LONDON/MILAN (Reuters) - The death of Italian billionaire Michele Ferrero could ultimately herald a deal involving the chocolate empire bearing his name, with the family’s third generation leading it into a future of increasingly hungry multinationals.
The maker of Nutella spread and Ferrero Rocher chocolates has long been viewed as an appetizing target for rivals such as Mondelez International (MDLZ.O), Nestle NESN.VX, Mars and Hershey (HSY.N). But given the strength of its brands, the high margins on chocolate and sluggishness of packaged food overall, the Italian business could feasibly be on the shopping list of any global food company.
“Certainly there’s more chance of a deal now than there was before; that absolutely must be true,” said Andrew Cosgrove, EY’s global lead analyst on consumer goods. “It was widely rumored that no deal would happen until this event.”
Ferrero International, a conservative and secretive 69-year-old company, has largely shied away from the dealmaking that has marked the consumer goods sector’s search for growth over the past decade.
But that could change, insiders say. Sources familiar with the company say that Ferrero had once considered a move on Cadbury but pulled back after the family patriarch rejected a push by his sons. Similarly, there were reports in 2013 that it held talks about a takeover by Nestle.
“The idea of a tie-up with Nestle could come back,” a Ferrero manager told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “Giovanni (Ferrero, the CEO) always says the company is big but does not have critical mass to really be an international player, so sooner or later he could announce an acquisition. It was the father who blocked everything.”
Other sources also said Ferrero could turn acquisitive to balance its portfolio, noting that it had considered buying United Biscuits and U.S. chocolate company Russel Stover, which ended up going to Swiss rival Lindt & Spruengli (LISN.S).
Apart from Western confectionery groups, Ferrero could also attract the attention of Turkey’s Ulker Biskuvi (ULKER.IS), Korea’s Lotte 071840.KS or private equity firms such as 3G Capital, which teamed up with Warren Buffett to buy Heinz.
Giovanni Ferrero, the son who took over sole leadership in 2011 after older brother Pietro died suddenly, would need a majority of shares to give him a stronger hand in any mooted change of course, the manager said.
A Ferrero spokesman, meanwhile, said nothing would change.
“The company is not listed and ownership is all in the family,” the spokesman said, adding that he did not know details of Michele’s will, nor how his shares would be distributed.
Some analysts have expressed doubts, too, pointing out that more than half of Ferrero’s sales come from Western Europe, where economic weakness has curbed growth, while many food companies have been looking to push into healthier products.
MainFirst Bank analysts estimate that Ferrero could fetch between 16 billion euros ($18.2 billion) and 20 billion euros, based on annual sales of 8 billion euros and the multiples in recent chocolate deals. Accounts to August 2013 report EBITDA of 1.3 billion euros.
But for all the hungry predators and investor speculation, external moves to change the status quo face a large stumbling block in the powerful emotional ties in a family business that has fostered great mutual respect between its owners and staff.
The company began in 1946 when Michele’s parents transformed an Alba pastry shop into a factory. It has more than 30,000 employees across more than 20 countries and holds almost 8 percent of the global chocolate market.
Yet it is still held dear in its home town of Alba, where it commands the loyalty of 3,000 employees with practices such as company buses that transport workers from remote villages and the award in 2014 of a 6,000 euro bonus spread over three years.
“We are confident Ferrero will continue on the same path,” Alba’s mayor, Maurizio Marello, told Reuters.
Others who know the family were even stronger in their assertions. “There is a less than zero chance they will sell,” said one who asked to remain anonymous.
($1 = 0.8807 euros)
Additional reporting by Anjuli Davies and Pamela Barbaglia in London and Astrid Wendlandt in Paris; Editing by David Goodman