Michele Ferrero (1924-2015): Obituary of a discrete global leader

Ferrero-Rocher-PyramidThe notion of servant leadership is open the accusation of self-serving hypocrisy masking as humility and piety. Michele Ferrero’s life refutes such charges in his case

The Guardian noted:

When Michele Ferrero took over his family’s confectionery firm on the death of his uncle, Giovanni, in 1957, he wrote a letter to his employees. “I pledge myself to devote all my activities and all my efforts to this company,” it said. “And I assure you that I shall only feel satisfied when I have managed, with concrete results, to guarantee you and your children a safe and tranquil future.”

Ferrero was an entrepreneur of a kind Italy throws up from time to time, inspired more by the social doctrines of the Roman Catholic church than by any belief in the merits of the free market.

The case of Nutella

Michele’s father Pietro converted a family pastry shop into a chocolate factory with what became a world-beating product in Nutella, a Business School case favourite. Pietro lived in a region south of Turin famous for its natural products including hazel nuts, a key ingredient of Nutella. Michelle demonstrated his flair for confectionery and marketing when he reformulated and re-branded the choconut spread. Today the product takes around 20% of the world’s supply of hazel nuts.

The Ferrero group

Pietro instilled in Michele a passion for confectionery and product innovation. His son converted the local business into The Ferrero group, a global giant, making him one of the wealthiest of the world’s billionaires.

The business he inherited stands alongside other firms with a socially responsible ethos which transcends the structure of a CSR department. There are parallels with the Tata group of India, and various firms founded under the spirit of what Weber called ‘the protestant ethic’  including another confectionery giant, the former Cadburys group.

Its treatment of employees is at very least of high quality and in many aspects best-practice. The firm initiated the practice of collecting and returning employees to their villages. Medical care and other welfare services are of high quality. Ferrero’s workers have never gone on strike. The organization is active in awareness of and sustainability in the developing countries from which it sources its products.

 The iconic praline

The Ferrero Rocher brand has produced one of the most famous of images, that of the gold-wrapped praline product served at the exclusive party to guests of his excellency. When shown at cinemas, the ad always produces a humorous if ironic response at the incongruance between the product and the intended imagery of top-of-the-market tastes in confectionery.

By your acts shall you be known

The actions of Bill Gates and other modern titans of industry have helped us rediscover The socially responsible entrepreneur. We need not look for other-worldly piety. Critics point to Michel Fererro’s decision to leave Italy for Monaco under threat from The Red Brigades. He remained in tax-enlightened exile. He made no efforts to project or protect his public image.

He deserves to be remembered for his contributions to the well-being of his employees, and the satisfaction of consumers of his company’s products.

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