110 Years of Family Business Ownership: A Conversation with Victoria Mars, Former Chairman and First Corporate Ombudsman of Mars

June 02, 2021
We sit down with Victoria Mars, former chairman and first corporate ombudsman of Mars, to discuss running a successful family business for 110 years, engaging family members after five generations and leveraging values and principles to maintain focus.

When many people think of Mars, images of candy bars instantly jump into their head. But the business goes far beyond sweets – what started as a candy business in 1911 has evolved into a massive multinational manufacturer and provider of a wide range of food products for people and pets and a network of veterinary health services. What may surprise people more, though, is that the same family has held the reins of the business since it was founded. To get more insight into how the Mars family has made the magic happen, we recently spoke with fourth-generation family member Victoria Mars, former chairman of the company, about running a successful family business for 110 years, engaging family members after five generations and leveraging values and principles to maintain focus.

Tell us about how you have successfully navigated a career in the family business.

My father and uncle believed very strongly that, as a family member, you started at the entry level, so I joined the firm as an assistant brand manager, and then I evolved over time, moving to new job opportunities throughout the firm as they opened up.

Mars is the only company I have ever worked for, and that’s not necessarily a good thing in a family business. Now, we encourage family members to get outside experience first. One of the difficult aspects of being a family member in a family business is that you often wonder whether you are doing a good job and receiving true evaluations of your performance. That can hurt your self-esteem. Being able to say you were successful somewhere else first helps you understand your strengths and capabilities and be more confident in your success within the family business.

The other challenge in a family business is the discovery and then acknowledgment of who you are in that family business. My father and uncle always taught us that we were just like everybody else. We didn’t have any special privileges and were expected to blend in. But as I started to gain seniority (about my mid-30s), I realized suddenly this was no longer the case. As much as most wanted to treat me that way, I knew I was being watched more carefully and that what I said and did mattered. You need to be conscious of your actions – both in and out of the office. For example, you don’t want to give the impression that you have favorites among the associates. When I came to this realization, it was a sad moment. I had to temporarily (until either they or I retired) create some distance in my friendships with colleagues. I found this to be challenging and isolating.

One final point: We realize that if family members are going to work for the family business, then the end objective is for them to be successful. The worst possible outcome is for a family member to work in the family business and fail, because that causes all kinds of problems. We are focused on developing a family employment system for the next generation so that if they do join the business, we are setting them up to succeed.

How has the family’s role in the company changed over time?

For my generation, so many of us were in the business, and I think that is because at some point we got the message that being successful meant working for Mars. You have to take a step back and ask if that is really a good thing. We don’t have many people with other career interests in my generation.

With the next generation, we have made a conscious effort to tell them to follow their passion and do what they want to do. In the end, that is what will make them happy. They have a stewardship responsibility to Mars, but their job does not have to be in the family business. We need happy, engaged kids that feel that they have accomplished what they want to and didn’t feel forced to go into the business.

We have to think through the impact of that level of engagement among the next generation, but I think we are headed in the right direction, knowing that as a family business evolves, you go from being the founders to operating the business to governing the business. There are too many family members to have everybody working in the company as the business and family grow over time. So the question becomes: How do you evolve so that family members feel like they can choose what they’re doing in life, yet there still is a connection in the sense of stewardship toward the business? That’s what we are working on. Another related consideration is that as the business pulls apart, you have to think about where there are going to be holes and where things may fall through the cracks because the same people aren’t overseeing every aspect of the company.

Mars is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year. What is the secret to keeping a family business running successfully for so long?

There are three key processes to keeping a family business going. The first is communication among the family. This becomes particularly important in later generations when not everyone is working at the business. It’s critical to keep all family members informed of what is going on.

The second part is education – making sure that the family has the skills to be good family members and the skills to be good governance members. There are skills family members need to be able to function in a business-owning family, such as conflict management and listening skills. The more people you have, the more different ways you will have of looking at things. Education around how to manage that is absolutely critical.

The third part is good governance, which starts with policies and structures. In the early stages of a family business, there are no structures, but you can’t have that as time goes on. You need clarity around the different roles: governance, operational, ownership and family. Sitting on the board of directors is different from just being a family member, for example. Establishing good governance and clarity around that is absolutely critical.

