A Family Affair: Celebrating the Sweet Success of Mars

Published: Feb 14, 2023  |  

Founder of NxtGen Nexus (generational family businesses)

Illustration by Nikki Muller

As the founder of NxtGen Nexus, a local/global community that connects, supports, and educates the next generation of owners in multi-generational family businesses, whom we call “NxtGens,” I think about family businesses a lot. According to my wife, I think about them way too much. (I also don’t rinse the dishes at night, hang my shirts one-half inch apart, or the 43 other items that she tracks on an annotated Google doc entitled, “Why my husband sucks!”)

There’s a good reason I think about family businesses: I’m from one—and so are more people than you might think. There are 9.1 million multi-generational family businesses in the U.S. that make up 59% of private sector GDP, and family businesses are pretty much the same around the world. If you created a scorecard of the most ubiquitous features of global societies, it would include religion, sex, soccer, and family business. 

Interestingly enough, you can change your sex (and/or who you have sex with), you can change religion, and you can change your favorite soccer team. However, you can’t change being born in a family business, regardless of whether you work in the business, or have spent your entire adult life trying to disassociate from it.

Once you start down the family business rabbit hole like I do, you start seeing family business everywhere. So to me, Valentine’s Day isn’t about romance (Google doc, line 23—”not romantic”), but an opportunity to highlight Mars, the largest confectionery company in the world. In honor of chocolate’s top holiday (with Halloween, Easter, and Christmas nipping at its heels,) I’ve put together a brief history of this iconic family corporation (all facts are drawn from Mars’ site, except where otherwise indicated.) 

Mars is a fifth-generation family-owned business and is the third wealthiest family business in the United States. The family owns 100% of the company, and members of the Mars family work and sit on the board of directors. The founder, Frank C. Mars, was born in Glenwood, Pope County, Minnesota in 1883. As a young boy, he contracted polio, which prevented him from being able to walk to school. His mother, Elva, taught him his lessons in their kitchen—including how to hand-dip chocolate. In 1920, Frank relocated to Minneapolis and started a basket candies business, The Nougat House. It produced Patricia Chocolates, named after Frank and Veronica’s (Frank’s second wife) daughter. From the very start, the family connection was strong. 

In 1923, Mars introduced what arguably put them on the map, the MILKY WAY® Bar. This was the result of a discussion between Frank and his son, Forrest Sr., about the idea of including “malted milk in a candy bar.” 

(We’ve got to take a quick sidebar here to discuss the MILKY WAY®, or more specifically, a frozen MILKY WAY®. Something magical happens when you freeze the delightful combination of caramel, chocolate, and nougat. If that’s not dreamy enough, there’s the moment of expectation when you take your first bite into the frozen tundra of a candy bar, knowing that you might crack a tooth and get rushed to the dentist. While it doesn’t produce the heightened anticipation of playing Russian roulette, it was still a thrill for a six-year-old growing up in the Midwest.)

After relocating to Chicago, Mars continued creating iconic candies we still see at grocery store checkout counters to this day, including 3 Musketeers and SNICKERS®—which was named after the family’s favorite horse. In 1941, the first M&M’S® Plain Chocolate Candies were created for the U.S. Military, but they truly “rocketed” into popular culture forty years later in 1981, when they were chosen by the first space shuttle astronauts to be included in their food supply. In 1984, peanut and plain M&M’S® and SNICKERS® were named the “Official Snack Foods of the Olympic Games,” and Mars became the single worldwide food sponsor of the 1992 Olympic Games. 

One of the biggest moments for Mars in pop culture came in 1995, when they announced that Blue M&M’S® were voted to replace the tan M&M’S Chocolate Candies in the US. Over 11 million fans voted and over half of them chose blue over pink and purple. (It’s important to remember that, unlike today, where a dog farting video can generate millions of Tik-Tok views, there was no one-touch mechanism to cast a vote.) To commemorate the event, the lights at the iconic Empire State Building shone blue in New York City, heralding BLUE’s arrival.

In 2008, after acquiring Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, Mars became the biggest confectionery company in the world.

That said, Mars is much more than a candy company. Since acquiring the U.K.-based Chappell Brothers, Ltd., makers of CHAPPIE® canned dog food in 1935, Mars has continued to develop and acquire pet food products: this includes well-known brands such as Eukanuba, Greenies, Iams, Nutro, Royal Canin, Sheba, and Whiskas. Mars also leads in comprehensive veterinary care, nutrition, breakthrough programs in diagnostics, wearable health monitoring, DNA testing and pet welfare. In 1965, they started the Waltham Petcare Science Institute, where they supported research into the incredible science of human-animal interaction. So if you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day with a furry friend, Mars is there to support you—so long as you choose from the pet food side… don’t give your dog or cat chocolate!

In today’s world, impact and sustainability are important components of a company’s operations and marketing efforts. As such, a company that sells candy, gum, and pet food is going to be held accountable by NxtGens if they don’t say and do the right things. Mars, however, was ahead of the curve: they have always been a principles-led business. 

In 1982, Mars created The Five Principles, which they placed at the center of every decision they make as a business. These principles are:

We are committed to Quality of work and contributions to society. 

We embrace our Responsibility (as individuals and a company) to act now. 

We base decisions on Mutuality of benefit to our stakeholders. 

We harness the power of Efficiency to use our resources to maximum effect. 

We have the financial Freedom to make our own decisions, unrestricted by motivations of others.

When visiting Mars’ Sustainability Plan, you’ll find a truly committed organization focused in four categories: Healthy Planet, Thriving People, Nourishing Wellbeing, and Materials & supply chains. Barry Parkin, Chief Procurement and Sustainability Officer, says, “Our plan is built on what is RIGHT, not what is easy—it is science-based and in support of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.” Mars’ commitment to sustainability is in line with the philosophy that family businesses focus on the next generation, not the next quarter. For many NxtGens who are passionate about sustainability and impact, the question is whether they can make a greater difference in the world inside or outside of the family business. Our response is that your family business and your family legacy have tremendous currency in your local market and beyond. If you want to effectuate change, there’s no better platform than a family business.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about Mars without discussing the recent controversy in which Mars dropped their cartoon candy mascots because Tucker Carlson of Fox News found them offensive. In response, Mars announced that Maya Rudolph would become their new spokesperson and used their Super Bowl commercial to rebrand M&M’S® as “ma&ya’s candy-coated clam bites.” In the world of whoever laughs last laughs best, Mars scored the biggest laugh with the re-introduction of our favorite cartoon candy mascots

Our family business take on it? Family businesses transcend borders, race, religion, and political affiliations. For every global giant like Mars, there are thousands of family businesses that are the backbone of the world economy. Together, family businesses can change the world.

In the end, I want to wish everybody a happy Valentine’s Day—but especially my wife.

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