Emilio Lavazza: Businessman who transformed his family business into a global brand

Emilio Lavazza was to Italians il re or il papa del caffe, or sometimes "Mr Espresso". He had dedicated more than 50 years of his high-pressure life to driving the development and international expansion of a family grocers' business which had struggled to regain its feet after the Second World War. Thanks largely to him, Lavazza is now the world's sixth-biggest coffee roaster, with very nearly half the Italian coffee market, 2,000 employees and total sales last year in more than 90 countries around the world worth more than £1bn.

Emilio Lavazza joined the company, which was founded in 1895 by his grandfather Luigi, in 1955 – the same year that his father, Beppe, and uncle Pericle purchased a new Lavazza factory on the Corso Novara in Turin, which is still the company headquarters today. Initially, Lavazza worked as a door-to-door salesman, delivering ground coffee to cafés and restaurants around Turin. His initial challenge was to build a sales force in northern Italy strong enough to keep the new factory running.

The late Fifties were boom years in Italy, and Lavazza's intuitive enthusiasm for advertising encouraged him to introduce his father to Armando Testa, who was creating post-war Italy's first major publicity agency. From that introduction sprang a nationwide poster campaign, whose success cemented a link between Lavazza and Testa which has continued without interruption ever since.

When a half-hour programme of television advertising, Carosello, became the most popular programme on Italian state TV, Lavazza and Testa ensured that their characters, a Brazilian caballero called Paulista and his girlfriend Carmencita, were quickly established among the programme's most popular attractions. The pair were used to promote Paulista coffee, a brand vacuum-packed under pressure which was deliberately not linked to the Lavazza name. The object was to sell it to cafés and roasters beyond Lavazza's established clientele.

The Paulista brand was a personal success for Emilio Lavazza because it was a purely Brazilian blend, and he had moved to live in Brazil for some time in preparation for its launch. The caballero and Carmencita continued their love affair from 1964 until 1975.

There was an even longer-running popular campaign for Lavazza from the early 1970s until 1993, with the Italian actors Nino Manfredi and Nerina Montagnani (who played Natalina, Manfredi's supposed housekeeper). Their memorable slogan was: "Più lo mandi giù, più ti tira su" (roughly translated: "the more you take down, the more it perks you up").

Emilio Lavazza became the company's chief executive when his father died in 1971, heading the company's buying department and travelling the world's green-coffee-bean producing nations for a decade. As a buyer he always favoured Brazil, and he spoke Portuguese as well as French and English. He succeeded his uncle Pericle as company president in 1979.

He began the company's drive for international expansion in earnest in 1982, opening offices in France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, again initiating award-winning advertising campaigns featuring, among others, Luciano Pavarotti and the actress Monica Vitti. He kept the company at the forefront of technology, having introduced gravity-feed processing in 1957, computerised market controls in the 1960s, vacuum packing in 1961, and coffee capsules for single-shot brewing and other technical innovations in roasting and vending in later years.

He was equally energetic in driving Lavazza's relationships with Italy's historic coffee houses and cafés; with leading modern designers for iconic logos, coffee cups, pots and accessories; with cutting-edge photographers, such as Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz, for Lavazza's themed calendars; and with sports institutions for sponsorship, ranging from Formula 1 motor-racing to World Cup football.

One of the most imaginative and productive relationships was with the Catalan chef Ferran Adria, of the three Michelin-starred El Bulli restaurant, pioneer of "molecular gastronomy". Adria has worked with Lavazza's training centre and laboratories since 2001 to produce a variety of novel coffee products, including coffee "caviar".

Lavazza served as president of the European coffee roasters' association, of the European Coffee Federation and of the Associazione Italiana Industrie Prodotti Alimentari, and was honoured as Cavaliere del Lavoro by the Italian president in 1991.

He was, though, usually personally intent on maintaining a low profile. He gave very few interviews, and was always known about the factory and offices as "Signor Emilio". He was offered, but refused, the presidency of the Turin football team, but described himself as an "avid" golfer and a "philosophic" fisherman. He loved jazz, and enjoyed reading murder mysteries, of which he also wrote two. His collection of model soldiers was, he admitted, so big that his wife complained about it.

He retired as president of Lavazza in favour of a nephew only last year, when he took the title of honorary president. He died of a heart attack, and is survived by his wife, Maria Teresa, son, Joseph, and daughter, Francesca.

......... Robin Young

Emilio Lavazza, coffee magnate: born Turin, Italy 1932; married Maria Teresa (one son, one daughter); died Turin 16 February 2010.

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