk inside LensCrafters stores. Specttica could blossom into a 50- to 100-store chain and serve as an important barometer of future eyeglass fashion trends.

        As for his family, Mr. Browne said that when the time comes to be with them more and work less, it will be clear.

        “My master plan is to do the right thing each morning and recognize God's in control and hang on for the ride,” he said.

        “I'm trying the best I can to do the right thing every day. That mind-set lets you sleep pretty well at night; it lets you love freely.

        “And that's a pretty good way to live.”

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