Former Chairman and Current Board Member, Mars
Family businesses are crucial for the U.S. economy, accounting for 64% of the U.S. gross domestic product and 78% of new job creation. Yet only 30% of family businesses survive to the second generation, and only 3% make it to the fourth generation.
Victoria B. Mars, WG’84, was recognized with the 2017 Joseph Wharton Award for Leadership, for her work at Mars, Inc. The sixth largest privately held company in the U.S., Mars has annual sales of approximately $35 billion and 100,000 employees. She is a member of Mars’ Board of Directors and a fourth-generation member of the Mars family. Her great-grandfather, Frank C. Mars, founded the company in 1911.
Why has Mars thrived as a family business?
Each family business has its own unique story. The key factors for us were the commitment of the founders and their passion for the business, a desire to continue growing, and a family commitment to reinvest into the business. We started as a chocolate company and then grew to become a diversified global business in pet care, food, a broad array of confections and drinks — always trying to stay current and relevant to our customers.
The other part is investing into the family. This means educating the family as to what owning a family business means. What will be the challenges? The business began with one person, and then there were siblings working together, and now cousins. We work hard to be prepared for that complexity.
So, we invest in the business, and we invest in the family.
Can you give an example as to how you were drawn into the business?
As I grew up, the business was not front and center in my life. Nobody said, “Victoria, we own this business.” I did have a concept that my father was very committed to the company where he worked. When I was a little girl, we lived in Holland, and my mother would bring us to the facility on Saturday mornings to work in the garden there. We only thought that we were helping our dad. The message was that everyone helps — this is how one does things. In that sense, it was a family affair. As I grew older, I started working in the factories to understand what it’s like to be an associate on the factory floor. My first summer job was packing candy. There was no question of starting higher up the ladder. So, the feeling of being part of a family business built over time. When the time came to decide where I would spend my career, there was a natural answer.
It was subtle then?
Yes. Nobody ever said, “Someday, Victoria, this will be your responsibility.”
It evolved so that it was a natural decision. My father had a passion for the business, for the people, for how we conducted ourselves as a business, and that’s what he tried to convey to us.
He had passion, pride and a lot of fun! He enjoyed it! He shared that, so we would have the same excitement, rather than saying “You must work for the business because this will be yours someday.” It’s similar to the question of how to keep a family going. Yes, there is a rational connection. Mars is a successful, growing business. But there has to be an emotional connection, too. That’s how family businesses stay family businesses.
How will Mars continue to thrive?
We work hard as a family to have the best chance of succeeding — investing in the family and creating good governance. Then, as the family grows, we can manage the increasing complexity of having more points of view, more interest in the business.
On the business front, we need to continue to evolve, to leverage consumer trends and innovate. For example, while we have traditionally been known for our chocolate, and we have some of the world’s leading confectionery brands, Mars is also a leader in pet care. We sold our first pet food products in 1938 and have grown that category for decades. On top of that, we’re innovating in pet care. This year, Mars acquired VCA Pet Hospitals, building on previous growth in veterinary care. Today, Mars is the largest veterinary operator in the U.S.
You created and ran the ombudsman office for Mars associates. Can you explain what your office did, what you learned in that role and how it has helped Mars?
When asked to create a Mars ombudsman program, I didn’t know anything about what an ombudsman was. I first researched other businesses with ombudsmen, and joined an ombudsman organization to understand what worked and what did not work.
The ombudsman process is informal and is as confidential as the person contacting the ombudsman wants it to be. Being independent of the existing corporate management structure, the ombudsman reports to the CEO or the Chairman of the Board. The ombudsman is neutral, neither an advocate for the company, nor for the person who comes for help. Rather, an ombudsman is an advocate for fair process. That process can be as simple as listening, or helping to facilitate conversations between people. The ombudsman is a safety net.
