The wealthiest of Lebanon Valley College’s former students owes his fortune to the global popularity of a sweet chocolate and hazelnut spread.
Giovanni Ferrero, who studied marketing in Annville for several months in 1980-81, is, according to recent reports, worth more than $30 billion. That’s because Giovanni is the son of Maria Franca Fissolo and Michele Ferrero, the latter of whom invented Nutella in Italy in 1964 – the same year Giovanni, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, was born in Farigliano, Italy.
According to EuropeanCEO.com, Nutella is one of Italy’s biggest exports, and a jar of the nutty goodness is sold every 2.5 seconds.
“To put this into context, so much Nutella is produced each year that it could circle the globe 1.8 times,” EuropeanCEO.com reported. “And to meet this mammoth demand, Ferrero has become the biggest consumer of hazelnuts in the world, buying 25 percent of the global supply.”
The family business got its start in Alba, Italy, in 1946, when Giovanni’s grandfather Pietro Ferrero opened a chocolate shop. Pietro’s claim to fame, according to family histories, was a hazelnut spread called Supercrema, born of a wartime chocolate shortage and an ample source of hazelnuts in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. Supercrema was a precursor to Nutella.
But it’s based on an even older recipe. According to an article in The Guardian, Nutella was based on a local Italian specialty, gianduia, which was a blend of chocolate and nut paste conceived after Napoleon’s embargo on British goods in the early 1800s reduced the supply of cocoa reaching European ports.
Besides Nutella, the company today manufactures Ferrero Rocher candies, Tic Tac mints, Kinder chocolate, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth and Crunch bars, and Keebler, Famous Amos and Little Brownie Bakers cookies, among other products the Ferrero Group has added or acquired over the years. It is, according to Bloomberg, the world’s second-largest confectionery company, in part because Giovanni in 2018 bought Nestle’s U.S. holdings for $2.8 billion.
That acquisition made Ferraro the third-largest confectioner in the United States, after Mars and Hershey, according to a 2018 report by confectionerynews.com. The Ferrero Group also bought British chocolatier Thorntons for $170 million in 2015, U.S. candy makers Fannie May and Ferrara in 2017, and Kellogg’s cookie businesses in 2019, according to Forbes.
The company’s popular Kinder Joy eggs, which had been banned as a choking hazard in the U.S. because of a plastic toy inside, was relaunched in 2017 after modifications to the design and is “overperforming expectations,” Giovanni told Forbes.
In just three generations, Forbes reported in 2018, “Pietro’s tiny shop has become a behemoth that sells goods in more than 160 countries, employs 40,000 people and makes 365,000 tons of Nutella per year.”
Giovanni, Forbes said at the time, dismissed the massive growth as “a promising start.”
The Lebanon connection
Brody Johnston, writing on “Notable LVC alumni” for a college website in March 2020, said Giovanni Ferrero is “undoubtedly the richest alumni to ever graduate LVC.”
Johnston added: “As far as I’m concerned LVC is partially responsible for Nutella and is therefore above Harvard on the world impact scale.”
But, while local lore suggests Ferrero is an LVC graduate, LVC’s chief communications officer Molly O’Brien-Foelsch says he never earned a degree there. In fact, she says, he came to the region for professional reasons and simply lingered for a while.
“Ferrero traveled to central Pennsylvania in 1980 to visit the Hershey Company for the family business and stayed at the College for six months,” she explained in a recent email. “He studied marketing with several professors during his time on campus.”
However, she added, “We do not have record of his having obtained a degree.” And, she said, “To our knowledge, he has not visited campus” since that time.
Even Giovanni’s Wikipedia page says his alma mater is LVC, although the National Italian American Foundation noted he attended the European School, a Belgian boarding school. After completing his education, he joined his father Michele and brother Pietro in the family business. His first job was with the Tic Tac brand in Belgium, according to Forbes.
A secretive novelist
Business Insider reported in 2020 that the brothers became co-CEOs of the company in 1997; Giovanni focused on the more creative aspects of the company, while Pietro handled the routine logistics of the business and product development. However, Forbes reported, Pietro died of a heart attack during a 2011 bicycling accident in South Africa, leaving Giovanni to become the lone CEO, with his father still acting as executive chairman until his death in 2015. Ironically, Giovanni’s father had opposed efforts to expand through the acquisition of other companies, and during his life he had blocked efforts in that direction.
Giovanni acted as CEO and executive chairman for two years after his father’s death, then hired Lapo Civiletti as CEO in 2017.
It’s possible – but certainly not proven – that the company’s decision to locate a distribution center for Ferrero North America in Jonestown, less than 10 miles from the LVC campus, in 2019 was influenced by Giovanni’s familiarity with the area. A company spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
That’s in keeping with Giovanni’s notorious reputation for being secretive about his personal life. In fact, the Business Insider in 2020 compared security measures for both the man and his company “to those of NASA.” Fearing industrial espionage, the secrets of the company’s recipes and equipment designs are closely guarded secrets.
The Wall Street Journal called Giovanni the “more introverted” of the Ferrero brothers, and Forbes, which in 2018 described Ferrero as “thin, well-dressed, and with a disarming giggle,” with “more the air of a game-show host than a billionaire factory owner.”
Bloomberg estimated his worth in 2020 at $32 billion, up 43.1 percent from the start of 2019.
As of Feb. 21, 2021, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index lists the total net worth of Giovanni Ferrero and his family at $32.9 billion. That makes him 41st richest person on Earth, only slightly behind John and Jacqueline Badger Mars, co-owners of Mars. Inc., and Michael Dell, founder, chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies.
According to celebfamily.org, Giovanni is married to Paola Rossi, an official at the European Commission, and they have two children. The family lives in Brussels, Belgium, although Forbes says he runs the company from Luxembourg.
As a surprising aside, the Business Insider notes that Giovanni also writes novels – eight so far, including “Il cacciatore di luce” (“The Light Hunter”), about an African painter who has leukemia, and “The Song of the Butterflies.”
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