AT 6.30AM SHARP, John Mars pulls his 1989 Jeep station wagon into the small, empty parking lot at 6885 Elm Street, in the Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia. He parks toward the rear of the unadorned, unmarked two-storey brick building. Except for the coffee shop serving breakfast next door, the neighbourhood is quiet.
Today, as usual, John is wearing a blue shirt, striped tie, dark slacks and thick-soled shoes that have long since lost their polish. At 56, he slouches as he walks. His eyes never leave the pavement as he hurries into the headquarters of one of the largest, and most obscure, companies in the world.
Inside, the offices are dark. He unlocks the basement door, flicks on the lights and takes the stairs to the second floor. The time clock reads 6.40. He pulls out his time card, marked J F Mars, and does what few chief executives in America would even dream of doing: he punches in.
Behold the planet Mars Inc, where all employees are called 'associates' and everyone from the president down is paid a 10 per cent bonus for arriving on time. There are no perks here - no corporate office suites, no company cars, no reserved parking spaces, no executive washrooms. There are no private offices, either. Four glass-enclosed conference rooms provide the only sense of privacy; a smattering of potted plants and some company-related pictures are the only decoration. This is the nerve centre of a multinational, multibillion-dollar empire, but it looks more like a back office.
John and his older brother, Forrest Jnr, share the role of chief executive. They sit in a back corner with their sister, Jacqueline, who serves as corporate vice-president. They share one secretary between them.
It is not the kind of life one might imagine for a family whose net worth is, according to Fortune magazine, dollars 12.5bn - the fifth largest in the world. But then, there is much about the Mars family and its corporation that is unimaginable.
LET'S START with the numbers. With worldwide sales of more than dollars 12bn annually, Mars is bigger than such corporate giants as McDonald's and Kellogg, and four times the size of its arch-rival, Hershey Foods. It has 18 per cent of UK confectionery sales. Although its most famous product in Britain is the eponymous chocolate bar (confusingly named 'Milky Way' in America), along with Twix, Bounty, Maltesers, Snickers and M&Ms, Mars is much more than just a sweets company. Its 'main meal' foods include Yeoman mashed potato, the Dolmio range of ready-to-cook pastas and sauces, and Uncle Ben's, which leads the field in parboiled rice sales. Even more crucially, Mars's petfood arm includes brand names such as Whiskas, Pedigree Chum, Kitekat and Trill; it sells almost as much petfood as it does confectionery. With more than dollars 5bn of Mars petfood sales around the world last year, only Nestle comes close.
But if Mars's universe of products is among the world's best known, the organisation behind the brands is not. Since its founding in 1922, the privately held company, which has its American headquarters in McLean, has operated inside a fortress of silence which has been likened to the CIA (whose own HQ is only two miles away). Requests for information about the business have routinely gone unanswered. Family members have shunned the press, avoided the limelight and refused to be photographed. The family's penchant for privacy extends to all 70 Mars divisions and to the company's 28,000 employees worldwide, who are not permitted to talk to outsiders about their work. But last year, mostly to counter increasingly negative treatment in the American tabloids, the family reversed its policy of silence, and as it opened up its world to the Press, a picture emerged of a company that defies many of the axioms which the modern corporate community holds sacred:
Status at Mars is a dirty word. No one has an office, everyone makes his own photocopies, everyone handles his own telephone calls and nobody flies first class.
Bureaucracy is anathema. Writing memos is against corporate policy and everyone, including the family, works on a first-name basis. Meetings take place only 'as needed'.
Wages are tied directly to the company's performance. If sales explode, associates can earn bonuses of up to five, 10, even 15 weeks' salary. But if sales shrink, so does income.
Nearly every penny earned is ploughed back into the business. John, Forrest Jnr and Jackie receive only nominal dividends. Each earns a salary, which fluctuates like everyone else's and is said to be around dollars 1m each.
Mars is almost entirely debt-free. The company financed its expansion into a global conglomerate with more than dollars 12bn in sales using its own cash - virtually unheard of in today's leveraged business world.