Once I established what a quality program would look like, I had to communicate and work on educating our Associates about how the office worked and why they could trust the system. And I had to gain the support and confidence from management to embrace a program that went around normal channels. Everyone had to believe that we were all on the same team and that the program was intended to help us all and to make Mars a great place to work. There was a lot of due diligence, listening, learning and contracting with others in the launch of the program. And those learnings apply to any number of business activities.
What were the outcomes?
I think we built trust with the Associates being served and with management who were potentially being challenged by things happening in their organizations. We were a very small team, six of us, serving at the time, 80,000 Associates. Today, we have 100,000 Associates. However, the ombudsman office is still a small team, as it is an alternative channel of communication, not a replacement for other functions.
We measure our success with increased associate engagement, retention and safety, as well as attraction of recruits to work at the company and decreased legal costs.
You received the Joseph Wharton Award for Leadership. What does leadership mean to you, and how have you tried to lead at Mars?
I believe in principle-based leadership. The Five Principles of Mars are:
They are not just words on a wall. These are the family’s and the business’s principles and beliefs, and they are an important part of who we are.
When your principles are visible to others, they aren’t usually surprised by how you respond in a situation. People count on me to be consistent with the Five Principles, knowing that what I say is what I mean.
The alignment of these principles and the values of our Associates is more important than it ever was. If they don’t feel aligned, they won’t be attracted to us as a place to work, and they won’t stay. Thirty years ago, they didn’t think that way. Today, they do.
That’s one of the reasons we’ve started to talk more about ourselves as a company. We have made an effort to make Mars more visible in the public eye, and to begin talking about who we are, the principles that we stand for and why we are a great place to work.
We know that Associates and potential Associates want to feel proud about who they work for.
You arrived at the Joseph Wharton Awards Dinner on a return trip from Russia. You also represent Mars in China and a variety of other countries. How do your principles influence these inter- national relationships?
When you build a business, you need to build trust and open channels of communication with your customers, the retail industry and governments around the globe. Whenever I can bring the conversation around to how we do business, not just on what we want to achieve, but also the principles behind our business, they see that we are looking for a mutual benefit. I explain, “We want to build a successful business that will create opportunities for communities and people to grow, develop and thrive. We want to build facilities that encourage well-being and create strong jobs that provide a good wage.” Focusing on how we do business — not just what we do, or how much we will invest — opens doors and creates trusting relationships. Having a track record of strong principles and values helps me engage with people wherever I am.
Can you talk about the principle of freedom?
Freedom is about being financially successful to shape our future, stay private and not have to rely on raising capital for growth. It is about operating the business in the way we regard as best and being profitable, so that we can reinvest and help the business grow, without others telling us what to do. Being a private, family-owned business is part of that.
What did you learn at Wharton?
I focused on accounting and finance. They weren’t skills that I had, and I needed them to serve as a business leader and to assess whether a business is successful or not. To ask the right questions, I needed that foundational piece.
What advice do you have for alumni?
Think about how you work with others. If you collaborate with and support others, then in the long run, you will be more successful. Understand who you are as a person — what your values and principles are. Then, make sure that you live your principles and values.
VICTORIA B. MARS is a member of the Mars Board of Directors. She is a fourth-generation member of the Mars family. Her great-grandfather, Frank C. Mars, founded the company in 1911.
Victoria has worked for the Mars business in the U.S. and internationally for over 35 years. She served as Chairman of the Board from 2014 to 2017. During this time, the business combined Mars Chocolate and Wrigley, made strategic acquisitions in premium chocolate and veterinary services, and strengthened its partner- ships to tackle industry-wide issues.
Committed to creating a great place to work, Victoria launched the company’s ombudsman program over 20 years ago, dedicated to addressing workplace issues in a confidential way.
Victoria graduated from Yale University and holds a master’s degree in finance from the Wharton School of Business.
Victoria is a cat lover who enjoys traveling, skiing, cycling and hiking mountains.
– by Kent Trabing