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Sometimes the oddest of coincidences come to mind as one thinks about places and matters wildly different from where one started.

My former senior partner in London was a very private man, though to the public, he could be the bon vivant, equally so in both his refined British-English and French.

It was how he gained such fluency in French that made me seriously reflect upon how unexpected events sometimes dictate the course of one’s life.

So it was with this man. Because he’d witnessed so much gore and death in his service with The Honourable Artillery Company of His Majesty’s British Army in World War II, he was decorated by HM King George VI for his gallantry.

HAC_corps_of_drums[The Corps of Drums, Honourable Artillery Company]

“There were traditions to uphold, and one simply had to do just that!” he once said to me, more in a fatherly tone than not, but one still got the message.  Traditions, indeed.

The Honourable Artillery Company is the oldest regiment in the British Army and the second most senior unit of the Territorial Army.

The Company traditionally dates its origins to 1537 when Henry VII granted a charter to the Fraternity or Guild of Artillery of Longbows, Crossbows and Handguns for ‘the better increase of the defence of this our realm’ and ‘the maintenance of the science of artillery’.

[For those who have forgotten or never knew, King Henry VII’s reign was from 22 August 1485 to 21 April 1509.]

[HM Queen Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of Henry VII. The daughter of Henry’s double-great-great grandson James I/VI, Elizabeth Stuart, was the mother of Sophia of Hanover whose descendants were the monarchs of the House of Hanover and the succeeding House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (as changed to ‘Windsor’ to sound far less German when World War I loomed)].

As a form of recompense for all the maimings and lives lost,  my partner Peter swore an Holy Oath that, in lieu of any annual holiday or vacation and for his work upon retirement, he would give his time to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. He lived up to and died for that oath.

Because, weirdly enough, he was also a fanatic for Mon Cheri chocolates, I had to smile and think of him when I read this in The Economist.

Sweet secrets – Michele Ferrero, Italy’s chocolate king, died on Valentine’s day, aged 89

FerreroMichelleSignorFaceDarkGlasses

Michele Ferrero blows out candles on 40th anniversary of his famous Nutella chocolate spread

IN THE only interview he ever gave, to La Stampa, Michele Ferrero did not once remove his sunglasses. This was not just to shield his weak eyes, but to conceal himself. Modesty was a habit.

People sometimes called him a genius; he would turn the question gently back on them by saying that, yes, his second name was indeed “Eugenio”, and his mother liked to call him that; but he was glad to be simple Michele, the boy with the thick Piedmontese accent whose life had come to revolve round the farmers of the Alta Langa and their abundant, delectable hazelnut crop.

piedmont-map-excerpt[Map of the Italian Piedmonte Region with the rest of Italy in light relief]

His love of privacy also had a commercial purpose. He needed to keep secret the recipe for his hazelnut-chocolate spread, Nutella, of which 365-million kilograms (say, 803-million pounds) are now consumed each year round the world, and which along with more than 20 other confectionery lines made him Italy’s richest man, worth $23.4 Billion (£15.28 Billion, €20.75Billion).

He laughed when he heard that the recipe for Coca-Cola was known to only a few directors of the company. Even fewer knew exactly what went into each jar of Nutella.

Nutella-LARGE

Several other trade secrets, though, were revealed to the man from La Stampa. The first was, “Always do something different from the others.” Nutella was a case in point. The basic gianduja paste, ground hazelnuts with a little cocoa, had been known in northern Italy since Napoleonic times. His father Pietro, who ran a corner café and pastry-shop in the small town of Alba, had revived this idea in the Second World War when cocoa was hard to get.

Finding the perfect blend became a passion, and the teenage Michele caught it too as his father laboured in a back room, running out at all hours to test sweet spoonfuls on his wife and sons with the cry, “What do you think?”

The paste was sold in solid loaves at first, then, as semi-solid “Supercrema”, in jars; but Michele, taking over the recipe after his father’s death in 1949, did what no one else had, and added enough drops of vegetable oil to make it beautifully spreadable. The result was revolutionary: chocolate-eating transformed from a special event to something everyday, children lining up after school in bakers’ shops to get it smeared on bread, and by the late 1950s a fleet of 1,000 cream-and-chocolate vans criss-crossing Italy to keep shops supplied.

In 1964 he invented the name Nutella and the glass jar, and the rest was history.

He did something very different, too, with Mon Chéri, his cherry-liqueur chocolates. When he went to post-war Germany to market them he found the country so ruined that he decided to sell them not in the usual boxes, which were unaffordable, but singly, “to raise the morale of the Germans and bring something sweet into their lives.” He still wept a little, with both happiness and sadness, to think of that.

mon_cheri_by_silvery_lily[Unwrapped and contents revealed, Mon Cheri!]

Keep doggedly at it, was his second secret. He liked to move at his own pace, and thus resisted all acquisitions (save for one Turkish hazelnut company), and refused to be listed on the stock exchange. That way he kept the company as a family, one whose 4,000 workers were treated so kindly that they never went on strike and, when the Alba factory was flooded in 1994, just before Christmas, turned out with buckets and brooms to reopen it in 15 days.

