April 19 (Bloomberg) -- Pietro Ferrero, chief executive officer of the Ferrero group, maker of Nutella chocolate spread and Tic Tacs, and heir to Italy’s biggest fortune, died of a suspected heart attack in South Africa. He was 47.
Ferrero died while bicycling yesterday on a coastal road near Cape Town, during a break from a company meeting in South Africa. A passerby saw him fall off his bicycle, and he was declared dead of a suspected heart attack shortly after an ambulance arrived, Western Cape Police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk said in a telephone interview.
“Italy has lost a businessman who embodied the best qualities of our industrial history -- the continual search for excellence, creativity, the determination to compete even in difficult moments to defend a brand and make it a symbol,” Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an e-mailed statement.
Pietro Ferrero’s death comes as his company considers joining a takeover battle for Parmalat SpA, Italy’s biggest dairy company. A government-backed group of Italian investors is trying to block France’s Groupe Lactalis from gaining control of Parmalat. In 2009, Ferrero mulled and abandoned a takeover offer for Cadbury Plc, before it was purchased by Kraft Foods Inc. Pietro Ferrero was joint CEO with his brother Giovanni.
Ferrero was founded in Alba, Italy, in 1946 when Pietro’s grandparents transformed a small coffee bar and pastry shop into a sweets factory. With cocoa expensive as Italy rebuilt from war, the company experimented with locally abundant nuts as a substitute ingredient, according to its website. Using a cocoa-hazelnut base, Ferrero developed Nutella, now the best-selling sweet spread in the world.
Chairman Michele Ferrero, Pietro’s father, took over the running of the business and increased the family’s fortune to $18 billion, earning him the 31st ranking on Forbes’s list of the world’s billionaires for 2011, the highest position for any Italian.
“Ferrero is a family-run business that hasn’t opened much to external managers,” said Daniele Demartis, a fund manager at Rome-based Agora Investments Sgr. “It’s likely that the succession will be managed internally.”
The company, which introduced Tic Tacs in the U.S. in 1969, had sales of 6.6 billion euros ($9.4 billion) in the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, up 4.3 percent. More recent innovations include Gran Soleil, a dessert stored at room temperature that turns into a sorbet when shaken and frozen. Ferrero has more than 21,600 employees and 18 plants around the world.
Recession in western Europe, which accounted for 74 percent of sales in 2009, exposed Ferrero’s bias toward core markets, Euromonitor International wrote in a February study. The company is now focusing on growth in Asia and Africa, Euromonitor said.
Pietro Ferrero got a biology degree from the University of Turin and was a former director of Ifil SpA, a holding company for another Turin billionaire family, the Fiat SpA-founding Agnellis. Pietro Ferrero previously served as a director of Mediobanca SpA, Italy’s biggest publicly traded investment bank.
“This is a grave loss,” said Michele Quintano, an economics and management professor at Naples’s Parthenope University. “Giovanni will be able to take over the running of the company,” though a replacement, ideally internal, will have to be sought, Quintano said.
Pietro is survived by his wife and three children, newspaper la Repubblica said.
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