The View

The billionaire Mars family leveraged this one personality trait to drive global success

Forrest E Mars Jr helped transform the confectionary company into a US$35 billion colossus using his father’s focus and a corporate culture that some say was paranoid

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 10:40pm

There are no prizes for identifying either the company nor the product associated with the name Forrest E Mars Jr who died last week because its iconic Mars Bar is produced in an astonishing number of countries and, for people like myself, this sticky and quite wonderful confection was very much part of their childhood.

The same goes for the ubiquitous Milky Way, possibly the Snickers bar, not forgetting M&Ms. In other words there is absolutely no mystery over what Mars Inc. does. Nor can its success be underrated given its vast global expansion and dominance of the confectionary market.

...not only did the scions respect their father’s business acumen but they closely followed his business philosophy

The secret of Mars’ success can be summed up in a single word: focus. Added to this is a fanatical devotion to quality. This is reflected in the company policy of throwing away M&M candies when the “M”, supposed to be stamped in the dead centre of the chocolate buttons, is found to be off-centre.

As for serious commitment, many obituaries of Mars Jr noted the often repeated anecdote about his father, Forrest E Mars Sr who said he was a religious man who got down on his knees to intone: “I pray for Milky Way. I pray for Snickers.”

Yet, like almost every great business, it was not always plain sailing, Mars got off to a rocky start when the butter cream candy devised by Mars Jr’s grandfather failed to make any impact. According to legend it was Forrest Mars Sr who found a way of incorporating chocolate malt into what was then called the Mar-O-Bar, by the time the whole thing was coated in chocolate a new product emerged called the Milky Way, still one of the world’s biggest selling confectionary products.

Forrest Sr is also credited with inventing M&M’s and here lies another story that is rather typical of how businesses evolve, splutter and get into competition. M&M stands for the names of Mars and Murrie families who once worked closely together, with the later providing the chocolate for Mars’ confections. However William Murrie was also busy developing his own brand: you might have heard of it, it’s called Hershey, which like Mars became a roaring success and as both companies grew, they grew apart and developed a bitter rivalry.

It is often said that there are no friends in politics but this maxim is equally applicable to business where friendships can sour as a result of success, just as easily as a consequence of failed partnerships.

By all accounts both Mars senior and junior were far from being warm cuddly individuals. The father had a violent temper and tolerated little criticism. He also refused to allow his children to eat candy. This clearly was not a loving family, as his sons would not even tolerate mention of their father until after his death.

The chronicler of both Mars and Hershey, Joel Glenn Brenner, wrote of Forrest Sr’s children that although they feared their father they ended up following his way of doing things so that “instead of inspiring loyalty and devotion, their manner bred paranoia and insecurity”. Yet in his book, The Emperors of Chocolate, Brenner concluded that not only did the scions respect their father’s business acumen but they closely followed his business philosophy. One important aspect of this was a commitment to sharing the success of the company with its employees.

So, what does all this tell us? First, there is the obvious point that you don’t have to be nice to succeed in business but the idea that ranting and raging is the best way of getting results ignores the important caveat that you can only rant and rage successfully if there is an underlying plan of how to develop the company and a solid commitment to making it work. Also, however unpleasant you are, make sure that employees are properly rewarded and respected.

After their father’s death the sons began an ambitious process of global expansion and diversification that resulted in the acquisition of companies including, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Pedigree pet food and Uncle Ben’s Rice. With his brother John, Mars Jr managed to boost annual turnover from US$1 billion in 1975, when they took over the company, to US$35 billion.

Because Mars continues to be privately held it is not easy to say how well the diversification process has worked but we do know that the company now has 80,000 employees in 78 countries. We also know that Mars has stuck to expansion within the consumer branded product sector, unlike some companies who seem to believe that because they are good at, say, property development, they are equally likely to be brilliant when it comes to developing hi-tech companies. Readers will have little difficulty identifying corporations that fit this bill.

The bottom line here is that focus really works.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong broadcaster, writer and entrepreneur