By Stephen Jewkes
MILAN (Reuters) - Pietro Ferrero, joint CEO of chocolate maker Ferrero, died in an accident on Monday, raising questions over the future strategy of the group, which had been linked to a possible bid for dairy giant Parmalat.
Ferrero, maker of Nutella spread and Rocher chocolates, said in a statement the 48 year-old, who was joint chief executive with his brother Giovanni, had died after falling from a bicycle in South Africa, probably due to an ailment.
The family-owned group grabbed headlines in March by expressing an interest in finding an Italian solution to keep Parmalat, Italy's biggest listed food group, out of foreign hands.
Ferrero, which in over 60 years has turned itself into a 6 billion euro ($8.52 billion) business without making an acquisition, emerged from the shadows in 2009 when it mulled a bid for Cadbury, the world's second-largest confectionery company at the time.
It eventually pulled out of the sale and Kraft Foods Inc bought the British company for more than $18 billion.
The Ferrero brothers ran day-to-day operations at their company but it is widely acknowledged that the strings are pulled by family patriarch Michele Ferrero who took the reins in 1957 and is believed to be Italy's richest man.
At the time of the Cadbury bid, Italian newspapers reported that the publicity-shy Michele Ferrero was reluctant about the move while his two sons were keener on going ahead with a bid.
The unlisted Ferrero is based in the northwestern Italian town of Alba and employs more than 20,000 people. Its main market is Europe followed by America, Asia and Africa.
(Editing by Richard Chang)