Cleanliness is an obsession. On any given day, the company boasts, the acceptable level of bacteria on a Mars factory floor is less than the average in a household sink. Conveyor belts gleam, pipes shine and fixtures that may be a decade old appear brand- new. The slightest suspicion of contamination is enough to halt production for hours.
Quality is a compulsion. Perfection in tiny details such as the squiggle on top of a chocolate bar or the M on the M&M is painstakingly pursued. Millions of M&Ms are rejected for sale every day because their Ms missed the mark or their shells didn't glow like headlights. A pinhole in a single Snickers is cause enough to destroy an entire production run.
The idea that a multibillion-dollar conglomerate operates very successfully without the normal trappings of a successful business is a little hard to swallow. But conventional wisdom melts in the hands of the Mars family, whose values, precepts and eccentricities permeate every aspect of the business. These characteristics are the company's greatest strength. They may be its greatest weakness as well.
ON ONE LEVEL, Mars Inc is a lean, mean money-making machine that should be the envy of every company in the world. But on another, Mars functions like a massive version of Mars and Son. Mixing family and business can produce a dangerous brew - so dangerous that fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation family businesses are virtually non-existent. There is no long-term model for this way of achieving success.
In 1988, Mars lost its long-held position as America's confectionery king. Suddenly, it was forced to rethink the way it had always done business. In some ways, the shake-up worked: Mars regained its US supremacy. But in other ways, it failed. In the past year, half a dozen top executives have left the company. According to some of those executives, and others who have moved on, Mars is a difficult, demanding place to work. But the real problem, they say, is that - in a time of rapid change in the global marketplace - the ultimate authority to innovate and adapt resides in the Mars family.
'If they didn't invent it,' says Al Poe, one of the former executives, 'they don't want it.'
But they did invent it. And that's where the story begins.
IN THE DEBATE over the future of Mars, one thing is certain: the company's qualities, and quirks, can be traced back to one man, Forrest E Mars Snr, and an idea called the Milky Way.
Born just after the turn of the century, Forrest was the only son of Ethel M and Frank C Mars, an unsuccessful candy salesman. When Forrest was six, Frank Mars remarried and moved to Minnesota. Forrest went to live in Canada with his grandparents. In a video film made for the family archives, Forrest joked that when he set out to seek his fortune, he never even considered the confectionery business. He believed there was more money to be made in coal than in sweets, so he enrolled at the University of California to study mining. From the start, he displayed a keen business sense. To pay for his room and board, he took a part-time job in the school cafeteria and wound up, in his words, 'the richest kid' on campus. By reorganising the menus to match the meats that he could buy at steep discounts, Forrest earned an average of dollars 100 a week in 1923 - a fortune so vast he cancelled most of his classes to concentrate on business.
When the cafeteria closed for the summer break, he joined a sales team and toured the country hawking Camel cigarettes. In Chicago one night, he and the other salesmen plastered every lamp post, every storefront, every car with Camel posters, Forrest said, because his boss told him to leave a trail showing the world he had been there. The outrageous marketing ploy made headlines and landed Forrest in jail. His estranged father bailed him out.
Since father and son had last seen each other, Frank had gone bankrupt twice. His latest venture, the Mar-O-Bar Co, was only a mild success. Founded with dollars 400 in a one-room apartment above a sweet factory in Minneapolis, the business was built on butter creams and the Mar-O-Bar itself, a gooey combination of chocolate, nuts and caramel.
On that summer's day in Chicago, Forrest said, he was the one who gave Frank Mars the idea that turned Mar-O-Bars into millions. Over malted milks at the five-and-dime store, Forrest asked his father, 'Why don't you put a chocolate-malted drink in a candy bar?'
'And I'll be damned . . . a short time afterwards, he had a candy bar,' Forrest recalled. 'Damn thing sold with no advertising.'
