Pasta empire heir is former Formula One driver

Barilla Group vice-chairman Paolo Barilla says the Italian pasta and bakery products brand is looking to establish its identity in Asian markets.
Barilla Group vice-chairman Paolo Barilla says the Italian pasta and bakery products brand is looking to establish its identity in Asian markets.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

The fourth-generation owner, who quit motor racing and joined the family business, is getting acquainted with Asian markets

The Barilla Group - a leading pasta- maker with a 140-year legacy - may be known for its iconic blue boxes of pasta worldwide, but its owners still have plenty to learn about the Asian market.

Its 56-year-old vice-chairman, Mr Paolo Barilla, who is one of the fourth-generation owners of the pasta empire, says: "The Asian market is different because it didn't have Italian immigrants. We can't come in and say you must eat this dish.

"We want to propose our product as an option and establish our identity and relations in the trade before going any further."

Mr Barilla, who was in town to mark the brand's 140th anniversary, acknowledges that the Barilla products stocked in Singapore are just a small selection of what is available in Europe and the United States.

Here, supermarket shelves feature a range of pasta and sauces as well as new bakery products under the brand Mulino Bianco. Barilla officially established a presence here in 2011, although its products have been in Singapore longer due to imports by independent distributors.

In the US, for example, there are microwaveable ready-to-eat meals, which are unlikely to be sold in Singapore yet.

Mr Barilla, who visits Asia once a year, says: "We want to learn from the current selection and how people react to it." He will be heading to Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur as well.

He and his two older brothers run the Barilla group, which started as a bread and pasta shop in Parma, Italy, in 1877. It now has 28 production sites and exports to more than 100 countries. Every year, its plants churn out 1.7 million tonnes of food products.

The group also runs food academy Academia Barilla and a think- tank called Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, both of which are located in Parma.

Although eating pasta is the norm in his family, Mr Barilla made pasta his passion only after leaving his motor-racing life in 1990 following what he calls an "unsuccessful" Formula One season, as he was replaced by another driver to represent Italian racing team Minardi.

"I would have liked to go on forever. But I stopped while I was still keen to learn something new. When you stop later, it's more difficult," says Mr Barilla, who has driven for teams such as Alfa Romeo, BMW and Porsche.

He adds: "To change was very difficult. I had to move from the adrenaline of racing to producing pasta, which is a slow business. It required a lot of discipline, but my passion developed."

So is the next generation being groomed for the business? Mr Barilla, who is listed on Forbes as having a net worth of US$1.49 billion (S$2.05 billion), says they are "not pushed or obliged" to join the company.

Till today, pasta remains a comfort food for him. He is married to an Italian housewife, 45, and has a four-year-old daughter, who, like him, enjoys eating spaghetti.

"After my travels, I just want pasta," he says.

"Pasta is also a form of discipline. We cook pasta until it is al dente. So when it's ready, it's ready. Pasta doesn't wait. That's the social aspect of pasta - a symbol of getting everyone together at the table."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Italian pasta giant wants to just say hello'. Print Edition | Subscribe