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World exclusive: Pamela Mars-Wright on life at Mars, Inc

For the first time in 30 years, a member of the Mars family agreed to speak publicly about life at one of the world's most private and successful businesses. Fourth-generation Pamela Mars-Wright talks exclusively to Marc Smith about life on Mars, Inc

The Mars family has a certain mystique about it. While their products – from Mars bars and M&M's to Uncle Ben's rice and Whiskas cat food – can be found in almost any food store on the planet, the family is fiercely protective of its privacy. We know that the business was established in 1911 by Franklin Clarence Mars, the inventor of the Milky Way, in Tacoma, Washington, but comparatively little is known about his children and grandchildren.

Let's start with the facts. Franklin's son, Forrest Mars Sr, was born in 1904 and joined the family business in 1929 when the company moved from rural Minnesota to Chicago to take advantage of the Windy City's distribution links.

Forrest Sr then fell out with his father over the running of the business and, in 1932, was given the recipe for the Milky Way bar to start his own business. He sailed to the UK and found his way to Slough, the unlikely birthplace of the Mars bar. Two years later, in 1934, Franklin died.

From here, facts are much harder to come by. The family values its privacy to such an extent that the last interview with a family member was 30 years ago. Much has been written about them since, but the family has preferred to keep a dignified silence.

This is understandable given stories that include the unoriginal comparison between Forrest Sr and Willy Wonker from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and former Washington Post financial reporter Joel Glenn Brenner's book, The Emperors of Chocolate, which attempted to paint a sensational picture of  Mars.

A confectionery dynasty
While Forrest Sr's granddaughter Pamela Mars-Wright, 48, is not about to open up the family photo album for me, she does answer my questions openly and with increasing passion. There is no sense of inaccessibility as the discussion ranges casually from her childhood and family governance structures, to the corporation's keen interest in research.

There is one topic of conversation, however, that is strictly off limits. And ironically it involves another family business. In April this year, Mars acquired the WM Wrigley Company for $23 billion. The deal, which guaranteed to keep Wrigley as a separate, stand-alone subsidiary, brought together two of America's greatest confectionery dynasties.

With the deal still being finalised, her lips remain tightly sealed. However, she is keen to talk about her childhood and dispels any myths about three-course-dinner chewing gum and everlasting gobstoppers.

"When I was growing up it felt very normal," she exclusively tells Campden FB. "I didn't feel different to anybody else. We did chores around the house, we went to school. We didn't live a different lifestyle to any of my friends."

The man of this normal household was Pamela's father, Forrest Edward Mars Jr, Forrest Sr's son, who along with sister Jacqueline and brother John Franklin, is at number 48 on the world's rich list with a net worth of $14 billion.

Pamela was barely a year old when she moved to Holland after her father was appointed general manager of Mars' Dutch confectionery factory. Five years later the family moved to France when Forrest Jr became managing director at Mars France, before returning to the US on his appointment to the vice president's chair at Mars HQ in Virginia.

"He's a hard-working, outgoing and very personable man," says Pamela when I ask how she would describe her father to someone who has never met him. "I mean he's my daddy, who taught us to ride bikes and all that other stuff that dads do."

Away from the family home, she remembers being taken to see some of the company's factories as a child, but insists it was all very low key and going to see where her father and grandfather worked was not a big deal, even if she did have to mind her p's and q's.

"Walking into the company's offices wasn't like 'Oh here I am walking into an important, fancy building', the most exciting thing was being able to get our hands on some of the candy that was lying around," she recalls of visiting Mars HQ, which the company claims to be the first to develop open plan offices rather than tuck employees away in tiny rooms.

With the Mars product line, such childhood delights were never in short supply. As producers of M&M's, Snickers, Mars, Milky Way, Skittles, Twix and Starburst sweets, the company has a roll call of some of the world's most iconic brands.

Pamela remembers feeling a great sense of pride when she was growing up, a sense which continues to this day. "If I go into a store – it doesn't matter where I am in the world – I take great pride in seeing our products on the shelf, looking good," she says.

