20 QUESTIONS WITH ALESSANDRO BARONTI

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Alessandro Baronti became De Rigo REM’s president for North America in January of 2018. He oversees the American team and reports to the board. His 30 years of optical experience started with Optyl Italia and then Luxottica, starting as a sales consultant then VP of sales for the U.S. Western region and most recently as VP of industry relations and education for Luxottica for the U.S. and Canada. Here VCPN’s John Sailer interviews Baronti as he takes on his new role with De Rigo REM.

1. What’s your business philosophy, and how does that inform your management? It’s about leadership and dedication. I believe in leading by example and always say to people who work for me, “I will never ask you to do something I haven’t done myself.”

2. You volunteered as a paratrooper in Italy. What lessons did you learn? I graduated from the Paratrooper Military Academy as a Lance Corporal in ‘89. It was a mandatory one-year service. If I have to do something, I want to do it with meaning and really learn something.

From my training, I learned about discipline, about commitment and about never giving up. I learned that everything is possible as long as you want to do it. For me, the biggest lesson I took away was about dedication. The first day I trained, I had 80 pounds of military equipment and had to run five miles with boots on tough ground and I thought, “I will never be able to do this.” I knew that I couldn’t give up so I built a mental toughness. If you adopt that mindset, you can overcome obstacles that you never thought could be possible.

3. You have a degree in agronomy from The University of Florence. How did that prepare you for business? I can tell you how a plant feeds, its genetics and its life cycle. I pursued this degree for a philanthropic purpose, specializing in how to help third world countries develop plans to take a deserted area and convert it into an agricultural area as well as to teach people how to become self-sustainable by creating agriculture to feed a village. I reference this quite often in business as it has taught me a lot about the principles of life.

4. How did you end up in eyewear? My father was an executive for Optyl so I grew up in the world of eyewear. When I moved from Italy to the United States, I was only 25 years old. On a whim, I quit my job, sold my house and got on a plane to America—the land of opportunity. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I had nothing but a piece of paper and some money from selling all of my belongings. The only thing I could think of was, “What will I do tomorrow?”
I had a degree in agronomy, so I bought a vendor license and opened a landscaping company. For six months I mowed grass during the day and washed dishes at night. I got to a comfort level where I felt I was ready to go back to my roots in eyewear so I applied for a sales position at Luxottica. And so it began.

5. What advice would you give salespeople in general and eyewear salespeople specifically? In a sales transaction, you can either give or take. If you take, it’s a transaction and it ends there. In our business, it’s not just a transaction. It’s about the relationship that you build with your customers. It’s ongoing. You cannot just take, you have to give and whatever you can contribute in terms of delivering value, you will get back in sales. If you can make that person feel that you really care about them and their business, the sales potential can be huge.

6. What advice would you give eyecare professionals? No matter where you work in your practice—the optician, the technician, the front desk operator—be involved with the whole practice, not just with one aspect of the business.

7. What advice would you give ECPs to make sure their frame boards are appealing? Less is more. We tend to think we need all of a particular product, but sometimes when we have too much, we confuse people. I give a full course on this topic.

8. You provide a lot of education. What do you find is the information most in demand by eyecare professionals? Eyecare professionals are very curious about how to connect to evolving consumer expectations. Doctors are doing a fantastic job addressing patient expectations on the medical side, but there is a lot of know-how training that needs to be delivered to the optical department. One of the courses that I teach is focused on running an effective optical dispensary. This not only covers how many frames or what types of brands you need based on your demographics but how you can properly transition the patient to understand their evolution as they journey from patient to consumer.

9. You were recently named president of De Rigo REM. How did this come about? I am very grateful for all the experiences I have had in my career. Being an educator myself, I have a constant need to learn and knew in my gut that it was time to move on, do more, and express myself. The most important thing is to work for someone that gives you the ability to grow, which I saw in De Rigo REM. I studied the company, got to know the leaders and found an opportunity to do something significant.

