Ferrero CEO's £542m dividend under fire over firm's tax liability

Rupert Neate Wealth correspondent

Giovanni Ferrero, scion of the Italian chocolate empire that makes Kinder Surprise, Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, is paying himself and his family a €642m (£542m) dividend in one of Europe’s biggest-ever paydays.

The huge annual dividend payment comes as the company paid just £110,000 tax in the UK last year, despite selling £419m worth of chocolates and other snacks in Britain.

Ferrero, who is Italy’s richest man with a €29bn (£24bn) fortune, has paid himself and his family more than €2bn in dividends over the past decade. Over the same period the company, which also owns TicTacs and the UK’s 109-year-old chocolate brand Thornton’s, paid less than £500,000 in UK taxes.

Tax experts have accused the company of structuring the business in a “complex manner” in order to pay as little tax as possible. Last year the UK business paid a £334m “cost of sales” charge to Ferrero’s holding company in low-tax Luxembourg. That led to the company making a pre-tax profit of just £9.7m , and the firm paid UK taxes of just £110,000.

Ferrero UK said it had lost so much money in the UK over the years that it had stored up “unused tax losses of £22.5m available for offset against future profits”.

Robert Leach, a tax accountant, said: “Ferrero Rocher appears to be shifting its profits overseas to reduce its UK tax liability. The company is shifting the profits to Luxembourg, and shifting that to Monaco – where there are no taxes.

Ferrero Rocher, the taste of success. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

“The UK company accounts show that Ferrero has not broken even for many years. No parent company would keep a loss-making company going year after year, the fact that Ferrero Group is doing so is in effect an admission that it is exporting profits.

“Basically, this is chocolate and hazelnut wrapped in some fancy packaging – it should not cost much to make. So I would ask the company, what is costing £334m? I would ask Giovanni Ferrero, ‘Why are you still selling chocolate in the UK, when you don’t make a profit?’”

Related: Ferrero Rocher chocolates may be tainted by child labour

Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP who hopes to be re-elected as chairwoman of the Commons business select committee, said the government must intervene to prevent companies such as Ferrero using “opaque tax arrangements” to cheat the taxpayer.

“The rules for firms like Ferrero Rocher and everyone else are simple: tax should be paid where the revenue is earned,” she said. “If the money is earned in the UK, the tax should be going to the Treasury to help fund public services like education and health on which these firms rely.

“The government needs to stop sitting on its hands and act to stop firms diverting potential UK tax revenues to offshore destinations.

“British business is broken. We need far more scrutiny and transparency about the tax structures of these increasingly complex companies. At present, the big losers under the current system are British taxpayers, while the winners are the big firms swelling their profit, boardroom salaries and dividends on the back of some highly questionable tax arrangements.”

Giovanni Ferrero, 55, Ferrero Group’s executive chairman and grandson of Pietro Ferrero – who founded the company in a small pastry shop in Alba, northwest Italy in 1946 – approved the huge dividend after the company made record profits of €928m last year.

The dividend is paid to the Ferrero family’s private wealth management office FEDESA in Monaco, as reported by Bloomberg. There is no income tax in Monaco, so the family will collect the sum tax-free. A spokeswoman for the company and the family declined to comment.

Ferrero Group is entirely owned by the Ferrero family, but the company declined to state how much of the firm is owned by each family member. The dividend payments have lifted the family up the global wealth rankings, and in 2008 they overtook the family of media tycoon and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to become Italy’s richest family. Berlusconi has fallen to the fourth-richest Italian with a €7.4bn fortune.

Giovanni Ferrero is the richest person in Italy and the world’s 27th-wealthiest, sandwiched between Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, and the Tesla founder, Elon Musk, according to the estimates calculated by the Bloomberg Billionaires list.

He took over as co-chief executive with his brother, Pietro Ferrero Jr, following the death of their father, Michele Ferrero, in Monaco in 2015. Pietro, the chosen heir, died of a heart attack in 2011 while cycling in South Africa, leaving Giovanni as the sole CEO. He moved on to become executive chairman in 2017.

Michele Ferrero was known for commuting by helicopter every day from his Monte Carlo villa to the company headquarters in Alba, Piedmont.