How a Real-Life Willy Wonka Built an Italian Chocolate Empire

Michele Ferrero amassed a billion-dollar fortune by keeping chocolate, and his childhood, close to heart.

By: ISDA contributor and author Carla Gambescia

Italy’s most successful modern entrepreneur made his fortune by staying in touch with his inner child and living as a real-life Willy Wonka. Michele Ferrero, creator of the global brand Nutella, was a shy, humble man who died never having given a newspaper interview. His estimated net worth was $26.5 billion and he ranked 22nd on a recent Forbes list of billionaires—his empire built, as the magazine very simply stated, from “chocolates.

His most delectable invention, Nutella, a creamy chocolate hazelnut spread, has been part of the collective memory of Italian children for the past 50 years, as comforting and beloved a mainstay of their world as Oreos and Coca Cola are for American kids. And today this holds true well beyond Italy’s borders, as Nutella is an international phenomenon that has truly captivated the world’s taste buds: 2014’s estimated global sales in 53 countries were 365,000,000 kg. That’s 2.2 million pounds a day!

Ferrero’s greatest skill was his sense and knowledge of what children want. “Never patronize a child” he is quoted as saying in the 2004 book, Nutella: An Italian Legend by Gigi Padovoni.

The story of Nutella begins in the 1940s with Ferrero’s father Pietro, a pastry chef from Turin, capital of the hazelnut-rich region of Piedmont and home of the premium chocolate confection gianduia. He had been observing factory workers eating bread with tomatoes and cheese as a meal and thought they might want something dolce to go along with it. His response was a pastone (pastry mesh) of chocolate and hazelnuts and cocoa butter shaped into a loaf and wrapped in tinfoil so it could be sliced like a salumi. He called it Pasta Gianduija. The workers liked it, but its real fans were their children, who ultimately became the target market. And since Pasta Gianduija was far less expensive than chocolate, this added greatly to its appeal.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian life, culture and traditions. Make the ISDA pledge and subscribe today!

Shortly after World War II Piero died and his son Michele took over the factory. On a very hot day in the summer of 1949 a mishap occurred: the loaves at the warehouse melted and they were forced to transfer the now spreadable product into jars. That mishap soon qualified as a divine accident in every sense of the word, a pivotal transformation, as Ferrero began to sell this softer, creamier, more versatile and convenient Pasta Gianduija under the new name Supercrema Gianduija

Then, in another serendipitous event, a 1962 Italian law forbade brand names with superlatives (e.g., “super,” “ultra”) so another name had to be chosen. The name that emerged had an English word as its root, “nut,” combined with the Italian suffix “ella” and all its affectionate connotations (as in mozzarella and tagliatella).

In 1964 the renamed Nutella made its commercial debut with a splash of clever television advertising and branding: a little spreadable joy. . . something “special” without it being a Sunday or holiday or birthday. . . a yummy antidote to small sadnesses and disappointments. Bambini were besotted, and in the 70s Nutella hit it big in Europe and then reached the United States in 1983, where its use exploded (witness the street corner crepe stand).

Michele Ferrero didn’t stop there. He oversaw a multinational confectionery empire which included other tasty and whimsical creations like minty and fruity TicTacs, Ferrer Rocher candies, Mon Cheri (cherry liquor filled chocolates), and Kinder Eggs and Kinder snacks. It seems no accident that that last product name can refer to “kindness” or “children.”

Ferrero was passionate about product quality, and his secret Nutella recipe has the legendary aura of the original Coke formula. And unlike with Coke, Nutella’s imitators have all failed miserably, in part because the public imagination has invested the original with so much love and even national pride— on Nutella’s 50th anniversary the Italian government issued a commemorative stamp.

Michele Ferrero died a year later, poetically on Valentine’s Day, 2015. Posts on Twitter read “world’s flag should be at half mast: Nutella owner has died.” For this deeply religious man—he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Madonna of Lourdes each year—perhaps an appropriate epitaph would be “. . . and a little child shall lead them” from Isaiah 11:6. One likes to imagine a flock of amorini and putti giving him a happy welcome.

Michele Ferrero (1925-2015)

About the author

Carla’s passion for Italy began early: with her mother’s love of the Renaissance masters and father’s discourses on Italian geniuses of every calling. In the ensuing decades, she’s written about and toured every region of Italy on foot or by bicycle. Carla was a former partner in the Ciao Bella Gelato Company, conceived and co-led the Giro del Gelato bicycle tour, which won Outside magazine’s “Best Trip in Western Europe” and for nearly a decade owned and operated Via Vanti! Restaurant & Gelateria in Mount Kisco, New York. Via Vanti! won plaudits for its innovative Italian cuisine, extraordinary gelato (named “Best Gelato Shop in New York”) and on-going program of culinary and cultural events.

La Dolce Vita University: An Unconventional Insider’s Guide to Italian Culture From A to Z is the natural outgrowth of her work in the restaurant and boutique travel industries, as well as a lifelong love affair with the land of her ancestors.

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