Billionaire Mozzarella King won a family dispute trial that threatened his business

TNo melting mozzarella here.

Lepreno Foods, the world’s largest mozzarella maker, was forced to close in a family dispute that has been litigated in a Denver court for the past two weeks. But the jury sided with Leprino Foods and its billionaire owner, James Leprino, who is accused by two of his nieces of closing in on financial deals.

“The truth has come out in the last two weeks of this trial,” said Cliff Stricklin, a lawyer with Denver-based King & Spalding who represents Leprino Foods and its majority shareholders. “Within three hours they returned a verdict: rejecting the claims in their entirety. It ensures the future of Lepreno Foods and the legacy of James Lepreno.

The privately held manufacturer dominates the pizza cheese industry, supplying Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Little Caesars, among others. 85% of all pizza cheese comes from Lepreno, like most of the country’s whites. Lepreno Foods owns more than 50 patents and sells more than 1 billion pounds of cheese annually for $3.5 billion in annual revenue.

Until the trial, Leprino had not been photographed in public since 1978. The 85-year-old attended the trial in a wheelchair every day and stood up when the verdict was announced. As Stricklin approached Lepreno after the win, he gave an intangible cheesemaker a thumbs up and said, “OK.”

Leprino and his two daughters, Terri Leprino and Gina Vecchiarelli, together own $4.4 billion, or more than three-quarters of Leprino Foods. Forbes He estimated Leprino’s fortune at $1.9 billion. The total value of Lepreno Foods is $5.5 billion, the court said.

The remaining 25% of the stock is historically owned by James’ older brother, Mike, a successful independent banker and real estate developer. In the year When Mike Leprino died in 2018, his share went to his three daughters — Nancy and Mary Leprino, who led the lawsuit, as well as Laura, who is not a member of the legal complaint. The trial court estimated that Nancy and Mary Leprino’s stock was valued at $950 million. That’s a discount because they don’t have any control over the business.

The lawsuit was filed in 2020. Leprino has consistently maintained that the legal complaint is nothing more than an attempt to force minority shareholders to buy back their inherited stock or otherwise extract their shares and cash.

Leprino took over the family business in 1958 and turned his family’s grocery store in Denver’s Little Italy into a cheese empire. Lepreno, the youngest of five children born to Italian immigrants who could neither read nor write English, sold hand-rolled mozzarella balls with his family at his parents’ grocery store. After graduating high school in 1956, Leprino began working full-time at a grocery store with his father, and when the business struggled, Leprino learned that his friends spent their free time at neighborhood pizza joints. Local pizzerias were buying 5,000 pounds of cheese a week.

As I remember in 2017 Forbes Profile, “I thought, ‘This is a good market to continue in.’ I did too.

More from FORBESA family feud has forced a Domino’s cheese billionaire into court.More from FORBESThis secret billionaire cheese works for Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s

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