PARMALAT How the Milk Spilled



Authors: Abdul Khader, Sanjib Datta,
Faculty Associate, Faculty Member
ICMR (IBS Center for Management Research).

Parmalat was a highly successful food company - that was until it entered bankruptcy protection in 2003. Investigations revealed that, for years the company had been using false accounting and complicated financial systems to create a picture of financial health, misleading investors and analysts alike.

In late-2003, when news broke out that Parmalat, one of the biggest and most successful companies of Italy had used fraudulent accounting for well over a decade and a half to hide its real financial position, people were only mildly surprised. After all, accounting scandals had almost become a trend of the times.

It all started with Enron, the American energy giant which broke down in 2001 following revelations that the company's huge success in a very short time had its roots in posting inflated profits and using complicated financial transactions to hide debts. The Enron fiasco led to lifting the veil on another American company, WorldCom, which eventually acquired the dubious distinction of being the biggest bankruptcy ever witnessed in business. While America was still reeling with the shock of the bankruptcy of two of its bigger companies, Europe did not lag behind. So while the US got Enron, WorldCom and several other big names, Europe responded with Ahold and Vivendi. Parmalat, though a big blow to Italy, was just another company added to the already long list of fraudulent companies and did not stir people too much.

Some analysts commented that accounting scandals were to the 2000s as environmentalism and sexual discrimination were to the 1990s. In other words, they were the most discussed and analyzed of all corporate activities. So common had they become that some business schools even introduced ethics courses for their accountancy students.

Parmalat, set up by Calisto Tanzi (Tanzi) in the 1960s, was a food company with a global presence. From milk to yoghurt, to juices and biscuits, it seemed impossible to eat or drink something without Parmalat having a presence in that category. The splashing milk drop logo of the company was one of the best recognized corporate symbols and the company seemed to stand for all that was good and healthy. That was, until the events of 2003 proved that behind the façade of goodness and health was an unhealthy penchant for complicated financial structures that milked the publicly held Parmalat Group to keep the Tanzi family companies running.

Tanzi was well known in Italy as a devout and sober person. He and his family were never ostentatious in the display of their wealth and were regular contributors' to charity. It seems ironical that the same Tanzi was languishing in prison for committing a fraud involving billions of euros.

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