Goodness, greatness, Mars

LBSR spoke to fourth generation family member, Pamela Mars Wright, on what marks Mars out from the corporate crowd.

Mars is globally successful and family owned. LBSR spoke to fourth generation family member, Pamela Mars Wright, on what marks Mars out from the corporate crowd.


At the end of the 1980s, I spent an afternoon with the great management thinker Peter Drucker. He recounted stories of encounters with Sigmund Freud when he was a child in Vienna, coming to London to work with The Economist and his first break working with General Motors when he settled in the United States. He told me of his love of Trollope and of rereading Jane Austen every year to remind himself what great writing is. And, talking about his books, he observed that there was one big book that everyone in the business world aspires to write: How to Make a Million and Still Go to Heaven.

Drucker’s joking suggestion of a book title has a serious point. Greatness and goodness lie at the heart of many of the discussions about how best to manage, lead and shape corporations.

At times, the two appear mutually exclusive. Business greatness in terms of financial results is regularly achieved at the expense of any notion of ethical behaviour. Companies can appear, feel and be amoral, sometimes pursuing unethical means to achieve their commercial ends.

At the same time, we have all encountered organisations whose pursuit of goodness and a moral agenda has limited their commercial achievements. Truth be told, even in this age of corporate social responsibility, employee engagement and much more, the number of companies achieving commercial success through enlightened working practices and policies within clear ethical guidelines remains painfully small in number. Think of some names of the corporate great and good and they are likely to number less than the fingers of one hand.

While a selection of companies may come to mind, the name of Mars Incorporated is probably not one of them. Some companies trumpet their CSR initiatives and overall goodness, and positively blast out any glad commercial tidings, but the food manufacturing giant has long gone about its business with a minimal amount of fuss. It prefers engaging meaningfully with stakeholders to media puffery.

This starts at the company’s HQ in McLean, Virginia. It unassumingly houses a mere 80 people. You would imagine it to be the HQ of a medium-sized local business that is prosperous and successful without being globally ambitious. There are no executive parking spaces. Inside, there is no expensively assembled art collection (Cubism doesn’t help sell chocolate). There is no lavish atrium. No helipad. The global giant eschews the usual corporate largesse for studied understatement.

It helps, of course, when a company is privately owned. Mars is now the third largest privately held company in the United States (behind Cargill and Koch Industries). Mars can keep details of its business performance, organisation and ambitions to itself. And so it has.

Commercially Mars has a lot to shout about. Its chocolate brands include M&M’s®, Snickers ®, Galaxy®, Milky Way® and Twix®. Then there are its chewing gums, from Orbit ® to Extra® under the Wrigley name (acquired by Mars in 2008), Uncle Ben’s®, Dolmio® et al in the food market and not forgetting its hugely successful pet food brands, including Whiskas®, Royal Canin®, Sheba ® and Kitekat®.

All this adds up to net annual sales of more than $33bn for the company that has over 72,000 employees – ‘Associates’ in Mars-speak.

Sweet beginnings

Mars began life in 1911 when Franklin C. Mars made the first Mars candies in his kitchen in Tacoma, Washington. In the 1920s, Forrest E. Mars Sr joined his father in business and together they launched the Milky Way® bar. In 1932, Forrest moved to the United Kingdom with a dream of building a business based on the objective of creating a “mutuality of benefits for all stakeholders”.

He took with him the recipe for the Mars® bar, and established his business in a rented factory in Slough. At that time, solid chocolate blocks were popular and the Mars ® bar with its soft caramel and nougat filling was unique. Made entirely by hand, the Mars® bar sold locally for tuppence a time.

Word of the remarkable confectionery bars soon spread and Forrest had to double his staff in just six months. The Milky Way® bar was introduced to the British in 1935, and was followed a few years later by another Mars® classic, Maltesers®.

The business was later run by Forrest Mars Jr (pictured) and the family is still actively involved. Pamela Mars Wright is the great granddaughter of the company’s founder and daughter of Forrest Mars Jr. She was Chairman of the company from 2004 to 2008 and is now on the company’s board and chairs Banfield Pet Hospitals, which Mars owns a majority share in. She is also the ‘family ambassador’ for Wrigley and for the Royal Canin® brand.

To the outsider, it seems obvious that a member of the family would gravitate towards working for the family business – especially one so successful. Not so, says Pamela Mars Wright: “I didn’t actually think I would work in the business. It was never a conscious thought.” Her childhood was international. She lived in the Netherlands and France, where her father worked for some time. “I thought my father went to work at a factory and that’s what he did,” she says. “I really do not have any recollection that I knew what my father did as a job until I came to the United States.” She graduated from Vassar, a liberal arts college in New York, and then worked for an advertising firm. She joined Mars as an operations supervisor in 1986, later becoming a plant manager and manufacturing director of Mars Australia.

Whiskas and whispers

Being a family member in any family-owned business raises issues. Fellow workers treat you differently. And, then there is your own family. “People always say wouldn’t it be exciting to be in a family business and I say, yes it is. There are lots of advantages to family businesses.

They’re lots of fun. You have people who understand what you’re going through. There’s all those kinds of things,” says Mars Wright. “On the other hand, I ask people to think of their brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, aunts and uncles and ask whether they would like to work with these people every single day? Families are families. This is my reality and I just don’t think people think about it like that.”

Being family-owned usually comes with a continuing whispering campaign that the family is thinking of selling out. Such whispers have rarely been heard around Mars even though it is now led by a non-family member – Paul S. Michaels – and only one family member is on the management team.

I asked Mars Wright if there had ever been any doubt over the years that being a family-owned business was the right way forward for the company? “No,” she replies with certainty. “There have been times Associates might have worried, but not us. I think people are very happy with where we are and how things are run. I never get the feeling that there’s this kind of underlying worry about the family.”

