Calisto Tanzi, Who Built Dairy Giant That Collapsed, Dies at 83
(Bloomberg) -- Calisto Tanzi, who grew his father’s ham business into the global dairy company Parmalat Finanziaria SpA before leading it into bankruptcy, has died at age 83.
Tanzi’s death on Jan. 1 was reported by Italian media. No cause of death was given.
The white-haired Tanzi, a patron of the arts in his hometown of Parma, represented the entrepreneurial spirit that’s made the north of Italy one of the richest regions in Europe. He came to epitomize Italy’s tradition of family-run companies that largely resist financial scrutiny from investors and regulators.
Tanzi’s run of luck ended when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2008 by a Milan judge for misleading investors about the health of the company before it collapsed in 2003 with a 14 billion euro ($15.9 billion) hole in its accounts in what remains one of Europe’s biggest bankruptcies. Parmalat’s debt was about eight times the amount reported to investors.
The house of cards built by Tanzi and his right-hand man Fausto Tonna dragged down tens of thousands of shareholders and bondholders.
At age 70, Tanzi was convicted of market manipulation in connection with the company’s failure. He served the sentence under house arrest because of his advanced age.
In 2002, with a net worth of $1.3 billion, the Tanzi family ranked 10th in Italy and 351st in the world in Forbes magazine’s billionaires list. Parmalat, which has continued operations since being declared insolvent, at the time had 36,000 employees in 30 countries. It’s best known for its eponymous long-life milk, Santal fruit juices, and local brands such as Sorrento cheese in the U.S.
The French company Groupe Lactalis made a takeover deal on Parmalat in 2011 and obtained 7.5 billion euros of loans to fund its acquisition refinancing existing debt.
From Ham to Milk
Tanzi, born in 1938 in the small town of Collecchio, near Parma, completed a high-school diploma specializing in business but didn’t go on to college.
At age 22 he inherited his father’s ham business and decided to expand into milk, bringing innovative packaging and marketing to a business dominated by municipal dairies.
After a trip to Sweden, Tanzi adopted the newly-developed Tetra Pak system. Combined with techniques of quickly heating milk to 140 degrees Celsius (284 Fahrenheit) and then cooling it, the aluminium-foil-lined cartons gave milk a shelf life of as long as six weeks. Tanzi also introduced various specialty milks to Italy including flavored and lactose-free varieties.
Leveraging the brand, Tanzi started sponsoring skiing in 1975 and also broke tradition by backing Formula 1 drivers themselves, rather than their teams. A year later, the world’s attention was on Austrian champion Niki Lauda’s Parmalat-festooned Ferrari outfit as he miraculously recovery from third-degree burns after a crash.
In 1990, Parmalat took full control of the local soccer club, then languishing in the minor leagues, and turned it into one of the country’s top teams that won European trophies in 1993, 1995 and 1999.
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