The Mail on Sunday
Myfatworkaholic . . . and THAT woman husband
The strange marital triangle of the new Boots boss and his lover on the board – by the wife he will never divorce
HE IS known as the ‘silver fox’ after masterminding the controversial £11billion takeover of chemists Alliance Boots, owner of the nation’s High Street supplier of cough medicine, nappies and tissues.
Italian billionaire Stefano Pessina – accused of selling out the company – backed American consortium Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in its battle against British financier Guy Hands to land Europe’s biggest private equity deal.
Yet despite having a personal fortune of £1.2billion and being ranked the 407th richest person on the planet by Forbes magazine, little is known about Signor Pessina, who became deputy chairman of Boots a year ago after negotiating a £7.5billion merger with his own pharmaceutical giant Alliance Unichem.
Now The Mail on Sunday can reveal the truth about the 65-year-old’s extraordinary lifestyle.
While he keeps his wife Barbara, a cousin of the renowned architect Richard Rogers, in a palatial apartment in Milan where she brought up their two children, he jets between the tax haven of Monaco and his offices around the world with his ‘life partner’, Ornella Barra, 53.
Speaking publicly for the first time about her husband, Barbara, 60, gives a fascinating insight into the ‘overweight workaholic’.
Despite separating 14 years ago, she revealed that he, as a Catholic, does not want a divorce and she still wears her massive diamond engagement ring and wedding ring.
‘He has never asked for a divorce,’ she insisted. ‘We have come to a status quo and I would hate to ruin that. He supports me and looks after me.
‘I’ve never had to ask him for anything. I’m very grateful to him. I have never worked. Life is much nicer this way. He recognises my worth and knows that I’m not crazy. I lead a very simple lifestyle.
‘We have a very good relationship and sometimes speak twice a day. Until the past two years, we spent every Christmas together. He tells me what he is up to and what he does and then we talk about our children – Elena, 31, is a public relations officer who lives in Paris, while Jacopo, 26, lives in London.
‘I never mention that woman,’ said Barbara. ‘My children have only met her recently. I try to keep out of the limelight. She has a much higher profile. I’m scared that she will get cross if I talk or do an interview.’
Barely 5ft tall with a birdlike frame and dyed flame-coloured hair, Barbara looks much younger than her 60 years. Conscious of health and fit- ness, she is a vegetarian and regularly plays golf, although she has given up skiing and playing tennis.
‘Stefano was much slimmer when I met him,’ she revealed. ‘He has put on loads of weight. He is now quite fat. I don’t know how he has so much stamina. He doesn’t do any sport. He must eat lots. He drinks red wine but no champagne because it doesn’t agree with him.’
It is more than 40 years since the couple met at Milan University. He was a 23-year-old nuclear physics student in his final year. She was 18 and in her first year studying philosophy. Both came from well-heeled middle-class families and gravitated towards each other.
They married in Venice in 1971 and lived in Milan, where Stefano worked in research. But within a few years he was turning around his family’s pharmaceutical business, Alleanza Farmaceutica, in Naples.
Laughing, Barbara said: ‘He never helped with the children. I had to bring them up on my own from day
one. He is a good man but he didn’t have much time for the family.
‘He is very intelligent, very charming, but restless. All he wanted to do was work, work, work. We had very few holidays. I admire him but he is very difficult to live with.
‘ Even when he goes to sleep at night, his mind mulls over work. He is obsessed with it. I know that during the takeover of Boots he was up doing deals until 6am.’
It was ultimately Stefano’s obsession with work that drove a wedge in their marriage. In 1982, he met Ornella Barra, a 28-year-old pharmacist. He was intrigued to find that she shared his work ethic.
The impeccably dressed Ornella – described as ‘a scary lady when it comes to business’ – had turned her family pharmacy Di Pharma into a thriving business.
Within four years he had merged their two companies under the name Alleanza Salute Italia and appointed Ornella managing director. They have since been inseparable, both personally and professionally. She is now on the board of Alliance Boots.
Yesterday, Stefano and Barbara were reunited in Venice where they hosted 300 guests at the wedding of their daughter Elena to an Italian lawyer.
Their joint appearance made a mockery of a statement by Stefano’s PR representative a month ago that he did not know whether Barbara was dead or alive. ‘Do I look dead?’ she asked. ‘I’m alive, here, living and breathing.’