Pietro Ferrero: Heir to the famously secretive Ferrero confectionery company

Pietro Ferrero, the eldest son of Michele Ferrero, the richest man in Italy and the inventor of Nutella hazelnut paste, died in Cape Town while training on his bicycle, his secret passion. There were conflicting reports that he was hit by a car or suffered a heart attack. He was in South Africa with his father, the firm's supremo, looking into the possibility of setting up a new factory.

Aged 47, Pietro Ferrero was joint chief executive of the family firm, which, under the guidance of Michele, now 85, had developed from a small-town Piemontese sweet manufacturer into one of post-war Italy's most celebrated business success stories. In Britain its best-known brand is Ferrero Rocher chocolates, made famous by the much-lampooned TV commercials. But in Italy, France and Germany, source of 65 per cent of its sales, Nutella spread is the firm's runaway favourite, an addictive blend of sugar, cocoa and hazelnut paste which is the secret vice of millions. If peanut butter is a treat all but unknown on the continent, that is largely thanks to the domination of Nutella.

The Ferrero story is a typical Italian saga of a modest family operation catapulted into the international arena during the years of the economic boom, thanks to the inventive genius of the founder. The product that evolved into Nutella was invented by Pietro Ferrero's grandfather, also called Pietro, in 1942. Proprietor with his wife of a café and pastry shop in the town of Alba, during the war he was frustrated by the impossibility of obtaining imported cocao – so he began improvising with the abundantly available local hazelnut crop. The result, a hazelnut-based paste called Pasta Gianduja, was a runaway success in the town, and formed the basis of the infant company's growth. When Pietro's son Michele took over, he refined the paste into Nutella and began selling it around the world.

Michele Ferrero remains the company chairman, with a fortune estimated by Forbes to be $18bn, making him the 32nd richest man in the world. Had he lived, Pietro stood to inherit his father's wealth along with his brother Giovanni, who is a year younger.

Under Michele Ferrero's canny tutelage the firm has remained stubbornly private, with its executives limited to the family circle, its factories surrounded by high walls, its machinery developed in-house and only rare tidbits of gossip making it to the outside world. It is the common fate of Italian family firms to lose energy and traction in the second or third generation before being taken over by more anonymous and hard-boiled foreign companies. Michele Ferrero has worked hard to resist that destiny, developing all the firm's new products in-house and fighting demands to launch takeover bids for foreign rivals which would bring demands for outside scrutiny. The other successful products developed by Ferrero include Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs and Tic Tac breath mints.

Pietro Ferrari was born in Alba in 1963 but moved to Brussels with his family as a child during Italy's so-called "Years of Lead", when kidnappings of the children of wealthy businessmen were common. After schooling in Brussels he studied biology at the University of Turin, graduating with top marks. He went to work for the firm soon after that, and in 1992 he became the manager of the firm's European operations. At the time of his death, he was in charge of developing new products.

In 2009 Pietro challenged his father's anti-acquisition dogma when it was rumoured that Ferrero might join up with the American chocolate-maker Hershey to take over Cadbury. The two firms were said to be in talks, but nothing came of the rumoured deal. It is possible that Michele, still the power in the family, put his foot down and prevented it going further.

Pietro, who was at pains to keep his participation in bicycle races out of the media, was already a star of corporate Italy, a director of Deutsche Bank and Mediobanca. Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister, said of him, "Italy has lost a businessman who represented the best qualities of our economic history."

Peter Popham

Pietro Ferrero, businessman: born Turin 11 September 1963; married Luisa (two sons, one daughter); died Camps Bay, Cape Town, South Africa 18 April 2011.