fHere’s the mystery. Who’s the cool leader behind the dark glasses? I’m sad to say that he just died, aged 89, on Valentine’s Day. He was the richest man in Italy, Michele Ferrero, a super- successful business leader worth $23.4 billion.

This gentle and modest man made his fortune out of chocolate. He summed up his success in three secrets – which he allegedly disclosed in his one and only media interview with La Stampa.  Ferrero’s last name should give you the clue to one of his most successful products – that delicious and oh so elegantly presented combination of hazelnuts and chocolate. Although Ferrero owned some 50 confectionery brands by his death, it all started with Nutella – 1 million kilos of which are consumed world-wide every single day. Yes – it all began with hazelnuts and chocolate. He inherited the family business in 1957 and never looked back.

So, what were his three leadership secrets? I can’t find the original newspaper interview but, according to his son Giovanni, they were: “always act differently to the others; have faith, stay strong; and put customers at the centre each day.”

  1. “Always do something different from the others” – and he did. First by continuing his father’s endless experimentation and eventually coming up with the perfect texture of Nutella – a recipe he has kept as a closely-guarded secret ever since. He also came up with Tic Tacs – the only sweets that people can’t resist shaking; Kinder Eggs with a plastic toy inside a little all-the-year-round Easter egg; as well as the glamorous chocs that bear his name – Ferrero Rocher. He not only innovated products but also the different and distinctive packaging that invariably grabbed the customer’s imagination. My favourite example is Mon Chérie  partly because I love the cherry liqueur filling and partly because of his kindness in packaging each one individually to cash-strapped survivors of the war who could not buy a whole box of anything— a wonderful example of commercial empathy! Cool leaders do things differently, they especially find creative solutions to problems most people don’t even realise they have.
  2. “Have faith, stay strong”. Ferrero was persistent to a fault – he spent years perfecting recipes and trying things over and again before he was satisfied sufficiently to go to market. He kept the business in the family so he never had impatient shareholders pushing him into anything too soon or demanding unrealistic returns and so distorting his judgement. Indeed, the business was like a family with cared-for employees so loyal that they volunteered to rebuild “their” factory after devastating flash floods 20 years ago and have never ever threatened to strike the world over. The local (now global) community of hazelnut farmers has a reliable and constant marketplace and so too do the cocoa growers where Ferrero-initiated social enterprise projects have also been set up. Treating employees, suppliers and customers with serious respect and a dash of affection is a hall-mark of cool leadership and so is believing in yourself and what you are doing.
  3. “Put customers at the centre each day”  You know that old adage ‘behind every great man is an even greater woman’? Ferrero had three: La Valerie, the Virgin Mary and his wife, Maria.  La Valerie was his ‘invisible friend’ and the customer he worked for, an avatar whom he consulted daily about what she would like next. She was the stereotypical Italian family woman who wants to delight everyone in her home with affordable treats as often as possible. To a devout Catholic like Ferrero, the Virgin Mary personified a higher authority and a higher purpose which guided him in holding to his strong company values and culminated in his setting up the Ferrero Foundation with the motto “work – create – donate”. His wife Maria, has led this endeavour in Italy and together they have initiated many projects in social responsibility around the world.

If success is judged by market share, profitability, and global brand recognition, Michele Ferrero was a great success throughout his long entrepreneurial life. His company won numerous awards – the most prestigious to my mind was to be voted the most trusted company  from a choice of 600 global organisations in 2009. I should like to add another, posthumously, – that of having been a cool leader all his life.

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What are your three secrets of leadership success?