Inspired by his celestial surname, Frank dubbed the malt-flavoured nougat bar the Milky Way. Because nougat - a combination of egg whites and corn syrup - was the main ingredient, the bar had an immediate advantage over the competition: it was bigger and tasted just as chocolatey, but cost much less. Sales exploded, reaching nearly dollars 800,000 by 1924.
In 1930 he introduced the Snickers Bar, with peanuts. In 1932, he unveiled the 3 Musketeers, three flavours in one bar - chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Life was sweet. Mars Inc was operating out of a swanky new plant on Chicago's West Side, and sales had topped dollars 24m a year. Frank had bought his wife a Duesenberg and a 16-cylinder Cadillac. He had poured more than dollars 2m into Milky Way Farms, a 2,700-acre horse farm in Tennessee.
BUT THE relationship between father and son was quickly turning sour. Armed with an industrial engineering degree from Yale, Forrest insisted that his father was running the business inefficiently, that his products weren't uniform and that management was lax. Although he lacked a title at the firm, Forrest set out to put his own ideas into place, contradicting his father's orders and throwing the factory into turmoil. The last straw came when Forrest tried to persuade his father to sign over one- third of the company to him and to allow him to expand into Canada. 'I wanted to conquer the whole goddam world,' Forrest recalled. But Frank was satisfied with his accomplishments and ignored Forrest's grand designs.
'I told my dad to stick his business up his ass,' Forrest was to say. 'If he didn't want to give me a third right then, I said, I'm leaving.' In 1932, Frank gave his son dollars 50,000 and the foreign rights to the Milky Way.
With his wife, Audrey, Forrest travelled to Europe. In Switzerland, he worked for the Nestle family, learning to make European chocolates. Ultimately he settled in Slough, just outside London - a small industrial town where he felt comfortable and could speak the language.
Like his father before him, Forrest set up shop in a one-room factory. He started out with an anglicised version of the Milky Way. A little sweeter than its American counterpart, it contained only the finest ingredients, a lesson he took from his father, and he named it the Mars Bar. It wasn't long before Forrest's bar became a bestseller.
There were failures in those early days. A bar called So Big was a disaster, as was a pineapple version of the Mars Bar. Forrest defended those mistakes by saying, 'I'm not a candy maker. I'm empire-minded.' And it was in the little Slough chocolate shop that he developed the austere principles that guide the Mars empire today.
IN RECALLING how he came to be Forrest's chief accountant, David Brown chiefly remembers one thing: fear.
'Few people wanted to go work for him directly,' says Brown, who came to Slough in 1946 and spent 37 years as one of Forrest's top lieutenants. He describes needing 'a strong duck's back . . . He could be cruel and demanding - you just had to know how to shake it off.'
For running the business according to his strictures, Forrest paid his managers three and four times what other companies offered. In return, he demanded complete devotion, asking employees to work with him up to 14 hours a day. He lectured on quality with the zeal of a preacher. He would hurl boxes of poorly wrapped chocolates across a room and terrorised the factory floor if he noticed Mars Bars without enough caramel.
What he lacked in charm, he made up for in brilliance. His knack for recognising a product's potential is legendary. Forrest was a risk-taker, Brown says. 'He was always prepared to consider outlandish ideas.' In 1934, he purchased Chappel Brothers - a small British company that was canning meat by- products for dogs - and pioneered Europe's dollars 6bn petfood market. In 1942 he teamed up with a Texas businessman who had invented a new refining process for rice that made it more nutritious and easier to cook. The result was Uncle Ben's, the world's first brand-name raw commodity.
Forrest's most famous innovation came from the battlefields of Spain, where civil war was tearing the country in two. On a trip to the southern coast he met soldiers who were eating pellets of chocolate coated with sugary candy. Protected by the candy shell, the chocolate didn't melt, a hazard that kept most confectioners away from southern climates.
