Ferrero Scion Raises Sugary Food Bet for $35 Billion Fortune

(Bloomberg) — The low-profile billionaire behind the maker of Nutella spread and Ferrero Rocher chocolates is busy carving out an empire of comfort foods, seemingly less governed by the health and nutrition trend that’s gripped his bigger rivals.

Giovanni Ferrero’s plan to buy U.K. cookie maker Burton’s Biscuit Co. and a recent launch of ice cream bars were the latest in a series of moves that show he’s sticking with the baked goods and sugary snacks that made his family one of the world’s richest through their closely held confectionery firm, Ferrero Group.

Unbeholden to outside investors, Ferrero Group’s executive chairman seems content to increase exposure to a segment of the food industry that’s squarely in the cross hairs of health regulators and changing consumer trends. That’s while industry leaders like Nestle SA increasingly look to areas like vitamins, plant-based food and pet products for future growth.

“Ferrero do seem to be happy to invest in the indulgent end of the market even though there is a lot of noise around the healthier end,” said John Spayne, a founder of Spayne Lindsay & Co., a financial adviser to consumer brands. “It may not be growing as fast as it once was, but it is still a substantial market.”

The strategy puts the Italian company in a good position to benefit from a post-pandemic shift to home-working, Spayne said, as people stock their cupboards with snacks and biscuits for their tea.

Sales held up well during the initial fallout from Covid-19. Ferrero reported net sales of 12.3 billion euros ($14.6 billion) through the year ended last August, up about 8% from the previous year, according to filings. Newer products like Nutella biscuits helped boost sales alongside established offerings, the company said in its latest accounts, filed in February.

Ferrero, based in Alba in northwest Italy, is one of the country’s largest multinational food companies, with brands that also include Kinder Bueno and Tic Tac. It’s valued at $24 billion, while Giovanni and his family are worth about $35 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The family traces its fortune back to the pastry shop in Italy owned by Giovanni’s grandparents, Piera and Pietro, who used hazelnuts to stretch limited cocoa supplies. It was under Michele, Giovanni’s father, that the business grew into a global powerhouse starting in the 1950s.

“Ferrero has extremely good brand recognition,” said Duncan Fox, a consumer products analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “It’s not the biggest brand, but kids want Nutella.”

Giovanni, 56, who became executive chairman in 2017 after previously serving as chief executive officer, has been adding products and doing deals to diversify.

The company introduced Ferrero Rocher and Raffaello ice cream bars in European supermarkets this spring. With Burton’s in the U.K., the company will gain the popular brands Maryland Cookies, Jammie Dodgers and Wagon Wheels. It already owns Fox’s Biscuits and British chocolatier Thorntons, which it purchased in 2015.

One of Giovanni’s strategies has been to snap up other indulgent food brands as rivals jettisoned them. In 2018, Ferrero bought the U.S. candy business of Nestle, the world’s largest food company. Ferrero’s investment in the former Nestle products is driving renewed growth, and the company now plans to introduce variations around the Butterfinger, Crunch and Baby Ruth brands, said Jim Klein, chief customer officer for Ferrero North America, in a phone interview during last month’s Sweets & Snacks Expo.

“Mr. Ferrero has put a stake in the ground here,” Klein said. “We do have a great pipeline, but are careful and make sure what we launch in the marketplace is sustainable.”

Ferrero’s head office in Italy declined to comment for this story.

Health Trends

Big Food has come under increasing pressure from consumers and governments in recent years to make healthier products amid rising obesity and diabetes rates. Nestle, for one, has been focusing on acquiring nutritional supplements and vitamins, as well as expanding its coffee and plant-based businesses.

Ferrero’s corporate website includes a section outlining its views on “responsible consumption.”

“We believe all food types can be consumed as part of a varied and balanced diet without excluding certain foods, specific ingredients or nutrients,” the company says on the site. “One of our corporate goals is to help consumers to make proper food choices and to adopt a varied and balanced diet.”

In one nod to the healthier snack trend, Ferrero Group announced plans in December to buy Eat Natural, a British maker of cereal bars and granola. Still, Giovanni Ferrero is mostly betting for now that consumers won’t lose their sweet tooth.

“It is only rational that Ferrero’s growth strategy will keep focusing on the lines of business on which the company has built its financial health and expertise,” said Michele Costabile, a professor of management, entrepreneurship and marketing at the LUISS “Guido Carli” University in Rome.

(Updates with analyst comment in ninth paragraph)

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