Tics-Tacs in the vanguard

By not going public, he could also resist outside pressure. He waited until 1983 to take Nutella to America, sending his tiny white Tic-Tac mints first, because he did not want to compete with the national staple, peanut butter.

He insisted in 1974 on introducing Kinder Surprise, little chocolate eggs with plastic toys inside, though everyone around him objected that eggs should only be large and only for Easter. (He, typically playful, wanted it to be “Easter every day.”) Those, too, were a success.

KinderEggs max res default[Kinder Eggs]

Each product was exhaustively researched in his two labs, one in Alba and one in Monaco where he lived later, and tested out on board members. (“We eat all day,” one complained.)

New technology was eagerly tried. He took five years, it was said, to find a way of bending the wafers inside his Ferrero Rocher pralines. Wherever he went he would visit shops incognito to check that his products were fresh.

His third secret was more mysterious and surprising. At the centre of his business strategy were two women. The first was “la Valeria”, his name for the typical housewife, mother, nonna or aunt who had to decide what to buy every day, who might want a little treat for herself or something, besides kisses, to spoil a favourite child.

Unless he could keep her custom, he was finished. His introduction of milkier white chocolate was done with la Valeria in mind, for what could please a mother more than giving milk to her bambino?

The second woman was Maria, the Virgin Mary. He could achieve nothing without her. Each morning he prayed to her and placed his business in her hands. Every year he went on pilgrimage to Lourdes, and arranged for his workers to go.

(One company legend was that the shape of Ferrero Rochers was inspired by the grotto there.)  A statue of the Virgin, with white robe and golden rosary, stood at the entrance of every Ferrero office and factory round the world.  Under her influence, he and his foundation channelled much of his wealth back to Piedmont. It was done, though, with no fanfare, and after a brief appearance in his dark glasses il Signor Michele would, as usual, slip away.

—###—

In 1987, Michele made his sons Pietro and Giovanni co-CEOs. In 2011, Pietro, a cycling enthusiast, died suddenly during a bicycle training ride in South Africa.

Giovanni, by then a published novelist, stepped into the role of chief executive full time.

In 2014, Michele and his family were listed on Forbes Magazine’s List of Billionaires at the #22 spot.

It was always a delight how Ferrero could make fun of itself and still sell tons of products. For one example, try this English tv ad:


[If this does not play, my apologies. Please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1qwi55_WKM ]

or this beautifully-set and -produced Russian one featuring the inimitable Siberian-Russian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky:


[If this does not play, my apologies. Please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrh_k1zNH4I ]

Sgr. Ferrero was a quiet retiring man whose love for what would brighten all lives, but especially those of wee children burst through, proudly and loudly.

Ferrero-Michele without glasses large photo
[Sr. Ferrero with glasses]

In celebration of his Life and Deeds, let us remember him in words and music by a fellow contemporary Italian, albeit a far more famous Roman, Ennio Morricone: On Earth As It Is In Heaven

[If this does not play, my apologies. Please click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V8aZLTpKXo%5D

It does make me wonder if perhaps my old senior partner, Peter, and Michele are sitting around on a cloud somewhere chatting about their great times at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, sipping thick-as-mud expressos and filling themselves silly with Mon Cheri chocolates.

I’d sure like to think so.  Actually, that sounds pretty tasty. Anyone wish to join me?

—###—
Hat-Tips

The Economist (London) http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21644124-michele-ferrero-italys-chocolate-king-died-valentines-day-aged-89-sweet-secrets

Honourable ArtilleryCompany, which celebrated its 478th Birthday on 26 August 2015   Website: http://www.hac.org.uk/home.aspx     Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HonourableArtilleryCompany Twitter: @HAC_TheCompany

The National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes: Website: http://en.lourdes-france.org/ Please note: This site is in eight (8) languages, so choose the one you like. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ndlourdes Twitter: @lourdes_france

Ferrero Rocher Website: http://www.ferrerorocherusa.com  Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FerreroRocherUSA?brand_redir=659297180768949 Twitter: @FerreroRocheIT and also @Ferrero_USA_Fans

 The Siberian Maestro, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Website: http://hvorostovsky.com Twitter: @Hvorostovsky
Please note:  There is real cause for concern. On his website, one reads this, as of June 24, 2015: “News regarding Dmitri’s summer engagements. It is with great regret that Dmitri must cancel all performances from now until the end of August. He has recently been suffering from serious health issues, and a brain tumor has just been diagnosed. Although his voice and vocal condition are normal, his sense of balance has been severely affected. Dmitri will begin treatment this week and remains very optimistic for the future.”

On Earth As It Is In Heaven, was conducted by the composer, Maestro Ennio Morricone, (b. 1928) in the splendid Plaza of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

venice_piazza_san_marco_st_marks_basilica_58519_3840x2160
Basilica di San Marco or St. Mark’s Basilica events can be found on their website: http://www.basilicasanmarco.it/BSMjesusFlashEng.bsm

Maestro Morricone’s website in Rome is here: http://www.enniomorricone.org/ Twitter: @MEnnioMorricone