Overlaying all of these is policies – you need to have clarity around policies that underpin these areas. You can’t expect the business to manage the family. It’s as simple as having criteria for working in the business. One of the key things we have to set up is the employment policy for the next generation, which covers criteria for joining the business, how we are going to manage their careers and how their performance will be evaluated. All of that really has to be put in place as we evolve.

Speaking of the next generation – which is the fifth generation – how do you keep family members engaged and connected to the business?

With each generation, there’s a different knowledge, connection and experience within the business, and that is going to continue. We have to acknowledge that and find a way to keep the family connected. Knowledge is not the only piece – emotional connection is absolutely critical. Emotional connection comes through those processes I just discussed, but it also comes through having strong principles and values. We all fall back on our principles and values – the “how” – and we’re lucky that they are so strong. They not only pull the organization together, but also the family together. Beyond our principles and values, we are aligned on our purpose statement: The world we want tomorrow starts with how we do business today. It speaks to the family.

Focusing on the values, the principles and the purpose will keep family members emotionally connected to the business, even if they are not working in it, because they can ask questions such as: Is the business living that purpose? Am I proud of what our business stands for? I think that is how we will continue to keep that connection for generations.

The company will look different with the next generation, and it’s important for the current generation to acknowledge that and let go, which is not always easy. But if you come back to those values and the emotional connection, you can carry through those changes.

On the topic of values, Mars operates under “Five Principles.” Are these family values, company values or both? Walk us through the five principles and why it matters that the employees of Mars embrace them as well.

Before we had our purpose, we had our five principles: quality, efficiency, responsibility, mutuality and freedom. The business wrote them down, but they really came from the family. We can document my grandfather’s view of mutuality back to 1947. Beyond that, the principles and values were not officially written down until 1983, but they lived through the business. Why were they finally written down? The business was growing, and we needed to make sure that all our associates worldwide knew the basic values of the organization. You reach a point where you can’t sit and talk to everybody in person and tell them the values.

The principles are the glue that holds us together. You can look at the words and say that quality, efficiency and responsibility are pretty traditional and that any good business probably has an element of those. However, what actually creates the magic are the two other principles – mutuality and freedom. I always think of mutuality as looking at every interaction the business has from a win-win perspective. That is in everything that we do, from negotiations, to fair pricing, to how we treat associates – it’s all about creating these win-win relationships. Then, we need to be a profitable business in order to retain our freedom. This is what allows us to think long term and do what we want to do. If we have freedom because we are financially successful, then we can make decisions looking five or 10 years out.

Anybody can focus on one principle. The real magic happens when you have all five principles working simultaneously. The trade-offs that you have to make to find the right balance when you’re making the decisions is what drives how we do things at Mars. Don’t just tell me about the quality principle or about the mutuality principle – tell me how you thought about those other four principles relative to your decision, because I need the balance between them. It makes it tricky, but it’s also what creates the magic for how we approach things and anchors the family for generations.

Mars has become a more transparent company. Many private companies don’t provide as much external transparency. Why is transparency important for Mars?

The short answer is, if you don’t tell your story, someone else will. That was how we were persuaded into being more transparent. As a family, being transparent when you’ve been very private is not easy to do, but we realized that we had to be.

The world has also changed. My grandfather always said that the brands speak for themselves. Each brand during his time stood independently, and consumers and employees didn’t care that they were connected. Today, consumers have changed in terms of what they are looking for. They want to know who and what is behind a brand, and they care that brands are connected. They don’t look at each brand independently. Current and potential Mars associates also care about what the business stands for. People make choices based on values and principles, not just how much a business is going to pay them, and that’s a huge evolution. It matters to this next generation.

If we want to compete in the world of talent, as well as attract consumers, we need to tell people who we are and what we stand for, so they hear what Mars is from us. It’s playing out in a positive way, and it’s been important in earning the trust of all of our stakeholders, including the family members. It matters to them, too.

Victoria, thank you for your time and insights.

Interview conducted by Nichol MacManus, and article written by Kaitlin Barbour.

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