Italian Billionaire Surfaces Battling Kids and Coops

Billionaire Bernardo Caprotti, the octogenarian founder of Milan-based Esselunga SpA, Italy’s fourth-largest food retailer, held his first press conference in September 2007. A few days earlier, he had told a local newspaper that, more than 50 years after starting the operation with Nelson A. Rockefeller, he was selling out.

When he stepped to the podium, Caprotti gave the journalists a synopsis of his new book, Falce e Carrello --“The Sickle and the Shopping Cart” -- in which he railed against Italy’s former Communist Party and the “Red Giant” grocery cooperative, Coop Italia SC, it supported.

“I am sorry. I am a liar,” Caprotti, now 87, said. “The company is not for sale.”

Caprotti has spent the past six years publicly accusing liberal politicians and Coop Italia -- which is part of a wider cooperative network that affects several sectors of Italy’s economy, including construction, manufacturing, agriculture, retail, social services and tourism -- of manipulating prices and stifling Essalunga’s ability to expand.

Still, he’s amassed a 10-figure fortune offering shoppers bargains they couldn’t get at other stores. Esselunga operates about 145 stores in northern and central Italy and makes up 10.5 percent of Italy’s grocery market, according to data compiled by Nielsen ScanTrack. In 2011, the company reported sales of 6.63 billion euros ($9.23 billion) and 209 million euros in net income, according to the company.

Caprotti said his net worth is $2.2 billion, according to his spokesman, Alessandro Ferrari. He has never appeared on an international wealth ranking.

‘Undiversified Business’

Based on the average enterprise value-to-earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization multiple of four publicly traded peers: Cheshunt, U.K.-based Tesco Plc., Amsterdam’s Royal Ahold NV, and Delhaize Group and Colyrut SA of Belgium, the closely held retailer has a value of $2.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Enterprise value is defined as market capitalization plus total debt minus cash.

“Esselunga’s strength is its undiversified business model,” said Bianca Casertano, a retail analyst at London-based market researcher Planet Retail, in a phone interview. “Unlike its competitors that operate many different formats, Esselunga focuses on its medium- and large-sized supermarkets and an online business, which keeps it lean and efficient.”

Caprotti is now fighting his children for control of the family fortune. Last year, he went into arbitration with his son, Giuseppe Caprotti, and daughter Violetta Caprotti, who claimed he stole shares from a trust in their name. The arbitrators sided with the billionaire, who is the company’s sole owner. The children have challenged the decision in Milan’s Court of Appeals.

Rockefeller Roots

Esselunga has its roots in American capitalism. In 1956, Nelson Rockefeller, the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, who became the world’s richest man in the late 1800s with the Standard Oil Company, came to Milan to introduce the supermarket concept to Italy.

Rockefeller partnered with Caprotti, who was running a textile business he’d inherited from his father, in 1957. With a small group of investors, they created Supermarkets Italiani SpA, one of the country’s first self-service food stores.

Caprotti bought out the other investors, including Rockefeller, who had held 51 percent. By 1981, he owned all of Esselunga. During the next three decades, he built the business into one of Italy’s largest food retailers by keeping prices lower than his competitors, according to Andrea Petronio, a partner at consulting firm Bain & Co., in Milan.

Communist Enemies

Caprotti became embittered by what he called the unfair practices of the Italian cooperative network. Legacoop, a consortium of cooperatives created in 1886, gained power and influence after World War II alongside the rise of the Italian Communist Party, which was dissolved in 1991.

The billionaire said in his book that the cooperative concept creates artificially high prices that harm consumers.

“It is quite clear that many of Esselunga’s initiatives have been scuppered by Legacoop,” Caprotti wrote, saying the cooperative had blocked his expansion efforts when all he asked was to “do the job learned from Nelson Rockefeller.”

Silvia Mastagni, a spokeswoman for the Coop Italia in Rome, said in a statement yesterday that Caprotti’s comments were part of a “devilish plan” to damage his competition.

“Once again, [Caprotti] is consistent with himself: as the leopard, he cannot change his spots and he continues to assault his competitors by means of spreading untruths and libelous judgments on them,” Mastagni said in an e-mail.

Father’s Apprentice

For years, it appeared that Caprotti’s 52-year-old son, Giuseppe, would succeed him at Esselunga. Giuseppe joined the company as an apprentice in 1986, while studying for a degree in contemporary history at the Sorbonne in Paris. He started full-time in 1990, after a two-year stint working in the marketing and purchasing offices at Dominick’s Finer Foods LLC, an Oak Brook, Illinois-based grocer.

