ROME, Italy: Michele Ferrero, Italy's richest man and the owner of a global chocolate and confectionery empire, died yesterday aged 89, the company said.
His death opens the question of succession and potential tie-ups at the family-controlled Ferrero group, which has sales of around €8 billion and continued to grow through Italy's longest recession since World War 2.
Ferrero dreamt up the chocolate-hazelnut Nutella spread, Ferrero Rocher pralines, Kinder eggs and Tic Tac sweets, turning a provincial chocolate factory into what is widely seen as Italy's most valuable privately-owned company.
The billionaire died at home in Monaco after months of illness, the group said in a statement.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella said he was deeply touched by Ferrero's death, calling him a "born entrepreneur".
Twitter was flooded with messages from people who thanked Ferrero for "sweetening up" their lives.
Ferrero's son Giovanni became chief executive of the chocolate empire after his older brother Pietro, the chosen heir, died of a heart attack in 2011 while cycling in South Africa.
In late 2013, Giovanni denied suggestions that the company had been approached by the Swiss-based multinational Nestle, saying Ferrero was not for sale.
But industry insiders say he is less interested than his brother was in running the company.
Ferrero senior was a man of few words who shunned publicity, turning a local business from the Piedmont region into a global giant.
He had a reputation as a forceful leader but also as one who maintained generous working conditions and gave back to his community. Ferrero's motto was "work, create, donate."
Usually seen in public in dark glasses Michele Ferrero is reputedly a devout Catholic who has infused the group with a strong sense of social responsibility.
In 1996, he was unexpectedly ambushed by a TV crew. When asked, "What was the secret of Ferrero's success?" he humbly replied, without slowing his walking away pace: "Our Lady of Lourdes".
Until a few years ago, Ferrero commuted by helicopter every day from his Monte Carlo villa to company headquarters in Alba, northwest Italy, to taste and help design new products.
The group, which toyed with the idea of making a bid for its British rival Cadbury a few years ago, is present in 53 countries.
Ferrero Group is the world's fifth-largest confectionery company by revenue after Mars, Mondelez International (formerly known as Kraft Foods), Nestle and Meiji.
Forbes magazine described Ferrero as "the richest candyman on the planet", putting him and his family in 30th place on their list of the world's wealthiest people, with a net worth of US$23.4 billion.
Three years ago, in 2012, French Senator Daudigny had proposed a tax increase on palm oil from €100 to €400 per metric tonne.
At 20 per cent, palm oil is one of Nutella's main ingredients and the tax was dubbed "the Nutella tax" in the media.
Nutella, a bestseller of Ferrero Group's confectionery offerings, is a very popular chocolate spread and a breakfast staple in Europe.
Nutella's main ingredients are sugar and palm oil, followed by hazelnut, cocoa solids, and skimmed milk.
In response to this proposed draconian and discriminatory tax, Ferrero Group, the maker of Nutella said, it will not change the recipe even if France, its biggest market, endorses proposals to quadruple the tax on palm oil.
Frederic Thil, French director for Ferrero, the Italian company that makes the spread, told Le Parisien: "The arguments are unfair and the repercussions would be catastrophic."
He strongly emphasised Ferrero would do all it could to limit the hit from any tax rise for consumers.
Nutella's website says that it supports responsible palm oil use, only using palm oil which is harvested and processed from eco-friendly oil palm plantations in Malaysia.
French people consume an average of 2kg of palm oil a year and the country as a whole 126,000 tonnes.
After much debate, the French Senate rejected the Nutella Tax. If the tax had been adopted then, it would have added €40 million a year to France's state health insurance pot.