Addio, Mr. Breakfast

Michele Ferrero was one of Europe’s greatest post war businessmen. Whilst it may not be universally known in Britain, it would be impossible to underestimate the importance of Nutella in Italy, France, Germany and almost everywhere else. There's even a World Nutella Day

Michele Ferrero has died aged 89
Tim Hedges
On 16 February 2015 08:45

Italy’s richest man has died. He was not an aristocrat, not an Agnelli of FIAT or a Berlusconi. He dealt, largely, in hazelnuts. His name was Michele Ferrero.

After the war, when Italian industry had all but collapsed and there was no foreign exchange for necessities, much less luxuries, Michele’s father Pietro Ferrero, a baker from Piedmont in Italy’s north west, produced a chocolate substitute made of cocoa and hazelnuts.

Strangely enough this was history repeating itself because in an earlier Italian imports crisis, at the beginning of the 19th century when the country was run by Napoleon and subject to a British blockade, a confectioner in Piedmont had eked out his meagre supply of cocoa by mixing it with the local hazelnuts.

It was called gianduja, after a Piedmontese carnival character.

Pietro Ferrero called his product Pasta Gianduja (pasta means paste, not just the flour and egg mixture for which Italians are known). It was popular, no more than that.

It was not until the 1960s, when his son Michele took over the reins aged only 32, that the company began to grow exponentially. Michele turned the product from something like a chocolate bar into a spread and named it Nutella.

Whilst it may not be universally known in Britain, it would be impossible to underestimate the importance of Nutella in Italy, France, Germany and almost everywhere else. I do not believe there is a single Italian child who has not tried Nutella and scarcely one who does not insist on it for breakfast every day.

The Ferrero company uses nearly a quarter of the world’s supply of hazelnuts.

Last year, the Italian Post Office produced a 50th anniversary commemorative Nutella stamp. World Nutella Day is celebrated on 5th February.

And the product has been fantastically successful. Ferrero employs 22,000 people in 38 countries. Its turnover is around €8 billion and Michele, who was still sole proprietor, was worth $24 billion, the world’s 29th richest man. Ferrero is the second largest confectionery company in the world, after Nestlé

Of Michele Ferrero the man not much is known. He was intensely private; neither he nor the company having ever given an interview to the press. No tours of the factories are allowed, in part through fear of industrial espionage. All the machinery in the factories is made by an in-house engineering unit.

Michele was also deeply religious -- each office and factory has a statue of the Madonna. He married his secretary, Maria Franca, and would warn his product engineers that everything they produced had to be approved by her.

Ferrero often spent whole nights in a white coat tasting chocolate. He looked after his employees’ welfare and they adored him. It is said that he only spoke the Italian of the Piedmont dialect until the day he died.

Although a socialist, when his workers joined the Communists and started causing trouble, he brought in the local hill farmers. He never dabbled in politics and was appalled by the Italian tax system, moving the family to Monaco.

He returned to his native Alba, in Piedmont, towards the end of his life.

There are other Ferrero products, of course: Ferrero Rocher chocolates with their much derided (but successful) advertising, Tic-Tac breath sweets, Kinder and Mon Cheri chocolates, but the company is really about Nutella, every European child’s breakfast, and about the singular man who made it.

Michele Ferrero personally supervised his products, was not scared of innovation and knew his markets intimately. He was one of Europe’s greatest post war businessmen.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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