When he returned from Europe in 1939, Forrest invited R Bruce Murrie, the son of Hershey's president, to join his new business. With Murrie on board, Forrest was assured a continuous supply of cocoa during the Second World War. They set up shop in New Jersey and began manufacturing tiny, candy-coated chocolate drops. The first M&Ms, slightly larger than today's version, came in brown, yellow, orange, red, green and violet - without the trademark M. They were an instant success.
By now, Forrest's combined companies, known as Food Manufacturers Inc, were far bigger than his father's. But still he wasn't satisfied. When Frank Mars died in 1934, at the age of 50, his wife's family had assumed control of the Chicago plant and refused to give Forrest a stake. For several decades, the two families fought a bitter battle for ownership. Finally, in 1964, her family decided to sell out and, at 60, Forrest returned to take what he claimed had always been his. Within days, the way of life at the Chicago plant changed forever.
After ordering executives into the oak-panelled conference room, Forrest proceeded to share his plans. 'I'm a religious man,' he told the crowd. Then, after a long pause, he sank to his knees. 'I pray for Milky Way,' he said. 'I pray for Snickers . . .' No one in the room dared move. These products, Forrest explained, were to consume the executives' every moment. 'That's what the consumer buys,' he said. 'And that's what creates profit. And profit is our single objective.'
Soon after the meeting, Forrest ripped out the executive dining-room, fired the French chef, tore down the partitions, stripped the oak walls and sold the corporate helicopter. He increased salaries by 30 per cent, replaced annual compensation with incentive pay, and handed each associate a time card.
'THIS IS OUR chunky line product,' John Murray tells me, pointing to the tray of dog food on the stainless-steel table. 'It has smaller chunks, a very moist, succulent loaf.'
We are standing in the 'cutting room' at Mars's petfood division in Vernon, California. Without hesitation, Murray dips his manicured hands into the dog food, plucks a moist brown lump from the thick gravy and pops it into his mouth. 'It's highly palatable and enticing for the animal,' he remarks. 'Really, it tastes just like cold stew.'
On the planet Mars, eating dog food is just one way of 'practising the Principles,' an insider reference to The Five Principles of Mars - a bible of corporate rectitude inspired by Forrest Snr's unyielding quest for perfection. A handsomely printed 24-page brochure that can be found on desks and tables in every factory, it spells out the five lofty-sounding themes: Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency, Freedom.
How do these principles play out at Mars? Let's start with Quality - which at Mars means taking care of tiny details that consumers would probably never notice. For example, every brand of candy bar has its own unique 'signature', or chocolate design, on top. Although they appear random, those ripples of chocolate are specifically engineered so that each brand can be identified without its wrapper. The quality drive is also expressed through the family's obsession with cleanliness. Although Snickers bars whizz off the line at 1,000 bars a minute, not a drip of chocolate blemishes the floors.
Principle number two is Responsibility. 'As individuals,' the brochure states, 'we demand total responsibility from ourselves; as associates, we support the responsibilities of others.' Associates are expected 'to take on direct and total responsibility for results, exercising initiative and making decisions as their tasks require.' The downside is that if associates take initiatives that are not deemed consistent with the brothers' vision, heads can roll. As a symbolic reminder, the brothers Mars have positioned a butcher's block in the middle of the second-floor office at the McLean headquarters.
The notion of responsibility blends into principle number three, Mutuality, which simply means 'everybody wins'. The brochure insists that each business encounter should benefit everyone concerned, and then it poses this rhetorical question: 'If we are selfish in these relationships and give a less than fair benefit in return, how long can this continue?'
Principle number four - Efficiency - is, in everybody's opinion, the key to the company's success. Mars operates with 30 per cent fewer employees than its closest competitor, but it produces more candy per employee than any other company in the industry. Even the waste is not wasted. At Uncle Ben's, hulls stripped from the unprocessed rice are burned to generate part of the plant's electricity. The fourth principle extends to the use of human resources as well. The flat management structure and open offices encourage direct communication. If you need something, you walk over to the boss and ask for it.
