Italian chocolate tycoon Pietro Ferrero, joint chief executive of the group that owns Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, has died in a biking accident in South Africa, a company spokesman said Monday.
Ferrero, who was 47, fell from his bicycle during a regular riding session, probably because he was taken ill, while on a business trip in South Africa, the spokesman told AFP, voicing the group's "deep dismay."
Ferrero had co-run the sweets company with his younger brother Giovanni since 1997.
Their 85-year-old father Michele, who turned the firm into a global leader of the confectionery industry after taking over in 1957, is still the chairman.
Michele Ferrero, 85, is Italy's richest man according to the latest ranking by Forbes magazine, ahead of eyewear tycoon Leonardo Del Vecchio and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire television mogul turned politician.
"Italy has lost a businessman who represented the best qualities of our economic history," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in a statement.
Frattini said Pietro Ferrero "brought an exceptionally important contribution to the Made in Italy brand around the world."
For her part, the president of the Italian employers federation Confindustria, Emma Marcegaglia, expressed her "deep sadness over the tragic and sudden death," describing Ferrero as "an entrepreneur of quality and one of the greatest representatives of Italian capitalism."
The Ferrero story began in the 1940s in Italy's northern Piedmont region.
A local pastry chef also called Pietro Ferrero began the business with a secret recipe that used nuts to cut down on the more expensive cocoa in a spread that was to be called Nutella and quickly became wildly popular.
The company also owns the Ferrero Rocher, Kinder and Tic-Tac brands.
It had a turnover of 6.6 billion euros ($9.4 billion) in its 2009-2010 financial year — 4.3 percent higher than the previous year.
It has 18 plants around the world and employs more than 21,000 people.
The publicity-shy firm is entirely family-owned and has stayed away from big corporate takeovers or public listings. Last year, it did however signal interest in bidding for Britain's Cadbury, which was eventually taken over by Kraft Foods.