And he was indeed a real-life Willy Wonka. Tours of the headquarters in Alba, Italy, are banned, reportedly to prevent “industrial espionage,” and the company’s products are made on machines built by an in-house engineering department. “It’s like NASA,” a company official told the Guardian in 2010. Company policy required the official to remain anonymous. “Don’t quote me by name, I beg of you,” the individual said.
John Hooper, an editor for the Guardian, was the only daily newspaper reporter to be admitted (the other three journalists were from trade publications). In a phone interview with The Washington Post, he said the facility looked like a “very modern, very comfortable, high security jail,” protected by a 10-foot wall that ran around the plant’s perimeter.
Once inside, Hooper and the other reporters were escorted around the factory floor — which, disappointingly, had no chocolate rivers or candy-egg-laying geese. The only hints that something mysterious took place there were in stories of an exclusive “saletta,” or tasting room, where employees told Hooper that Ferrero and his fellow executives spent full days sampling newly invented candies. Needless to say, the guest was not allowed anywhere near it.
“He really was the nearest in real life that you could get to Willy Wonka,” Hooper said. “A man that was just completely obsessed with confectionery and who saw his life as a duty, a duty toward his employees and a duty toward society.”
Much like Roald Dahl’s famous candy man, Ferrero was beloved for the products that emerged from behind his factory’s locked gates: not just Nutella but also Tic Tacs, Kinder eggs and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. They made him the richest man in Italy — Forbes put his net worth at $26.5 billion — and the world’s sixth-largest candy manufacturer. His death at home on Valentine’s Day, which came after months of illness, elicited thousands of tributes on Twitter and a statement from Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
“I have learnt with emotion of the passing of Michele Ferrero, a true entrepreneur, known and loved in Italy and abroad,” Mattarella said. “Italy remembers him with gratitude.”
Though Ferrero is often credited with inventing Nutella, it was actually his father Pietro who first thought to mix chocolate with hazelnuts, according to a BBC profile of the product. Amid widespread chocolate shortages in the wake of World War II, Pietro sought to create a chocolate treat that would be affordable for struggling families. The result was “supercrema,” a spread made with just a little bit of chocolate and a lot of the hazelnuts widely available in his native Piedmont region.
But if Pietro was the product’s original inventor, Michele Ferrero — who took over the company after his father’s death in 1949 — was its patron saint. He was the brains behind an international relaunch of the spread in 1964, responsible for the still-in-use secret recipe, the iconic glass jar and the very name “Nutella,” as the New York Times reported.
“My father said, ‘We can push it further, there are new technologies, there are new ways to integrate this winning recipe,'” Ferrero’s son Giovanni told the BBC in 2014.
During his 66-year tenure at the company, Michele Ferrero turned his father’s small-town pastry business into a global phenomenon. He opened the company’s first international plant in Germany (as of its last financial statement, the company now has 20 around the world) and began exporting Nutella to the United States in 1983. These days Ferrero sells more than 800 million pounds of the spread in 160 countries, according to the BBC. Despite competition from Hershey and J.M. Smucker’s Jif, the company controls 72 percent of the chocolate hazelnut spread market, and is reported to consume 25 percent of the global hazelnut crop.
Ferrero also oversaw the invention of many of his company’s other famous products, including Ferrero Rocher, the hazelnut-filled chocolates introduced in 1982. According to legend, the name was inspired by Ferrero’s devout Catholicism. “Rocher,” which means “rock” in Italian, is thought to be an allusion to the Rocher de Massabielle, a sacred grotto where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in the 19th century.
Ferrero’s faith affected the company in other ways as well. A statue of the Madonna is at every Ferrero plant and office, executives told the Guardian in 2011. And Ferrero’s emphasis on social responsibility — the company provides health care, child care and cultural activities for its Alba employees — can be partly attributed to its former president’s Catholicism, Hooper said.
“There was this strain of Catholic social teaching that ran through everything,” Hooper said. “He saw amassing a fortune as the first step towards philanthropic acts.”
But, Hooper noted, Ferrero also held onto a good deal of his earnings — and by living in Monte Carlo, Monaco, he was able to “keep them away from the Italian tax man.”
“There’s a feeling of pride in him [among Italians], but it’s mingled with this certain resentment that he didn’t live in Italy,” Hooper said.
Ferrero’s death opens up questions about the candy company’s future. His eldest son, Pietro, died of a heart attack while cycling in South Africa in 2011. Giovanni Ferrero, his younger son, is the company’s current chief executive officer and his father’s apparent heir.
Giovanni Ferrero’s leadership has been marked by more openness than his father’s — he has done numerous interviews and was CEO during the limited press tour in 2011. But Reuters reported he is less interested than his older brother was in running the company.
For the moment, though, the company is focused on honoring its patriarch. Its Web site, Ferrero.com, has been all-but shut down — the page is entirely devoted to an image of Ferrero senior, accompanied by the words: “We are proud of you. Thank you Michele.”