The fifth principle, and probably the one closest to the brothers' hearts, is Freedom: 'We need freedom to shape our future; we need profit to remain free.' What this really means, however, is privacy - in every facet of the business. The brothers believe that the best way to determine the company's future is to remain private, and privately held. Being out of the Wall Street spotlight means Mars doesn't need to be concerned with achieving consistent financial returns. 'There are no stockholders that have to be answered to, and if John and Forrest want to make investments at the expense of short-term profit, they can and they do,' says Al Aragona, the recently retired president of Uncle Ben's. But the privacy issue extends beyond business decisions to the company's public relations - or lack of them. If Mars doesn't have to communicate with the world, it won't.
'THE ABILITY to be secretive,' according to Forrest Jnr, 'is one of the finest benefits of having a private company.' Lecturing to business students at Duke University, North Carolina, he said: 'Privacy at times today seems a relic of the non-media past, but it is a legal right - morally and ethically proper and even desirable - and a key to healthy, normal living.'
This is a company that, until recently, wouldn't even share its financial statements with its bankers for fear the information might leak. Although it now releases information to those who need it, such as bankers and lawyers, Mars hasn't overcome its aversion to publicity. None of the family members would be photographed for this article, and their counsel, Edward J Stegemann, patiently explains that such precautions are necessary. 'Their name is Mars,' he says, adding that a couple of times a year he finds strangers lurking outside the McLean headquarters - the only office, by the way, that is permitted to display the family's portraits.
With one exception. In the conference room at Slough hangs a small photograph in a plain black frame. Forrest Snr appears to have been in his late sixties when the photo was taken: almost bald, chubby-faced with a large hooked nose and a turned-down mouth that gives him a disapproving look. It's an expression his sons must have seen often as they were growing up.
For John and Forrest Jnr, childhood was one long lesson in frugality. Their father was so dedicated to building his business that in the early days at Slough he refused to spend money on a decent flat, heating, or even proper food for his wife when she was pregnant. Audrey's father had to come and take his daughter home until Forrest could get the company up and running.
Like their father, the Mars children were forced to work for everything they got. There were no allowances, no fancy cars or clothes. 'Forrest Mars didn't want to raise a bunch of playboys,' Ed Stegemann says. 'He wanted them to do something with their lives, to be productive.'
Today, it is John who is usually described as the chief decision-maker - the brains of Mars - and credited with leading the company's push toward automation. After Yale and two years in the US Army from 1956 to 1958, he took his marching orders from his father. His first assignment from Mars was to start a petfood company in Australia.
'Somebody handed me a plane ticket and said, 'Hey, that's what you do. You go to Australia,' ' he recalls of his first days in the job. 'I didn't go with anything. A ticket - a one-way ticket. And my wife turned up a couple of weeks later.' Today he oversees the company's petfood operations worldwide.
The route of Forrest Jnr, who oversees the confectionery divisions, wasn't so direct. (Their sister Jackie inherited equally with them, but didn't join the management team until much later.) After Yale, he served as a finance officer in the Army then joined the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse in New York, which had long done business with the family, and lived in New York for years before finally launching his career with Mars. But in the family tradition, he set out to earn parental respect by building a business virtually from scratch.
His first assignment, in 1960, was to oversee the opening of Mars's new HQ - two rooms above a dress shop in downtown Washington. Then, in 1961, Forrest Jnr was dispatched to Veghel, in the Netherlands, where he started a candy factory to serve the European continent. Although he would spend all night in the factory trying to impress the importance of quality and efficiency on his workers, no amount of hard work seemed to please Forrest Snr, who would lash out in anger whenever he found the slightest flaw in either son's performance.
In 1961, three days before it was scheduled to open, the Veghel plant caught fire and burned to the ground. When Forrest Snr heard the news, he flew into a rage. Although observers said the fire was beyond his son's control, Forrest Snr demanded apologies over and over again. Forrest Jnr spent the next nine months rebuilding.
