In May 2015, using the Italian verb rottamare (‘to scrap’)—a catchphrase that Matteo Renzi used in his election campaign to indicate it was time for the old guard of politicians to make way for the new—Oscar Farinetti, founder and owner of the up-market food megastores Eataly calmly announced he had done just that. He had ‘scrapped’ himself by stepping aside and handing over the business, with its 4,000 employees and an annual turnover of 300 million euro, to his three sons and, eventually, his grandchildren. This was not an altogether surprising move: two years ago, he had transferred 60 percent of the family’s shares to his children and a year ago had relinquished his role as managing director.
Moreover, Farinetti’s decision was not wholly unexpected because, when one charts the career of this visionary retail entrepreneur, a distinct pattern emerges. Farinetti dislikes routine and enjoys a challenge. Over nearly four decades, Farinetti has continuously embarked on ambitious new retail projects at almost regular 10- to 12-year intervals.
Born on September 24, 1954, in Alba, Piedmont, Oscar Farinetti (who was baptised Natale) comes from a comfortable background. After dropping out of the economics programme of the University of Turin, at 24 he began working in the groceries and household appliances ‘hypermarket’ owned by his father, Paolo, who had been a prominent partisan commander during World War II, deputy mayor of their town and an adroit businessman.
By 1989, as his father entrusted more and more of the appliances part of the business to his son, Oscar had convinced his father to sell off the alimentary branch and to focus on retailing electronics as well as household appliances. Over the next decade, Farinetti was the driving force behind the Unieuro (and later Trony) stores. By 2002, when he sold it to the giant UK company Dixons, Farinetti had made Unieuro Italy’s largest chain of its kind.
The profits from this sale financed his next project. In 2007, through his friendship with Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, and his personal interest in gastronomy, Farinetti opened Eataly, the first supermarket vending solely Italian high-quality speciality products. A combination of the words eat and Italy, the first Eataly store, which was in Turin, was all about selling the best in Italian food and wine. Now a global chain, the majority of its signature three-storey outlets include a restaurant, bar, cooking school, wine cellar and a bookstore. However, within this formula, each store features something unique.
Today, Eatalys are found not only throughout Italy (including Florence) but around the world, from Osaka, Tokyo and Yokohama to Dubai, San Paolo, Istanbul, New York and Chicago. There are plans to open stores in London and Paris, Moscow, Seoul, Munich, and, in late 2015, another Eataly in New York (this one at the new One World Trade Center), followed, in 2016, by stores in Boston and Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, in 2008, Farinetti and a partner acquired the historic Fontanafredda winery of Serralunga d’Alba from the bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena; they set up the E. di Mirafiore cultural foundation in the town.
Known as a great communicator, Farinetti is also known for his infectious smile. Recipient of many awards and author of several books, his multiple interests evince his boundless curiosity. Controversy, however, has never spared him. The most recent incident was that, without a public tender process, he had been assigned two pavilions and 20 restaurants in rotation, one for each region of Italy, at the Expo 2015 in Milan. Farinetti, noting that ‘the mud machine against me is always in action,’ explained that, because of Eataly’s international reputation and its concern for biodiversity, he was invited to participate—which was subsequently confirmed by Italy’s anticorruption commissioner. Furthermore, he countered, even if there had been a tender, he would probably have won it. He also noted that it is unlikely he will make any money from his participation in the Expo as, given the short six months of the event, it would be almost impossible to recover his 7- to 8-million euro investment.
Now that he is officially ‘retired’ from Eataly, one cannot help but speculate about what venture Oscar Farinetti will take on next. There is sure to be one.