10. What makes the company unique? De Rigo is one of the largest in the world that is privately owned. It’s a family business and a true Italian company. They do not warrant any political control in the North American market, so nobody can say, “I don’t like your company because it has an affiliation with managed vision care or retail.” I want to be a company that people work with because they want to, not because they have to.

We offer many unique solutions to the independent eyecare professional from our dynamic educational platform with an extensive library of learning tools to in-depth brand expertise with a vast range of in-house capabilities spanning across marketing, PR, creative and social media. We have the full ability to help our customers develop an organic advertising campaign or offer digital support such as creating a Facebook or Instagram page, telling them what is relevant to post, how to post and the frequency.

We help the independent eyecare professonal in a challenging business environment become more profitable by understanding the frames and quantities they need and how they can trade up in a managed vision care environment with our products.

11. What strengths have resulted since De Rigo acquired REM to form De Rigo REM? The acquisition gave REM the opportunity to expand its international presence and become a key player in the North American market. Before the acquisition, REM had an amazing culture but it was small in relation to both domestic and international market expansion. Along with financial stability, the integration gave REM access to De Rigo Vision’s world-renowned manufacturing as well as an iconic brand portfolio across luxury, fashion and lifestyle.

12. As an Italian company, what does De Rigo bring to the American market? De Rigo just celebrated 40 years with a global presence in most parts of the world. At one time, De Rigo was on the New York Stock Exchange and then pulled back and is now a privately held company. This was used as a strategic financial move to grow the business internationally. Today, De Rigo has over 1,000 retail operations in Europe that support additional strength as a vertically integrated wholesale and retail business for the European market.

13. What brands specifically address the U.S. market? On the REM side, our brands include Converse, John Varvatos, Lucky Brand, and Jones New York, which have been specifically designed for the American market. From De Rigo, we also launch a curated collection of product in the U.S. twice a year from CH Carolina Herrera, Chopard, Furla, Nina Ricci and Police.

14. Now that you’re president of De Rigo REM, what are your plans? Elevate the company by elevating the people. We start with the people and grow the company step by step.

My goal in the next few years is to be the fourth or fifth frame company in the United States. By doing so, I can start to make a difference by helping the industry with a philanthropic purpose as well as supporting more educational efforts.

15. How would you say the U.S. market differs from other countries? Managed vision care. It’s a system that doctor’s don’t like and is something that doesn’t exist outside of the U.S. When I came here 26 years ago, managed vision care was affecting business maybe 10% to 15%, and now it is around 70% to 75%. Some do more than 60% with one managed vision care company.

16. Any other differences? In many other markets of the world, an optical environment is a destination for patients not only to take care of their eyes but to also buy eyewear and sunglasses. In the United States we do not sell sunglasses effectively through our independent eyecare professionals, and the majority is sold outside the practitioner. This has to do with a lack of education on the consumer side.

17. Anything else about the direction the U.S. market is headed? If you cannot adapt to change, you’re going to be extinct. Three years ago Vision Watch said that one-third of independent eyecare professionals will not be in business in five years unless they learn how to adapt. Look what happened. Last year, 680 independent practitioners were acquired by private equity.

18. What differences do you see among the different regions of the U.S. market? There is a huge difference between the inland and coastal markets. The Midwest is two or three years behind fashion trends, which can be an advantage because they know what is coming.

19. Any similarities? An optometric practice is an optometric practice wherever they are, and they’re facing the same problems and challenges of managed vision care, inventory assortment and profitability. You could be in Ohio or Miami and have a similar experience. In Florida, the buyer will tell me that they don’t buy sunglasses because they cannot sell sunglasses. Well we’re in Florida, the Sunshine State. The only thing you have to do is go outside and there is a need for sunglasses. In Ohio in the wintertime with snow on the ground, they tell you, “We cannot sell sunglasses in the wintertime.” Well, if there is snow, there is reflection which is much brighter and more intense on the eyes.

20. What’s next for Alessandro Baronti? This is a long-term move for my career. I took over a company with a beautiful journey. My main goal is to look back and say, “Look at how many people I helped along the way.” I’ve been in optical for almost 30 years and don’t know everything about the industry but as long as I can keep learning and growing, I’ll keep going.

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