Former Mars associates say these outbursts have haunted the brothers for years. It's taboo, they say, even to mention the old man in their presence. But Ed Stegemann tells a different story. Forrest Mars Snr, he says, was preparing his company for the future. And in the end, he gave his sons the most noble gift he could: in the autumn of 1973 he turned over ownership to his children and walked away. 'He recognised that as long as he was around, they never could take control,' Stegemann says. 'I don't think there are many people of his status around the world that have ever done that - said, 'Here's the end of the pool, I gotta kick you in it, goodbye, I taught you how to swim.'
From his base in England, Forrest Snr had begun opening petfood plants in France and Germany, but it was his sons who fulfilled his dream. They took the company global long before it was fashionable. There was no grand design to the expansion; Mars entered new markets as opportunities arose. By mid-1988, Mars products were being eaten in more than 30 countries and annual sales had topped dollars 9.5bn. The founder himself, meanwhile, had 'retired' to Las Vegas in 1974, where, at the age of 70, he created a new firm, Ethel M Chocolates, to make the expensive, liqueur-filled variety. The old man ran it on the same principles he'd used to build Mars. He watched over his 45 workers from an apartment above the factory, constantly reminding them of their responsibility for quality and efficiency.
Then, on 22 July 1988, Hershey shocked the industry by acquiring the US confectionery division of Cadbury Schweppes. Hershey's share of the US market surged to 21 per cent, eclipsing the 18.5 per cent held by Mars. For the first time since Forrest Snr had gained control of his father's Chicago company, Mars had lost its title as America's candy king.
FOR 15 YEARS, John and Forrest Jnr had struggled to measure up to their father's expectations while adhering faithfully to his management gospel. Now they would have to rethink. Two months after Hershey's Cadbury coup, the brothers made a small acquisition of their own: they bought Forrest Snr's company, Ethel M. Former Mars associates say that the brothers were looking for an opening into the top end of the market, the one place Hershey wasn't. But there was more to it. By taking control of their father's company, they seemed finally to erase his omnipotent shadow. And they put more trust in Alfred Poe.
Poe, aged 32, was one of the company's youngest recruits, hired in the early Eighties for a top spot on its petfood marketing team. He was one of the few black managers, and loved to recount the story of his rise from Brooklyn's low-income housing projects to Harvard, where he earned his MBA. Aggressive and boastful, he laced his speech with street talk that contrasted sharply with the Mars brothers' genteel manner. And to top it all off, there were his flamboyant trappings: a stylish wardrobe and a sable-coloured Porsche 944. Yet it was precisely because he was different that, in November 1988, Poe was tapped to help Mars reclaim its crown, as head of marketing.
Two years earlier, because the petfood division was struggling, Poe and others suggested that the recipes be improved to European levels, and that brand names with proven success in Europe, such as Pedigree and Whiskas, should be adopted in the United States. He believed that by folding all the dogfood products under one umbrella brand and all the catfood products under another, the company would need only two marketing campaigns. Few in the company thought the brothers would go for these changes. Everyone knew that a brand was sacrosanct. But the results were phenomenal. By 1989, the market share had nearly doubled. And so it dawned on the brothers Mars: if many different varieties of dogfood could all be marketed under the same name, the possibilities for expanding the company's other key brands became endless.
Poe's ideas sparked innovation in all sections of the company. Mars and Bounty moved into ice-cream bars, Whiskas offered 'Whiskas Chunks and Gravy', Pedigree launched its Puppy Food and Uncle Ben's introduced fast-cooking brown rice and a microwave rice. To match the product innovations, Poe and his team of marketing managers beefed up advertising spending and added a few twists to the company's standard marketing approach. For example, Poe persuaded Mars to pay more than dollars 2m for the worldwide rights to the Rolling Stones song 'Satisfaction' to promote the Snickers bar. The company also signed on as a sponsor of worldwide sporting events such as World Cup soccer, the Asian Games and the Olympics. And, in a major coup, Mars entered into an agreement with the Walt Disney Co to become the only supplier of confectionery and snacks to Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and Disney-MGM Studios, which have a combined draw of more than 60 million consumers a year.
