After Hours

The secret world of chocolate's royalty

The management styles of Milton Hershey and Forrest Mars, Sr. couldn't be more divergent. While Hershey's tended towards philanthropy and altruism, Mars sought corporate conquest. Their story from yesterday offers a lesson for IT leaders today.

It may seem like a stretch finding something applicable to the IT world in a book about chocolate, but Joel Glenn Brenner’s The Emperors of Chocolate offers more than just an insightful and entertaining glimpse into what she calls “one of the most secretive industries in the United States.” It also provides a look at two very different management styles, warts and all. Milton Hershey and Forrest Mars Sr. had approaches to business that were as divergent as their personalities, but the influence of each has caused the companies they molded to rise and fall and rise again.

By Joel Glenn BrennerBantam Doubleday Dell Publishers, February 2000384 pp.ISBN: 0767904575Price: $11.20 at
The book also shows how management, then and now, must be willing to adapt to changing circumstances and be open to new ways of thinking. Hershey’s downfall was reversed only after its executives broke from their traditional—and now outdated—modes of managerial thinking. The Mars patriarchal system that still controls the company may never allow that candy maker to reverse its fall from grace.

The ability to know when to adjust your management style and how to do so is a necessity across all industries—whether IT or candy. The stories and management styles of Hershey and Mars make it clear to any CIO that a successful management strategy is not eternal. Managers must be aware of shifting circumstances and adapt.

The candy man
Milton Hershey was a dreamer. He enjoyed “planning and creating,” and preferred experimenting and inventing to the business side of running Hershey Chocolate. As Brenner explains, “nothing about business excited” Hershey, who never involved himself in the day-to-day operations of his company, but worked to develop unconventional ways of doing things. He put his energies into experimentation, such as the Hershey Industrial School he founded for orphans (which is now, thanks to Hershey’s donation of his entire estate, the company’s biggest shareholder). Another legacy that greatly benefited his employees is the town that bears his name, Hershey, PA, an “industrial utopia” offering Hershey employees uniquely designed homes and all the conveniences of modern life at the time.

Hershey’s approach to the chocolate business helped his company rise to supremacy. But after he relinquished control of the company, the influence—and the burden—of his legacy and his successors’ resistance to change Hershey’s old-fashioned business practices (e.g., he didn’t believe in advertising), left the door open for Mars to dominate the industry.

Planet Mars
Forrest Mars Sr.’s business ideals still remain the all-powerful force behind his company’s corporate mentality. The Mars corporate culture is a “no-frills, hard-driven environment” where status is considered “a dirty word.” All employees are called “associates” and each one, from CEOs John and Forrest Mars Jr. on down, punches a time card to start the day.

Traditional corporate perks are non-existent at Mars. There are no private offices and no personal secretaries. Everyone works side by side. Employees are paid according to how well the company is performing.

At Mars, Brenner writes, “Bureaucracy is an anathema.” Memos are against corporate policy. Everyone is on a first-name basis. Meetings only take place if absolutely necessary, and elaborate presentations are considered a “waste of time.”

Quality assurance is taken to obsessive levels at Mars. Each day, for example, millions of M&Ms are rejected because the trademark “M” is off center or their shell doesn’t “glow like headlights.” Mars factories are kept so clean that even the hint of contamination can halt production for hours.

Brenner believes that Mars’s “unconventional, patriarchal style” established by and inherited from Forrest Sr. is both the company’s “greatest strength,” and “its greatest weakness.” It’s hard to tell where the company ends and the Mars family begins. As one former executive stated, "if your last name doesn’t begin with an ‘M,’ there’s only so far you’re going to go.”

For a company where everyone is supposedly on an equal plain, true power is still held in the iron fist of the Mars family. Forrest Mars Sr. ran his company with a ”harsh tongue” and an “unforgiving approach” which his sons have embraced.

Forrest Jr.’s temper is on a par with his father’s, and John has thrown out elaborate plans for a new plant because the architect couldn’t satisfactorily explain one insignificant detail. As a Mars insider points out, “there isn’t really anyone…who can stand up to the [Mars] family.” This reality, however, has come to haunt the company.

Forrest Sr. ran his family with the same unforgiving approach, and the years of “subservience and chastisement” have left a deep mark on Forrest Jr. and John Mars. The Mars brothers, living under the cloud of their father’s legacy, have worked that much harder to make his empire even stronger. But they’ve also exerted this extra effort to prove themselves worthy of following in his footsteps.

To that end, the brothers have taken different steps in their management of the company. They are much more “hands-on” than their father was. Where Forrest Sr. allowed managers to “find their own way,” the brothers have “clamped down on the company,” and involve themselves in every decision. Under their leadership, Mars did overtake Hershey and for several years, beginning in the 1970s, held the top spot in the candy business.

The kings of candy
Hershey has since regained supremacy, thanks to moving away, albeit grudgingly, from the relaxed business style of the company’s founder. Mars, on the other hand, is struggling to right itself, and a rebound may not be forthcoming.

According to Brenner, the brothers have “failed to set priorities,” and as a result, the company is now “adrift.” Thanks to the company’s power structure, no one else can give Mars’s associates the necessary “marching orders” to reverse the company’s fortunes, and no one is able to stand up to the Mars family and challenge them to make the changes that are needed.

Sean Griffith is a review editor with TechRepublic.

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