The Monday Book: The sweet smell of success

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The Independent Culture
MARS IS taking over the earth. Not only does it dominate the global confectionery business, it also sells immensely profitable lines such as Uncle Ben's Rice, Whiskas and Pedigree Chum. This private company, based in Virginia, is run with manic zeal and paranoid secretiveness by John and Forrest Mars Jr, the sons of its bizarre creator.

The family is the third richest in the world, yet the brothers live frugally and clock in to work like the rest of their so-called "associates". These are addressed by their first names, lavishly rewarded and systematically terrorised. Such is the "corporate culture" at Mars that associates check the pet food by tasting it.

Mars owes the majority of its peculiarities to Forrest Sr, a tycoon so tigerish as to make most of the great beasts in the commercial jungle look like pussy cats. Born in 1904, the son of a small-time American confectioner, Forrest made a fortune in England during the Thirties, inventing the Mars bar and manufacturing it on assembly-line principles. His office was equally streamlined, open plan and non-bureaucratic. But Forrest, the antithesis of Quakerish Cadbury's and Rowntree's, behaved as though he were making bombs, not bon-bons. He drove his employees with such ferocity that the birthmarks on his forehead often pulsated blood red.

Forrest applied the same techniques to bringing up his children. But in 1974 he gave them the business, a nutty personal fiefdom that was also one of the most efficient multinational corporations in the world (Forrest Sr soon got bored with retirement; he founded a liqueur chocolate empire in Las Vegas, where he uses two-way mirrors to spy on his workers, who call their nonagenarian boss the "phantom of the candy factory").

Hershey, Mars's chief rival for mastery of the $14bn (pounds 8.75bn) confectionery market in America is a more orthodox organisation. Whereas the Mars brothers practise what an associate calls "seagull management" - "They swoop down, shit and fly away" - the Hershey organisation is governed by a standard executive hierarchy. Ranks of chocolate soldiers are marshalled against Mars. Yet Hershey's history is, if anything, the more remarkable.

The firm was founded in the 1890s by Milton Hershey, who had already become America's caramel tsar and then found a way of combining the incompatible ingredients of milk and chocolate. His mixture is sour and gritty to European (and even Canadian) palates. But it formed American taste. The nickel Hershey bar became synonymous with chocolate, especially after being supplied to GIs during the two world wars. Since it is not sweet enough to be completely satisfying, Americans soon began to eat a lot of it - the current annual figure is 25lb per stomach.

Milton was an experimenter and idealist. He spent millions of dollars in a doomed attempt to turn surplus cocoa butter into soap; it smelt so chocolaty that people tried to eat it. He also built a Utopian township, named Hershey, around his huge Pennsylvania factory. It was run on paternalistic lines and Milton checked to see whether householders cut their grass. The town's air was so permeated by chocolate that breathing seemed liable to induce tooth decay.

In 1918, when his beloved, childless wife died, Milton donated his entire estate to the orphanage that they had founded. Today, one of the richest educational institutions in the country, it gives America's underprivileged a smacking Hershey Kiss.

Joel Glenn Brenner, who was formerly a journalist on The Washington Post, is prone to elementary errors: she describes Slough as "a small industrial town about 30 miles north of London" and she thinks that the US entered the Second World War in 1942. There is also some question about her central argument. Mars is at war not just with Hershey, but with everyone.

But Brenner is a good storyteller, and she has an excellent story to tell. She gives a lively account of the history of chocolate, food of the gods to the Aztecs, aphrodisiac to Louis XV's mistresses, pot of gold to the "high-rolling cocoa-bean gnomes" of Zurich. And she deserves credit for penetrating the closed, Willy Wonka-like world of the chocolate makers, with their esoteric recipes, their clandestine processes and their obsession about industrial espionage - contractors called in to mend machinery at Mars, for example, are led through the plant blindfolded.

She uncovers fascinating episodes in the great confectionery contest: the search for the grail of chocolate that melts in your mouth but not in your hand; Mars's conquest of post-Communist Eastern Europe and the "Snickerisation of Russia"; Hershey's brilliant use of Steven Spielberg's film ET to promote Reese's Pieces (peanut-butter Smarties - ugh). In sum, this is bright, brittle but somewhat cloying stuff. It will appeal most to those with a literary sweet tooth, for Brenner sounds like a chocoholic and her prose gets as gooey as a Milky Way on a hot afternoon.

Piers Brendon