If the world were seeking a real-life Willy Wonka, it would have struggled to get closer than Michele Ferrero, the confectioner who seduced millions with his genius for mass-market chocolatey sweetmeats and yet remained an enigmatic recluse.
Thousands are expected to gather in the northern Italian town of Alba for the funeral of the 89-year-old billionaire patriarch of the £8bn Ferrero confectionery empire, whose death in the tax haven of Monte Carlo was announced this weekend.
In his 58-year career at the head of what remains a family business, Mr Ferrero masterminded the creation of plaque-inducing favourites from Tic Tacs and Kinder eggs to the eponymous Ferrero Rocher, the world’s best-selling boxed chocolates popularised by questionable claims to be a preferred offering at diplomatic gatherings.
Although he was not the inventor of Nutella, the billionaire was also responsible for transforming the chocolate and hazelnut spread into a mainstay of breakfast tables across the planet.
He tweaked the formula first dreamt up by his father, Pietro, in the backroom of his bakery in Alba, put the resulting goo in a jar with a white lid and turned it into his company’s best-known brand, selling 365,000 tons of the stuff a year.
Nutella, born out of a post-war shortage of cocoa and an Italian abundance of hazelnuts, now accounts for anything up to a quarter of the planet’s entire hazelnut crop.
The Italian president Sergio Mattarella yesterday praised Mr Ferrero as a titan of his country’s industry, saying he was “always ahead of his time thanks to innovative products and his tenacious work and reserved character”.
The confectioner developed the Kinder range in 1968, followed by Tic Tacs a year later and Ferrero Rocher in 1982.
But rather like Roald Dahl’s fictitious candyman, Mr Ferrero preferred to let his creations do the talking and was rarely seen in public or gave interviews.
Instead, until ill health struck a couple of years ago, he commuted from his Monte Carlo villa to the company headquarters in Alba to oversee the development of new products with the same single-minded focus that his own father had put into creating Nutella. As Michele’s son Giovanni, who has run the company as chief executive since 2007, put it last year: “My grandfather lived to find this formula. He was completely obsessed by it. He woke up my grandmother at midnight and made her taste it with spoons, asking, ‘How was it?” and ‘What do you think?’”
The company was, until recently, famously reticent about its strategy or performance and maintains high security at its plants, where custom-made machines, including a bespoke hazelnut-toasting apparatus, churn out its products.
The resulting company is the world’s fourth largest confectioner with 22,000 employees in 20 locations across the world, a 72 per cent share of the chocolate spreads market and its own hazelnut plantations.
While it would be going too far to liken staff to Mr Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas, they have nonetheless benefited from Mr Ferrero’s brand of benevolent capitalism. In Alba, workers are paid above the national average and the company provides childcare as well as lifetime health insurance for anyone serving more than 30 years. Francesco Fulci, president of the Ferrero Foundation, said last year: “It’s not a company, it’s an oasis of happiness.”
The confectioner also claims a strong environmental record – it decided to stop buying palm oil from Indonesia because of deforestation concerns. In 2011, it was declared the world’s most reputable corporation by an American think-tank.
The business approach of Mr Ferrero, who had been ill for a number of months and died on St Valentine’s Day, was believed to have been heavily influenced by his Catholicism. He was said to have visited Lourdes at least once a year and it was suggested that his Ferrero pralines, until recently advertised as the treat of choice of ambassadors, were inspired by the Rocher de Massabielle grotto at the shrine.
The patriarch, whose family wealth is put at £15bn, putting the Ferreros 30th in the global list of billionaires, also knew tragedy in the later stages of his life. His eldest son, Pietro, died age 47 in 2011 after apparently suffering a heart attack.
The company has adopted a more open stance in recent years under the direction of Giovanni. However, one rule laid down by his now deceased father seems to abide: “Only on two occasions should the papers mention one’s name – birth and death.”Reuse content