Memories of Forrest Mars Jr. – Business Leader Dies Aged 84

Forrest Mars (junior) died last week at the age of 84. He was the global CEO of the business during my tenure at Mars Confectionery from 1979 to 1988.  I consider joining Mars one of the two or three most fortunate events of my life, and still consider it to be the best firm I have ever had any significant contact with, let alone worked for.

Forrest did not come over as a warm and engaging man in the business environment, although I met the son of one of his oldest friends at a wedding by chance once. He told me that “Uncle Forrest” in his personal life was kind, funny and generally lovely. He also confirmed that the family lived in a very modest manner in the States, not at all what they might have done as the third richest family in the world at one point; the family hated any publicity, ostentation or self-aggrandisement. Certainly, when they visited Slough, if they rented a car it was a Ford Fiesta and no-one complained about the fairly parsimonious travel policy because we knew Forrest would not do anything differently himself!

In work, he was tough, direct and absolutely driven, his goal to make Mars the best and most successful firm it could be. But he – and his family – were way ahead of their time in many ways in terms of how they ran the business. Everyone clocked in and was paid weekly, no-one had an office or a secretary, a single canteen, no reserved parking spaces; those things are less remarkable now but were unusual 30 years ago and unheard of when Mars first adopted them. Equally, the quality obsession, the vision of globalisation and focus on competitive advantage all seem obvious now, but in those days were not something you heard from most businesses.

Machiavelli would have loved Forrest – he was feared, respected but also, in a funny way, loved by most of us too. His directness was legendary. The managers in the Purchasing function were invited to present to him on one visit, and we all prepared our ten-minute summary of our area. Forrest dozed through one presentation from a colleague with a somewhat monotone Scottish accent, but got very lively when buying peanuts was mentioned (for Snickers, or as it then was, Marathon).

Our director, Tom Harrison (who very sadly passed away himself just a few weeks ago), had bought some peanuts from China. Had Tom talked to the new Mars office in Japan about that deal, Forrest asked. No, Tom confessed he had not.

“I told you Tom, anything we do in China, I want you to go through the Japan office. I told you that Tom, didn’t I? Now let me tell you, if you do that again, I’m going to get my baseball bat and wrap it around your neck. Understand”?

I made the fatal mistake at that point of laughing somewhat nervously. Forrest’s head snapped towards me.

“Is that funny? Do you think that’s funny? Do you really think that’s funny”?

No, I hastily said, not funny at all, sorry, just something in my throat I think…

Tom would have been earning the current equivalent of £3-400K I guess, but there was no doubt who was ultimate boss in terms of any significant decisions in the firm, from purchasing to marketing. But the five principles of Mars, the policy of paying very well but expecting a lot from staff, the approach of giving managers real responsibility early, of rotating staff around functions to build collaboration and flexibility… there was much about the firm that was and is absolutely excellent.

It seems from the obituaries that Forrest had a happy retirement, being a generous philanthropist and becoming a great traveller as well. His achievement – along with his father and brother principally – in building one of the most successful businesses in the world was remarkable, and I feel honoured to have known him a little and to have worked for his fine business. Our condolences to his friends and family - rest in peace, Forrest Mars, Jr.

 

(Our recent work on The Five Principles of Sourcing was of course inspired by the Five Principles of Mars too).

Voices (5)

  1. Robert Stearn:

    A great article which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, thank you Peter, it brought back many happy memories.
    I count myself similarly fortunate to have worked for Mars Confectionery here in the UK for 12 years (1973 -1985). Joining the sales force at the tender age of 19, then, following excellent training, dispatched to a sales territory in SE London in my own company car (a Hillman Hunter estate). I can’t imagine many blue chip consumer brands trusting a teenager with that sort of responsibility nowadays!
    Unfortunately I never met Forrest personally, but felt I knew him well by reputation and to this day I’m still proud of my time as “the man from Mars”!
    Mars started me on what has, so far, been a 43 year career in sales & business development, and they provided the foundations for everything I’ve achieved since.

  2. Linda Speers:

    I agree with others about my 6 years of experience with Mars from 1986 – 1992 in Canada. Nothing before or since has matched this experience in terms of how to successfully run a business and pay attention to every business relationship respectfully. The stories that would ripple around the world when Forrest and/or John would say or do something that demonstrated the 5 principles were legendary – and such an effective way to communicate values – I still use them as examples in my work today. While I am sad to hear of his passing, I’m glad to hear that Forrest enjoyed his life in his later years. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Ian Thompson:

    My only personal memory of Forrest was when Dennis Brennan as an engineering manager was presenting to the manufacturing team, the plans for new changing facilities in what had been a warehouse. As he spoke a phalanx of white coats could be seen in the corridor through the mottled glass, the sliding door was flung open and a bald head poked into the room. I had no idea who this was, but he greeted Dennis by name and looking at the printed plan pinned to the blackboard, asked “What is that line for?”. Dennis replied “It is the wall between Personnel and the corridor where associates come into the building, Forrest”.

    “I dont want no wall hiding Personnel when people come to work” said Forrest. The head withdrew, the sliding door closed and the procession moved off down the corridor.

    Dennis took a moment to collect his thoughts and said quietly, “… but it’s holding the roof up”.

    Needless to say when the new changing rooms opened a few months later (exactly on schedule of course), there was no wall alongside the employees as they arrived at work. A simple row of planters at desktop height delineated the office area.

    After eight years at Slough, I subsequently worked for a number of major multi-nationals, none of whom could hold a candle to Mars for the way the business was run, or its employees were treated.

  4. George Oakham:

    Well put, Peter. A book of all the personal stories we have about Forrest would be great to read. I still miss the company and having consulted globally with other large organisations have still to meet the equal of Mars and its people.
    George

  5. Joanne Vara Ando:

    Great article. Thanks for sharing Peter.

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