Obituaries: Forrest Mars

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FORREST MARS led a family that controlled one of the largest, most successful - and most secretive - confectionery businesses in history. The chocolate bar which bears his name is among the best-known brands in the world, and he was among the richest men in America. But a recent edition of America's Who's Who carried not a single line about him.

In the absence of fact, legend flourished. Mars was likened to Howard Hughes, and his company to the CIA, its equally reclusive neighbour in McLean, Virginia, just across the Potomac river from Washington DC. He was said to possess a volcanic temper that would turn the birthmarks on his forehead scarlet, and an obsession for the family business bordering on religious zealotry.

According to Fortune magazine, at one meeting with Mars executives, he dropped to his knees, praying for the company's products, one by one. On another occasion, he reputedly took his son John to meet some marketing executives - and instructed him to spend the rest of the meeting on his knees in prayer while they discussed sales strategy. "Which," says a biographer, "John did."

Even after he handed over Mars to his three children in 1973, Forrest would bear down on them like an avenging spirit, phoning them at all hours to complain about some perceived failure in managing the business. As late as 1992, recounted Joel Glenn Brunner in his recent book The Emperors of Chocolate, Forrest was sufficiently upset at the way things were going that he called the chairman of the Swiss company Nestle to discuss a buy- out.

Mars was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1904, but aged six, after his parents separated, went to live in Canada with his grandparents. He and his father set up a thriving confectionery company, but then fell out. In the early 1930s, Forrest left for Europe, armed with the foreign rights for Mars' products - first for Switzerland to work at Nestle, then to the UK. Slough became the chocolate capital of Britain, and the Milky Way bar on which they had made their fortune in the US was slightly modified to become the Mars Bar.

In 1939 he returned home and launched the M&M, America's equivalent of the Smartie, inspired by small sugar-coated chocolates he saw soldiers eating behind the lines in the Spanish Civil War. He conceived it as a wartime joint venture with William Murrie, then president of Hersheys, later Mars' greatest rival. Hence, it is said, the brandname M&M.

Once peace returned, Mars thrived as never before. The chocolate empire expanded to take in such products as Uncle Ben's Rice, a range of snack foods, and the Pedigree and Whiskas petfoods. Forrest Mars was said to have sampled these as keenly as he did the chocolates, to make sure standards stayed perfect.

The wider public had little idea of the giant corporation in their midst. Mars might employ 30,000 people world-wide, including 5,500 in Britain, and generate an estimated $20bn (pounds 12.8bn) in sales. But its headquarters remained a two-storey red-brick building with only a tiny nameplate to denote what was within.

Unencumbered by such considerations as shareholders, Mars never published annual accounts, leaving analysts only to guess at profitability. A condition of working for the company was a ban on talking to the press. On the premises, egalitarianism prevailed. Mars was a pioneer of the open-plan office.

The death of Forrest Mars unlocks trusts which had prevented his three children, Forrest junior, Jacqueline and John, the current president, from selling the company. Mars therefore could go public. If so, the secrecy would vanish for good.

Rupert Cornwell

Forrest Mars, businessman: born Tacoma, Washington 1904; married (two sons, one daughter); died Miami 1 July 1999.