Commentary

Michele Ferrero, Who Made Billions On Chocolate And Tic Tacs, Dies At 89

Michele Ferrero, who brought Nutella’s “Whole Lot of Happy,” Tic Tacs and Ferrero Rocher chocolates to the world — becoming one of its richest denizens in the process — died at his home in Monte Carlo, Monaco, Saturday at age 89.  

“‘World’s flags should be at half-mast: Nutella owner has died,’ read one of the many posts on Twitter after Mr. Ferrero’s death — which poetically enough came on Valentine’s Day — was reported,” writes Hilary Stout in the New York Times. No cause was given but reports say he had been ill for some time.

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“He was the mind behind some of Ferrero’s most successful confectionery products, starting in 1964 with Nutella — which is to many European children what peanut butter is to America,” writes Manuela Mesco in the Wall Street Journal. He developed Kinder Surprise eggs chocolates — which are banned in the U.S. because there are toys inside — in 1968, Tic Tacs a year later and Ferrero Rocher in 1982, according to Sky News.  

Nutella was originally a product of necessity concocted by Michele’s father, Pietro, who mixed hazelnuts with cocoa during World War II because the latter was in short supply. Made in loaves and wrapped in tinfoil, it was called it Pasta Gianduja. Earlier in the 1940s, he had “turned the family pastry shop into a production facility,” according to the CNNMoney obit.

“My grandfather lived to find this formula,” Michele Ferrero's son, Giovanni, told the BBC last year. “He was completely obsessed by it ... he woke up my grandmother at midnight — she was sleeping — and he made her taste it with spoons, asking, ‘How was it?’ and ‘What do you think?’”

But it was Michele’s idea to make the popular combination into a paste and, in spreading the joy of Nutella across borders and oceans, he became “the richest candyman on the planet,” according to Forbes, which estimates his “real time net worth” at $23.4 billion two days after his death. That makes him and his family No. 30 in the global billionaire club. The company itself is, by its own reckoning, “the world's third largest confectionery company.” Candy Industryranks it at No. 6.

“Italian President Sergio Mattarella praised Ferrero as one of the protagonists of Italian industry, ‘always ahead of his time thanks to innovative products and his tenacious and reserved work,’” according to the AP. 

“Publicity-shy Ferrero spoke in the dialect of his native Piedmont region and died having never given a newspaper interview,” writes the Financial Times’ Rachel Sanderson. 

“People who knew him say he added to his father’s idea of undercutting the fine chocolates market with products that boasted ‘more milk, less chocolate.’ It was a neat marketing trick that kept costs down but also played to an emerging health-consciousness among consumers,” Sanderson reports.

The Ferrero website this morning simply features a picture of the patriarch with the words: “We are proud of you. Thank you Michele.”

Ferrero transferred leadership of the business, with headquarters in Alba, to his two sons, Giovanni and Pietro, in 1997. Pietro died of a heart attack while cycling in South Africa in 2011; Giovanni remains CEO. 

“In late 2013, Giovanni denied suggestions that the company had been approached by the Swiss-based multinational Nestle, saying Ferrero was not for sale,” write Reuters’ Giancarlo Navach and Agnieszka Flak. “But industry insiders say he is less interested than his brother was in running the company.”

In assessing some of the upstart competitors a year ago — including offerings from Hershey’s, Jif, Justin’s and the organic, raw, vegan, stone-ground Rawmio for those who looking to assuage their guilt — Foxnews.com’s Grace E. Cutler reported that “Nutella holds about a 70% market share of chocolate spreads in the U.S., and demand for the sweet stuff is only growing. According to Euromonitor, chocolate spreads, (the biggest sub-sector of the $3.4 billion industry), grew by 13% in 2012 and is expected to grow.

As are waistlines.

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