What, then, are the advantages of family ownership? “The number one thing is that it gives you an amazing amount of freedom to run your business the way you want,” she says. “We have normal family dynamics but, then again, I would argue that there’s lots of managers who have the same issues. We want to keep it private. That’s important to us because it means we can do the things we want to do. If we want to allow our Associates to go and become involved in volunteer programmes we can.

“Don’t get me wrong. We’re very competitive. We want to win. We want to beat our competition. We want to be number one. Absolutely. But at the expense of everything else? Absolutely not.  Doing things simply because they are going to return us more money? No. It’s more about doing it because we love what we do and we’re passionate about it and it’s fun.”

Looking at the expanding family and the growing family business, the capacity for divergence appears enormous. “As a family we have to work to make sure that we all stay somewhat aligned, that we all have the same goals, the same mission, and the same desires because it’s easy to let the differences rule you rather than the similarities,” says Mars Wright. Maintaining this alignment is, she says, a matter of communication, clear objectives, shared values and working at it.

Principles with realism

Mars’ general understated air can suggest a slightly old fashioned business. But the reality is that, with its leanly staffed HQ, open offices and lack of the normal corporate hierarchical airs – such as executive parking spaces and dining areas – Mars has been behaving like a sexy Silicon Valley company for years.

Internally, Mars’ communication is clear and direct, built around adherence to its Five Principles – quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom. The Principles are available in book form and are given to all Associates. Of course, many companies have similar statements of what matters to them – values, missions, goals, and so on fill the flimsy walls of corporate buildings throughout the world. Most are as decorative as they are generic.

Countering such cynicism, Mars Wright injects a note of realism. “It would be unfair to say that other companies don’t exercise their principles,” she says. “They do. I don’t by any stretch of the imagination want to say that Mars is so much better than other companies. You can always find things that you talk about that you don’t practise as well as you should. At the end of the day, businesses are still run by human beings so, as a result, we make mistakes, but we really do practise our Principles and expect our Associates to practice them.”

Mutuality and freedom stand out from Mars’ Five Principles as slightly different – not what you would expect. But, how do the principles inform major business decisions? “People will make mistakes with or without the Five Principles,” says Mars Wright. “Sometimes our decisions will not be popular. This is business. We have had to shut factories down from time to time. It is a horrible thing but we use the Five Principles in making that decision.”

Mars has occasionally strayed from the Five Principles. Mars Wright recalls an employee survey done at the company a number of years ago that brought the Five Principles back on to the agenda. “The survey came back and basically it was horrible. It was a wake-up call,” she recalls with a shudder. “We weren’t falling apart at the seams or anything like that, but what was evident was that we weren’t living the Five Principles. We weren’t the company we thought. We weren’t the company we thought our Associates thought we were. So, they were five words up on a wall. Everybody could repeat them. Anybody can repeat five words. It’s not that complicated, but we weren’t living them. So we decided, to go back to the Five Principles and to really focus on them.”

In 2013, the company instituted an annual survey to understand how well the Five Principles were showing up in the day-to-day business. The results from 2013 were decidedly better than the original piece of work. The company believes that more important than the results of any one survey year is using the survey as a trigger for making the Five Principles part of business conversations and daily experience for Associates.

Great places

The Five Principles are the cornerstone of Mars’ culture and management. It is repeatedly recognised as a far-sighted employer. Most recently Mars was selected as one of the World’s Best Multinational Workplaces by Great Place to Work. The ranking, the world’s largest annual study of workplace excellence, identifies the top 25 best multinationals in terms of workplace culture.

Among other things, Mars is lauded for increasing the proportion of women in management roles by one per cent each year to maintaining 38 per cent globally. “At Mars, we think an important part of our success is having a team of Associates that mirror the diversity of our consumers around the world. This diversity also gives us the perspectives we need to look at business challenges and opportunities from multiple angles and points of view,” comments Mars President Paul S. Michaels. “We want Mars to be a place where Associates can enjoy long, rewarding careers working on fun and iconic brands; making a difference in our communities and tackling some of the challenges that Mars and society share; and pursuing lifelong learning and personal development.”

“We need to give Associates the opportunity to grow and learn – otherwise they will leave,” observes Mars Wright with forceful simplicity. Associates new to the business are embraced through an ‘Essence of Mars’ course, which aims to provide the foundation for early success in their careers at Mars. Training courses are available globally in 22 languages and aim to support associate development and understanding of how to apply Mars’ Five Principles to their work and business decisions. More than 40 per cent of Mars Associates every year participate in learning programmes worldwide through Mars University. This is equivalent to 400,000 learning hours every year.

Other key programmes include the Mars Volunteer Program where in 2012 more than 12,500 Associates volunteered more than 50,000 hours. Additionally, the Mars Ambassador Program (MAP) enables up to 100 Associates to spend between one and six weeks all over the world improving Mars’ communities and developing their own leadership skills.

“You make money to put it back into the company to do other things. It is never just about making money. When we invest in a sustainability project there are other returns,” says Mars Wright. “I see all of our Associates as family members. I want them to see the company as their legacy. I walk around a factory and find people who are very proud of what they do. That’s very humbling and that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

“I don’t need anyone in the world to say that Mars is a great company but the best thing in the world is when an Associate says this is a great company to work for or when I encounter people who are the second or third generation of Mars Associates in their families.” Goodness, greatness, Mars.

Mars partners with London Business School on its High Performance Business School Programme, a customised Executive Education programme. Mars is also a member of the School’s flagship Global Business Consortium, which brings together senior delegates from a diverse range of organisations to explore different business models, in different industries and in different territories around the world.

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