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

The Mail on Sunday - - News - From Clau­dia Joseph and Alessan­dra Mag­gio­rani IN MI­LAN

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.’

SHARED PAS­SION: Or­nella Barra, like Ste­fano, loves to work

‘ DIF­FI­CULT’: Bil­lion­aire boss Ste­fano Pessina KEPT WO­MAN: Ste­fano’s wife Bar­bara says she never has to work

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