It is easy to forget that by products she means more than just chocolate. For example, the company's long association with pet food began in 1935 when Mars bought Chappel Brothers, a UK canned dog food company. Today its pet food division is one of largest in the world, with its Royal Canin, Pedigree, and Whiskas brands sweeping all before them. It also includes the Waltham Centre for Pet nutrition.

Then there's rice under the Uncle Ben's brand. This dates back to 1942 when Forrest Sr patented a technique designed for the military that hard-coated rice to make it insect-impervious. It was the top-selling rice in the US from 1950 until the 1990s.

More recently the company has moved into the drinks market with its Flavia drinks system and, bringing it right up to the 21st century, Mars has moved into organic food with the acquisition of the Seeds of Change brand.

Strong values
Aside from the all-conquering brands, Pamela is keen to highlight that the company's staff, or associates as they're called at Mars, are part of the wider family. And underlying all of the associates, in which Pamela includes the family, are the company's famous Five Principles.

Formalised in 1977 by the company's senior management, and published and distributed across the corporation in 1982, they are: Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom. More than a statement of values, they are a set of fundamental beliefs that help to shape and define Mars as a company, according to the Mars website.

Pamela says the family has always felt that the Five Principles are absolutely critical to the way the business is run. She describes them as being the bedrock or foundation of the company and, despite their formalisation in the 1970s, says they have been around for as long as she can remember.

"The big thing is that we have, over time, continued to update them so they are relevant to the following generations that are working in the business. So even though the words date from a long time ago and they've been refined by my father's generation and fine tuned again by my generation, they are not different, they're the same thing – they're basically the same words," she says.

Perhaps the most interesting principle is Freedom, which is first and foremost about the freedom of Mars as a corporation. As a privately-owned enterprise, with the shareholding split between just a few family members, this freedom can perhaps be best illustrated by the company's traditional track record of making long-term investments.

Following her graduation from Vassar, an exclusive liberal arts college in New York state, Pamela worked in an advertising firm before joining the family business as an operations supervisor in 1986. She moved on to become plant manager at the company's petcare factory before a stint as manufacturing director at Mars Australia.

After returning to the US, she took a sabbatical to run her own business but came back to the family fold as a member of the board of directors in 2001. She assumed the role of chairman of the board in 2004, a position she only stepped down from earlier this year. "It was just time for a change," says Pamela of her decision to step down. "It's good for a board to rotate the personnel so it doesn't end up being the same old thing all the time. I personally don't believe that having the same thing for 25 years is necessarily a good thing."

When I ask her to name her proudest achievement during this time she thinks before replying that it's probably the tightening of the bond between the family and the business's management. "It doesn't make any difference whether it's a family member who is running the business or whether it's outside management," she says. "That we are all in sync, all on the same page and that we have equal respect for the different roles people play and an understanding that everybody is needed for those different roles is what's important."

Flexible governance
Given past history, it is perhaps unsurprising to hear that Pamela believes flexibility is key to the family's governance structure. Prior to getting involved with this fundamental pillar of successful family business, she always assumed it was a structure that was set in stone. She soon discovered, however, that in order to be successful, a different outlook was required.

"Some things need to be clear and up-front so people know where they stand," she admits. "But if it's set in stone it becomes too rigid and you are unable to deal with the different demands of the world. On the other hand you can't allow your governance to constantly shift around with the wind.

"What I grew up with is different to what my children grow up with, and will be different to what their children grow up with. I think one needs to be flexible enough to make sure that your governance allows for as many people to be as involved and passionate as they can be about it, but you also need to understand that just because it's not the way that you would have done it, it doesn't mean that it's wrong or that you can't do it that way."

Looking to the future, Pamela is mindful that the company's market strength and family history will not necessarily be immune to the problems the world is currently facing. She mentions recession in the US and needing to take better care of the world as examples. When it comes to the future of Mars as a family business, however, she is unequivocal.

"The philosophy of the family and the philosophy of the business is that it's a family business.  More importantly it's a privately held business and that's the way that we'd like to keep it," she concludes. This is a sentiment that even her famously hard to please grandfather would concur with. 

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