Giuseppe helped boost Esselunga’s non-food segment revenues more than sevenfold during the next 12 years, according to his personal website. Among other achievements he lists on the site: creating Dies Naturama, the company’s popular line of organic products, establishing a loyalty card, a company call center and a press office.

Bitter Relationship

His father promoted him to chief executive officer in 2002. They were fighting within a year. On his website, Giuseppe describes the bitter working relationship he had with his father at the time. Bernardo threatened to call company security if his son didn’t leave the office during an argument in mid-2003, Giuseppe said.

In November of that year, the younger Caprotti gave an interview to the Italian magazine Panorama, which called him “Mr. Esselunga.” The report enraged his father, Giuseppe said on his site. In early 2004, Bernardo appointed a member of Esselunga’s management team to replace Giuseppe as CEO.

Giuseppe resigned in May 2005, after being relegated to a role in central purchasing. He became a consultant to other supermarket companies.

The elder Caprotti defended his actions in a letter to the judge of the Tribunale di Milano. The city court fined the billionaire 300,000 euros in 2011 for saying in his book that the grocery coop encouraged “unlawful competition.” Caprotti is appealing.

Great Sadness

In the letter, Caprotti described it as a period of “great sadness and extreme weakness,” during which he was ill and taking painkillers that, in the summer of 2004, caused him to collapse in his bathroom and fracture his spine.

“My son was never fired, my son did nothing wrong,” he said. “He had simply been surrounded by managers who were not up to the task.”

Giuseppe left believing he would always have a share of the family fortune. A 1996 trust agreement gave him, his sister Violetta, and half-sister, Marina, what they believed was an equal one-third stake in the business, according to a person familiar with the family trust, who asked not to be identified because the matter is private.

Bernardo approached his children in 2005 with a request: he wanted to sell the company, and he needed to reclaim 8.6 percent of the company’s shares in order to proceed. Giuseppe agreed at his sisters’ behest. Selling, they reasoned, might bring peace to the family, said the person.

Potential Suitors

The possible restructuring prompted speculation by the Italian media over potential bidders. Suitors, according to Il Sole/24 Ore newspaper, included Tesco, Madrid’s El Corte Ingles SA and Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The publication said Giuseppe might offer to buy the company.

Caprotti refuted the potential buyers. He said Tesco was “incompatible,” in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg News in October 2006. At the 2007 press conference, he dismissed Wal-Mart, calling the U.S. retailer “the antithesis of Esselunga,” citing their fake wood flooring as evidence.

Giuseppe and Violetta realized that they had stopped receiving notices from the trustee company that served as custodian of the family’s Esselunga shares in the summer of

2011. Their father had taken them back that February, exercising a power of attorney agreement the children had given him in

1996. Caprotti said he now owned all the shares.

‘Fictional Simulation’

The siblings approached Angelo Mambriani, a civil court judge in Milan, asking him to seize the shares Caprotti had taken. Mambriani refused, declaring that the 1996 share allocation was a “fictional simulation,” according to an April 15, 2012, report by the Corriere della Sera newspaper. The elder Caprotti took the case to arbitration to affirm his right to the shares.

Two of the three arbitrators ruled in Caprotti’s favor last July. Three months later, Giuseppe and Violetta challenged the ruling in Milan’s civil court, citing “serious procedural flaws” and for violating the laws governing the movement of shares held by trust companies. The next hearing is scheduled for December, with a ruling expected in 2014.

‘Bufala Bill’

Caprotti stepped down as Esselunga chairman in October

2011. A statement issued by the grocer at the time said he would “continue to guide the company.” As he has for decades, Caprotti continues to go to work daily, eating lunch with employees at the office cafeteria, according to the company.

The supermarket remains fixed in the image of its former chairman. Esselunga is known for its irreverent advertising campaigns featuring produce dressed up to resemble famous people, like a coffee bean in an Arab headdress called “Lawrence d’Arabica,” and a mozzarella ball in a cowboy hat named “Bufala Bill.”

Last year, the company released a 16-minute commercial called “The Wizard of Esselunga.” It was directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore and includes a cameo appearance from Caprotti.

In a July 2012 editorial in the Italian daily Il Giornale, Stefano Lorenzetto, a journalist who advised Caprotti on his book, said Esselunga will never be separated from its patriarch.

“Made in the image and likeness of Bernardo Caprotti, Esselunga belongs only to Bernardo Caprotti,” Lorenzetto wrote. “It’s rather unlikely that any sensible person would come to a contrary conclusion.”