To fill 70,000 jobs, chocolate giant Mars will have to overcome its deeply secretive past

An empire built on chocolate bars.
An empire built on chocolate bars.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Few companies have held more secrets than Mars.

The maker of M&Ms, Snickers, and Milky Way chocolate bars is privately owned, and private by nature, with a history of paranoia that borders on legendary. Contractors who repaired candy-making machinery used to be led through factories blindfolded, executives reportedly wore disguises when meeting outsiders, and no one dared attract the spotlight of the media.

That secrecy served the company well in the cut-throat world of confectionery, where the theft of candy-making techniques is rife, and where some of the best-known products were stolen from competitors.

But Mars is realizing that its legacy of privacy comes with a price. Though its brands are exceedingly well known—beyond candy, the rapidly expanding company sells products ranging from Uncle Ben’s rice to Eukanuba pet food—its profile as a workplace is not. That’s a disadvantage for any company competing against employers in far more glamorous fields such as tech or finance, and an especially big hurdle for Mars as it embarks on the biggest workforce expansion of its 100-year history. The company plans to add 70,000 employees over the next decade—it now has about 85,000. Some will come through planned acquisitions, but many more will need to be recruited outright.

In a 2016 survey of MBA students in the US about the appeal of potential employers, Mars trails not just the sexy names in technology and finance but other staid consumer and snack-food companies. Procter & Gamble is ranked 23rd among all employers, PepsiCo is 25th; Mars lags behind at 62nd, according to Universum, a consulting firm.

It’s an unusual predicament for a company as big as Mars. With annual sales nearing $35 billion, Mars would place about 85th on the Fortune 500 list of the biggest US companies—higher than American Express, Nike, and Time Warner—if it were ranked. Because Mars doesn’t file federal financial statements, Fortune doesn’t include the company on its flagship list.

Mars executives acknowledge they have work to do to convince millennials to consider careers at the company. “We may not yet be the first choice,” says Manuel Munoz, who heads college recruiting for Mars. “We know we have a reputation challenge.”

To get its message out, Mars is doubling the staff dedicated to luring college students, deploying social media, and honing its sales pitch to woo potential candidates. That often means showering them with M&Ms, and handing out gift boxes stuffed with candy bars and snacks.

“We lead with our brands,” says Tracey Wood, who heads human resources for Mars’s North American candy business. “One of the things we have to get right when we’re on campus, or out recruiting, is that people know the connection between Mars and all our great brands.”

Mars has sold M&Ms since 1940.
Mars has sold M&Ms since 1940.
Image: Courtesy Mars

In making its pitch to MBAs and recent college graduates, Mars also stresses the variety of opportunities it can offer new hires because of its many business lines, and recruiters talk a lot about the company’s corporate culture, which historically combines egalitarianism with eccentricity—sometimes with surprisingly forward-thinking results.

As described by Joël Glenn Brenner in her 1999 book, The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, Mars eschewed hierarchy, titles, and signs of status, sometimes to ridiculous extremes. Every employee, from the president down, was eligible for a 10% bonus for being on time. For years, even former CEO John Mars, the billionaire grandson of the company founder, punched his time card every morning. 

Some customs have aged more gracefully. For example, Mars embraced open offices, flat management, and bonuses tied to company profits, long before such practices became common. 

History of secrets

Mars’s roots date back to a candy company in Minnesota founded by Frank Mars at the turn of the last century. After several failures, it was Frank’s hard-driving son, Forrest, who pushed the company into chocolate bars—the Milky Way debuted in 1924, soon followed by Snickers, and 3 Musketeers—and drove Mars’s expansion nationally, then internationally.

M&Ms, perhaps the company’s most famous brand, took its name from a 1940 partnership between Forrest Mars and Bruce Murrie, the son of William Murrie, who ran Hershey’s after the death of Milton Hershey. (In its early years, Mars bought much of its chocolate from Hershey’s—now its arch-rival.)

Forrest ran the company with ferocious energy, demanding constant growth and improvement. He delegated day-to-day operations to his lieutenants, who were expected to manage according to his precepts and meet his sales targets. According to Brenner’s book, when he hired a new executive, he asked them to sign a resignation letter dated three years in the future. If they didn’t meet their targets, he accepted their resignation.

