Emilio Lavazza, who died Tuesday at age 78, started out delivering ground coffee door-to-door to restaurants around Turin, Italy, where his grandfather founded the company as a grocery store in 1895.
Lavazza became a national brand in the decades after World War II, and today is Italy’s biggest-selling coffee with almost 50% of the retail market.
But it wasn’t until Mr. Lavazza became CEO of Luigi Lavazza Spa in 1971 that the company began testing foreign markets.
Today, Lavazza espresso is brewed in more than 90 countries; the company says it is the sixth-largest purchaser of green coffee beans in the world.
The company credits Mr. Lavazza with having the idea in 1970 of putting coffee in vacuum-sealed packages for export, a practice since adopted by most producers. At a coffee laboratory in Turin, Lavazza developed coffee capsules for single-shot brewing and other technical innovations in roasting and vending. A Lavazza partnership with Catalan gastronome Ferran Adrià produced such edible novelties as coffee “caviar.”
Lavazza began opening coffee bars and training centers abroad, and in recent years expanded into India and Brazil.
In the 1960s, Mr. Lavazza developed the characters “Carmencita and Caballero,” stars of a beloved Italian television ad campaign. Later, he initiated award-winning ad campaigns featuring celebrities such as the singer Luciano Pavarotti and movie star Nino Manfredi. The company still produces an edgy annual photo calendar shot by the likes of Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz.
Mr. Lavazza, who was knighted in 1991 and known in Italy as the “King of Coffee,” was affectionately addressed as “Signor Emilio” by his employees. His death follows that of Ernesto Illy, who for decades ran Trieste-based Illy caffe Spa, two years ago this month. The two men propelled a postwar Italian espresso boom that spread the coffee-making technique to an international audience.
Mr. Lavazza lived all his life in Turin—home to other Italian business dynasties including Fiat’s Agnelli and Nutella’s Ferrero families. Not unlike Mr. Ferrero, Mr. Lavazza shied away from the public eye.
The company is still privately held, and fourth generations of Lavazzas are among the company’s senior management. Mr. Lavazza retired in 2008.
A rabid sports fan, Mr. Lavazza once reportedly turned down the presidency of his local Turin football team. The company was a sponsor of the 1998 World Cup in France.
In a rare 2003 interview with the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore, Mr. Lavazza spoke of passions for fishing, jazz, and collecting toy soldiers—so many that storing them became a sore point with his wife. He was also a fan of murder mysteries, and wrote two himself.
—Stephen Miller contributed to this article.
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