Then, in the spring of 1991, just as Mars was poised to recapture the number one spot, John and Forrest Jnr announced some of the most sweeping changes to take place at Mars in 30 years. Believing that the marketing managers had become too powerful, they delegated new responsibilities to the company's sales personnel and called for the Uncle Ben's, Kal Kan and M&M-Mars divisions to co-ordinate their sales efforts for the first time. As head of marketing, Al Poe had spoken out against the shift in power, saying it would ultimately hurt the company's brands. But when the brothers asked him to oversee the transformation, he obliged. They told him it was a promotion, and at first he believed it. It wasn't until August, at the company sales convention in San Francisco, that Poe understood the deal.
He had spent every summer weekend and most of his nights preparing his address for the historic meeting of 2,500 sales executives, an uncharacteristically glitzy affair complete with a theme song, stage show and a rare address by the brothers. But instead it was Mike Murphy, the longtime M&M-Mars manufacturing vice-president, who was being congratulated in the corner by his colleagues. It seemed he was being promoted to head Kal Kan, the American pet food division, replacing the president, who had announced early retirement. It was the job Poe had always wanted.
'I spent four years with Kal Kan and three years with Pedigree - I'm the best in the business in pet care,' he says. 'I wrote the master plan in 1986 that (Kal Kan) is using now. That is common knowledge. And when they gave that job to Murph, I said, 'OK, I see how this works.' ' Three months later, Poe accepted a senior position with the Campbell Soup Co. His departure came, ironically, just weeks after Mars learned that it had officially regained the lead from Hershey.
In the past year, half a dozen top executives with an average tenure of 25 years each have left Mars Inc. In interviews with several of them, there was a recurring and familiar sentiment: 'It's not that we don't love Mars and respect the company and appreciate what the brothers did for us, it's that they don't know how to share power.'
THE FUTURE of Mars takes us into the realms of the unknown. Can Mars protect its culture from the corrosive effects of growth and time? Can it retain top managers if the road to the top stays blocked? And can it innovate enough to grow, while sticking to a conservative strategy? Most important, given the dominant role of the Mars family to date, can it successfully transfer leadership to the next generation?
Between them, John, Forrest Jnr and Jackie have 10 children and two grandchildren, and at any one time as many as half a dozen Mars offspring are likely to be working in the company. But how and when the brothers will pass the baton is anyone's guess. Former associates maintain that Forrest Jnr, now 60, has been trying for years to retire and leave the company in the hands of brother John. But, they say, his desire for control is too great; he just can't let go. They also say it won't be as easy for the brothers to simply walk away as their father did, because this would leave Mars in too many hands.
The rumour in the industry is that John, Forrest Jnr and Jackie are forbidden - as a condition of their ownership - to sell any part of Mars. But whoever inherits their stock, one industry leader says, may do whatever he or she pleases with the business. The family will not comment on this.
Of the 10 grandchildren, Jackie's three children are said to have shown little interest in the business. Forrest Jnr's oldest daughter, Victoria, has been working in England in petfood operations. His daughter Pam, according to Ed Stegemann, is running the petfood factory in Mattoon, Illinois, and doing 'a damn good job'. Linda Mars, John's only daughter, has been working to develop new markets abroad. Al Poe thinks that John's 22-year-old son, Mike, who graduated from Duke University in 1991, could be the one to run the company some day. But Phil Forster and others in the company believe that John's eldest son, Frank, is the chosen heir.
Frank's early career looks a lot like those of his father and his father's father. A 31-year-old Yale graduate, he has built his own business in the suburbs of Phoenix, where he manufactures Styrofoam packaging specially designed to keep chocolate products from melting in the heat. He sells the packaging to two Mars divisions, along with other packaged goods companies. He lives in a sparsely furnished apartment with his German wife, Antje. He tells friends he's 'just an average guy'. And he's squarely in the tradition of the secretive world he could inherit: he doesn't talk about the future of Mars.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies