Nearly four years ago, the death of supermarket billionaire Bernardo Caprotti set off a yearslong family struggle over his will and the control of Esselunga, the Italian supermarket chain he founded in 1957 with Nelson Rockefeller (before he became governor of New York State). With her election as Esselunga’s new president on June 30, Bernardo’s daughter Marina Caprotti solidified her control over the privately owned, $9.3 billion (8.1 billion euros, sales) company that dominates the food retail sector in northern Italy.
It was a deal reached in late March, however, that finally placed 100% of the company in the hands of Marina and her mother, Giuliana Caprotti. Bernardo Caprotti’s will had left 70% of the company to Marina and Giuliana, his second wife, with the remaining 30% to his children from his first marriage, Giuseppe and Violetta. After several years of negotiations and arbitration, Marina and Giuliana reached a deal on March 21 to buy out Giuseppe and Violetta’s stake for about $2.1 billion (1.85 billion euros), valuing the whole company at $7 billion (6.2 billion euros). While they were likely already billionaires before the deal, Forbes now estimates that Marina and Giuliana are each worth roughly $1.5 billion, after accounting for debt used to partly fund the acquisition.
Esselunga is one of Italy’s largest food retailers, with 159 stores, closing 2019 with net profits of $285 million (276 million euros). At the time of his death, Forbes estimated Bernardo Caprotti’s net worth at $2.6 billion. Since then, the company’s sales have grown by nearly 8%, boosted by new store openings in markets like Rome and Genoa which were outside the company’s traditional base in northern Italy. As a Covid-19-induced lockdown shuttered non-essential stores across the country in early March this year, Esselunga pivoted to offer free online delivery for customers over age 65 and provided more than $600 million (530 million euros) in funding to suppliers to ensure it could keep up with a surge in demand for groceries.
“It’s important for Esselunga to continue to offer quality and convenience to Italian families, without forgetting issues like sustainability and the fight against food waste,” Marina Caprotti told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in June. “Our country, as well as Esselunga, has faced terrible months and now needs to find itself united in the values that have always distinguished it. For me, as a woman and a mother, it’s a further incentive to work in this direction.” Esselunga declined to comment for the story.
Marina is the first member of the Caprotti family to take the reins of the firm since the death of her mercurial father, who led the company from its inception in 1957. In a story more common among tech startups than grocery stores, Esselunga started out in a garage in Milan after Bernardo called American businessman and politician Nelson Rockefeller — the second son of financier John D. Rockefeller Jr. — who had been considering going into business with one of Caprotti’s rivals, and convinced him to build one of Italy’s first-ever supermarkets. The chain quickly took off in northern Italy. Caprotti reportedly bought out Rockefeller’s stake in the early 1960s, just as Esselunga opened its first store outside Milan, in Florence, in 1961, growing to a total of 16 stores in three cities by 1964. Decades later, in the 1990s, the company branched out into perfume and video sales and began to produce some of its own food.