* Caprotti was in talks with private equity funds over
* Group valued at up to 6 billion euros
* Future ownership of Esselunga chain unclear
(Recasts after Caprotti's death)
By Silvia Aloisi, Claudia Cristoferi and Elisa Anzolin
MILAN, Sept 30 The owner of Italy's
fourth-largest supermarket chain Esselunga, 90-year old Bernardo
Caprotti, died on Friday, plunging the future ownership of the
group into uncertainty.
Having worked all his life to build the country's most
profitable supermarket group and protect it from rivals,
Caprotti had in recent months started negotiations to sell it
for up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion).
The billionaire fell gravely ill after opening talks with
private equity firms a few months ago, working from his
three-storey, heavily guarded home in Milan. His death,
confirmed in a statement posted on the group's website, raises a
question mark over the status of the talks.
Caprotti had been trying to sell the business partly because
he did not want to leave it to his squabbling children, sources
familiar with the talks said in the days before his death.
The talks involved CVC Capital Partners, Blackstone
and BC Partners, the sources said. Esselunga has declined to
comment on any sale process. Spokesmen for the three private
equity firms have also declined to comment.
Shortly before the founder's death, Caprotti's 55-year-old
son, Giuseppe, told Reuters he had always opposed a sale of
Esselunga but he did not want to elaborate.
Giuseppe and his sister Violetta fell out with their father,
taking legal action against him, alleging he had illegally taken
shares from a trust in their name in 2011.
So far the courts have sided with the father, though a final
appeal is pending.
Caprotti's other daughter from his second marriage, Marina,
sits on the board of Esselunga.
Giuseppe and Violetta could claim around 33 percent of their
father's estate upon his death. By Italian law, the father
cannot disinherit them.
WARY OF SELLING TO RIVALS
Wary of selling out to rivals, Caprotti wanted the private
equity bidders to give a rare promise: keep the Esselunga brand
and the business for the long term, up to 10 years, the sources
Caprotti founded the company in 1957 with his brothers and
U.S. businessman Nelson Rockefeller, developing the first
U.S.-style supermarket chain in Italy, before becoming its sole
owner. It now has sales topping 7 billion euros and employs
Over the years, Caprotti spurned approaches from several
competitors including U.S. giant Wal Mart and Belgium's
Delhaize, so it came as a surprise for the Italian business
community when it emerged this month that he had hired an
adviser, Citigroup, to look at potential bids.
A sharp-tongued workaholic who carried a reinforced
Esselunga yellow plastic bag as his briefcase, Caprotti was
actively working from his home before his health took a sudden
turn for the worse, sources close to the family said.
DOOR CLOSED TO RIVALS
Caprotti stepped down as Esselunga chairman in 2011, left
all executive roles in 2013 and had not been seen at Esselunga's
headquarters on the outskirts of Milan for the past year.
But he remained involved in day-to-day management and no
major decision was taken without his blessing, sources said.
Caprotti consistently refused to sell out to rivals, fearing
the brand would vanish overnight.
He had long accused its Coop rivals of blocking his group's
expansion out of its northern stronghold, thanks to their links
to centre-left politicians, a charge the Coop businesses firmly
rejected. Esselunga had only just set up its first superstore in
the capital, Rome, which is expected to open next month.
Caprotti was viscerally attached to the company, having
built it from scratch to post sales of 7.3 billion euros in
2015, a rise of 4.3 percent, a growth rate nearly double the
According to a study by Mediobanca, Esselunga's revenue per
square metre is more than three times that of rivals Carrefour
and Auchan in Italy, and more than twice that of the dominant
player in the country - the "Coop" or cooperative supermarkets.
However Caprotti had his critics.
He ran the group like a family patriarch and did not groom a
successor among its managers, according to three former senior
company officials who said they quit out of frustration that
they could only do things his way.
"It's a cultural problem. In Italy a company is seen as an
extension of its founder, not as a separate entity," said Guido
Corbetta, a professor at Milan's Bocconi University and an
expert on family owned businesses.
($1 = 0.8925 euros)
(Additional reporting by Pamela Barbaglia in London, Valentina
Za in Milan, Francesca Piscioneri in Rome; Editing by Mark
Bendeich and Anna Willard)