César Melo is chief executive of FGX International, a Smithfield, R.I., company that makes nonprescription reading glasses and sunglasses. It’s largest brand? The iconic Foster Grant. Melo recently spoke with Globe correspondent Taryn Luna. Here’s what she found out.
1FGX International traces its roots to Leominster in 1919 when Austrian immigrant Samuel Foster founded the Foster Grant company.
“He started selling hair combs. Then he stumbled upon sunglasses in the late 1920s. Italy made some handmade sunglasses back then, but no one had invented massively produced sunglasses and he became the biggest sunglasses company in the world.”
Today FGX International says it sells more nonprescription reading glasses and sunglasses than any other company in the world. The company markets 45 total brands and sells glasses to retailers from drug stores to department stores.
“We believe about three-fourths of the reading glasses and one-third of the sunglasses in the US are ours. We have a half a billion dollars in sales a year, and all the major retailers in the country source from us.”
About 500 of FGX’s 700 employees work in Smithfield. The company also has offices in New York, Milan, California, Mexico, China, and England.
“We have such wonderful hard-working New Englanders who have been here for so long. We have a couple in their 60s that have been here for 25 years. Then we have young professionals who are part of the new generation. They keep me energized.
“If things go as planned, with the exception of California, we will be expanding head counts everywhere this year.”
Melo was hired as chief executive last March. He previously spent 23 years with the Colgate-Palmolive Co., where he worked in the United States, Central and South America, Asia, and Europe. He held numerous positions over the years, including vice president of the global toothbrush division.
“After working at Colgate and learning to run a global company, I think deep inside I was ready to do more. I wanted a company that I could put my arms around and be able to evolve over time. The whole mission here is to help people see the world better. I kind of liked that.”
He has big plans. He hopes to at least double the size of FGX and increase its international business to more than 40 percent of company sales within 10 years. The international business is expected to increase to least 25 percent by the end of 2014, up from about 10 percent when Melo came in as chief executive.
“Our ambition is to become a truly global company through a combination of growth in the US and aggressive international expansion.
“The strategy is to expand the brands that we have now and acquire companies in important markets. The international vision is to have the Foster Grant brand in every country in the world. “
The Foster Grant brand’s “Who’s that behind those Foster Grants?” advertising campaign first began in the late 1960s, featuring celebrities like Woody Allen and Raquel Welch. The campaign continues today, now featuring the actress Brooke Shields. Melo hopes to add more celebrities in the future.
“We have this phenomenal brand, and over time we stopped telling people about it. We’re focused on remarketing the brand and making people excited about it.”
During his time at Colgate, Melo says, he alternated between four different types of toothbrushes. Now he switches between a few sunglasses, but his favorites are a $25 pair of gray Foster Grant driving lenses and a $35 pair of Foster Grant Candors, an updated take on a traditional wayfarer.
“I like the driving lenses because they are a very classic aviator style and my wife believes I look good in them. My wife and daughter think I look young with the Candors on, and they bring back memories of younger years.”Taryn Luna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.