He also instituted a policy of deep secrecy. No one, not even the company’s bankers, had access to Mars’s financial statements. The company wouldn’t participate in industry events, and its employees were forbidden to talk to colleagues at other candy companies. In 1966, Forrest finally gave an interview to a trade publication, and he was so enraged at the resulting article—which was generally positive—that he didn’t talk to the media again.

In 1973, Forrest retired and handed the business to his sons, John and Forrest, Jr. According to Brenner, they were as strict and paranoid as their father. (A Mars spokeswoman told me the company is not a fan of Brenner’s book:  ”It’s a sensational book that doesn’t capture the spirit of Mars at the time and the values that built our business to what it is today,” Melissa Martellotti wrote in an email.)

Forrest Jr., who died last year at age 84, was notorious for screaming at employees. Once, when a business associate hailed him in an airport, he snarled “Don’t ever call out my name in public!” according to an account in Washingtonian Magazine.

Mars has less trouble fillings its blue-collar factory jobs.
Mars has less trouble fillings its blue-collar factory jobs.
Image: Reuters/Vincent Kessler

Despite—or perhaps because of—their bare-knuckled management methods, the brothers expanded Mars rapidly, largely through international efforts, growing annual revenue from $1 billion to $18 billion by 1999, when Forrest Jr. retired. The business has almost doubled again since then, in part due to smart acquisitions like its 2008 purchase of Wrigley. The Mars family has prospered as well: John and his sister, Jacqueline, are each worth about $33 billion.

Mars’s growth was fueled by a stable and dependable work force, many of whom, attracted by the good wages, spent their entire careers with the company. But those long tenures meant Mars wasn’t refreshing its talent. As another generation reaches retirement age, Mars finds itself scrambling to replenish its staff.

Mars’s predicament is not unusual among older companies that tend to hire slowly and encourage long tenures, said Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain & Co. who leads the consulting firm’s organization practice.

If companies don’t force out workers, “you’re basically waiting for people to die to accommodate new people,” Mankins said. “The way you offset that is create an environment where top talent is progressed, and mediocre talent is given a generous severance package and shown the door.”

The kinder and gentler Mars of today eschews those Darwinian management practices, and has all the trappings of  a modern, progressive American corporation. Mars now publishes a sustainability plan and offers paid paternity leave; it lobbied to keep the US in the Paris climate accord, and it boasts about its standing on the Great Best Places to Work list (12th, on the most recent rankings of multinational companies). CEO Grant Reid was recently one of hundreds of corporate leaders pledging to take action on diversity and inclusion. 

Mars also is providing US manufacturing jobs in an economy where they’re disappearing. Despite its handwringing about the difficulty recruiting white-collar office workers, there is no shortage of demand for its blue-collar factory jobs. The company received thousands of applications for around 200 new jobs when it opened a $270 million candy factory in Topeka, Kansas, in 2014.

And every prospective employee who visited received a box of candy to take home.

The Snickers room

If Mars once tried to maintain a low profile for its corporate identity, those days are over. At the headquarters of Mars Chocolate North America, in a remote corner of northern New Jersey, guests enter beneath an awning supported by giant cartoon M&Ms, and candy dispensers are everywhere.

The headquarters of Mars Chocolate, North America, in Hackettstown, New Jersey.
The headquarters of Mars Chocolate, North America, in Hackettstown, New Jersey.
Image: Quartz/Oliver Staley

The meeting rooms have candy themes. I met with Mars executives in the Snickers room, with an exterior molded to look like rippling milk chocolate.

My hosts acknowledged my visit was part of a campaign to let the world know more about Mars. If it wants prospective employees to consider jobs at Mars, the company is realizing it has to start drawing attention to itself.

That’s been a big shift, said Tracey Massey, president of Mars Chocolate North America, given that talking to reporters was once anathema to the Mars family.

“A number of years ago you probably wouldn’t hear us doing much,” Massey said. “You probably wouldn’t have been invited here.”