Michele Ferrero, a patriarch of the Italian confectionery that triumphed over wartime cocoa shortages by combining chocolate and hazelnuts to create the spreadable vice now known around the world as Nutella, died Feb. 14 at his home in Monte Carlo. He was 89.
Often described as a real-life Willy Wonka, Mr. Ferrero built a chocolate juggernaut from the candy operation founded by his father in the hills of Piedmont during the 1940s. The younger Mr. Ferrero, who expanded the company across continents, became one of the world’s richest men.
His fortune, estimated by Forbes last year at $26.5 billion, made him No. 22 on the magazine’s list of billionaires and easily eclipsed the reported fortune of Italian media mogul and serial prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Based in the northern Italian town of Alba, Ferrero is one of the largest candy-makers of its kind, exporting treats including the Ferrero Rocher hazelnut delight, the coconut-encrusted Raffaello, the chocolate-encased cherry Mon Cheri, the Kinder Surprise chocolate egg and the Tic Tac breath mint.
But the company remains best known for Nutella, a product name reportedly coined by Mr. Ferrero in 1964. Two decades earlier, his parents, Pietro and Piera, ran a pastry shop in Alba. The ravages and rationing of World War II had left cocoa in short supply, but hazelnuts grew, literally and plentifully, on trees.
The deprivations of earlier European wars led enterprising Italians to combine chocolate and hazelnuts to make the delicacy known as gianduja. Pietro Ferrero made a similar product, initially in the form of a sliceable brick.
Michele Ferrero took over the company after the death of his father in 1949 and his uncle in 1957. He rarely appeared in public and often wore dark sunglasses when he did. The Ferrero company revealed few details about its work — and recipes — but the Daily Telegraph of England credited Mr. Ferrero with adding vegetable oil to make the rebranded Nutella more spreadable.
The Ferrero company’s success stemmed in part from the international and age-spanning appeal of the products it released over the years.
The Kinder Surprise has excited children for generations with its hidden toy. The Ferrero Rocher, elegantly wrapped in gold foil, looks distinctly higher-brow than most convenience-store candy. The Tic Tac, long branded in the United States as the “1
Mr. Ferrero commuted to work by helicopter and seemed most content in the laboratory, where he participated in the testing of new products, and in stores, where he anonymously studied consumer habits and tastes.
Like an American politician inquiring if it will play in Peoria, he often referred to “signora Valeria,” an average Italian housewife, and how she might like his company’s latest offering.
Mr. Ferrero was born April 26, 1925, in Piedmont, in the town of Dogliani. He looked askance at higher education and often expressed himself in dialect, according to the Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian newspaper.
He was widely regarded as a benevolent employer who granted his employees generous benefits. In a country where strikes are commonplace, his workforce was reported never to have launched one. A Catholic, he placed statues of the Madonna in his factories and offices.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the candy company was led by Mr. Ferrero’s sons, Pietro and Giovanni. Pietro Ferrero died in 2011. Besides Giovanni, Mr. Ferrero’s survivors include his wife of more than five decades, Maria Franca.
Mr. Ferrero’s global influence might have been measured in hazelnuts, the seeds that had helped sustain his family through the war and that later made the Ferrero name known around the world.
“For every 100 hazelnuts grown on Earth,” the London Guardian reported in 2011, “15 end up in a Ferrero product.”