Control of Signet Armorlite has shifted to a new company, based in Milan, that is majority owned by 3 unnamed Italian industrialists, in a refinancing deal that has injected 17 billion lire (e 8.7m-$8.9m) in new equity. The new company, called Signet Armorlite SpA, has a 70 percent stake in Signet Armorlite Inc. of San Marcos, California, the large American supplier of Kodak and Signet lenses, and 3M and Corning SunSensors optical products. Deutsche Bank and Banca Antoniana are supporting the Italian firm as minority shareholders.

Another Italian firm, Galileo Industrie Ottiche, used to own 100 percent of the US firm, directly and through a company in Northern Ireland. GIO has reduced its stake in Signet Armorlite from 100 to 25 percent. GIO is still owned by the Italian government, through Italia Invest, and by a group of 10 banks. The remaining 5 percent stake has been allotted to key members of Signet Armorlite's management such as Bruno Salvadori, the company's Italian-born CEO, and Carlo Maria Colombo, which played a key role in the management buyout and the refinancing the firm. The transaction involves the sale of some shares. As we have already reported, Galileo had previously sold all its Italian operations, including its old loss-making factory near Venice and a profitable laboratory in Milan, to Ital Lenti.

Signet, the company that introduced plastic lenses in North America, producing them in California for more than 50 years, has invested heavily in the past few years on R&D, making it the recognized world leader in photocure and thermal casting technology, as well as on logistics and advertising. Since its acquisition by Galileo in 1993, Signet doubled its total worldwide turnover under Salvadori's management to more than $100 million, but about 70 percent of it is still in the USA, with most of the remainder in Europe. Signet has no intention to acquire any labs in the USA, where it enjoys a competitive advantage through its relatively neutral status.

A further expansion in Continental Europe, particularly with Corning's new SunSensors photoplastic technology and other specialist products, is one of Signet Armolite's goals now. A new website is being launched in Europe to facilitate sals of Kodak lenses to opticians and to consumers. The company bought laboratories in Germany and France in the past two years and boosted the polymerization capacity of its laboratory in the UK, but the UK and Ireland still represent the bulk of Signet Armorlite Europe's business. Signet, which has its offices also in Spain and Holland, may re-enter the Italian market at a certain stage.