‘It wasn’t fair’: Leprino Foods heiress says billionaire uncle plotted against her
This story first ran on BusinessDen.com, a BizWest news partner.
As the reclusive billionaire James Leprino looked on Tuesday, one of his nieces told Denver jurors that in 2014 she was “shocked” when Leprino accused his own brother of cheating him and then cut that brother out of the family cheese business.
“The door is shut to you and your sisters doing anything in this building,” James Leprino, the CEO of Leprino Foods, told his niece Nancy Leprino in 2014, she testified.
Nancy Leprino’s voice shook as she read aloud from a letter she wrote to her uncle after that remark, asking that he reconcile with his brother, Nancy’s father Mike Leprino.
“I know grandpa and grandma are looking down from heaven and praying that you and dad work out your differences. You are brothers,” the letter said. “What you have created (at Leprino Foods) is breathtaking and truly inspiring, something my father always acknowledges.”
Nancy Leprino’s remarks dominated the first full day of testimony in a 10-day trial, which promises to unveil Leprino family drama as well as details about the inner workings of Leprino Foods, a private company. It is the largest maker of mozzarella in the world and provides cheese for the country’s largest pizza chains.
A jury of five women and three men chosen Monday must determine whether James Leprino and his daughters wrongfully pushed the late Mike Leprino and his daughters out of Leprino Foods and rendered their company stock worthless, costing them as much as $900 million.
James Leprino, a deeply private man, attended the trial Tuesday in a black suit and blue-gray tie. The 84-year-old businessman used an assistive listening device provided by the court and sat in a wheelchair near the courtroom entrance.
Nancy Leprino and her sister Mary sued Leprino Foods, James Leprino and two of his daughters in 2020. The plaintiffs own 17 percent of Leprino Foods and the defendants own 75 percent. Nancy’s sister Laura owns the remainder but is not a party in the case.
Nancy Leprino spent six hours on the witness stand explaining how the board of Leprino Foods, largely controlled by her uncle and two cousins, voted to kick her father off the board in late 2014 and then shut him and his daughters out of company decision-making entirely.
“Your dad cheated me,” James Leprino told her at one point, she testified. Nancy Leprino said she didn’t know what her uncle was referring to. “I was shocked.”
Mike Leprino transferred his 25-percent share of the company to his daughters before he died in 2018. James Leprino later told his nieces that the stock is worthless, Nancy Leprino testified.
“I knew something was really wrong then. It frightened me,” she said.
“Why did it frighten you?” her attorney, David TeSelle, asked.
“Because I was worried it was true,” she said.
James Leprino allowed himself and his daughters to loan their dividends from Leprino Foods back to the company, earning them hundreds of millions of dollars in interest, but didn’t allow his nieces to make those same loans, Nancy Leprino testified.
“It wasn’t fair,” she told jurors.
Attorneys for James Leprino have said the loans carried a small interest rate and Nancy Leprino made more money by investing her dividends elsewhere. They’ve also questioned Nancy and Mary Leprino’s claims that their shares in Leprino Foods are somehow worthless.
The company was worth nearly $4 billion in 2012, according to exhibits shown at the trial Tuesday, and Mike Leprino’s share was worth $634 million then. The company’s confidential balance sheets were also displayed on screens several times Tuesday.
Nancy Leprino’s grandfather immigrated from Italy to North Denver as a teenager in the 1910s and later opened a grocery store specializing in Italian ingredients. When large grocers forced it out of business in the 1950s, James Leprino turned it into a cheese company.
The headquarters of Leprino Foods at 1830 W. 38th Ave. in Sunnyside sits on the same corner as the former family store.