Starting in 1911, Mars, Inc. cemented its stature in the confectionary industry when its first candies were created in the family’s Tacoma, Wash. kitchen. Today, the family-run business that has amassed over four generations of growth seems to hold the same principles that were ingrained by Forrest E. Mars, Sr. 

Its management practices include a “mutuality” principle for its 75,000 associates, at a company with six business segments, featuring famous brands such as M&M’s, Skittles, Uncle Ben’s and Doublemint chewing gum.

Victoria B. Mars, chairman of the board for the McLean, Va.-based global firm, sat down with Employee Benefit News at this week’s Great Place to Work Conference to discuss her passion for people and how Mars’ talent management techniques, often seen as being more egalitarian than many other workplaces, can be scalable to other employers.

Mars Inc.’s workplace culture follows a “Five Principles” model that includes quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom. Can you explain how other HR managers can incorporate these same core values into their company’s businesses models?

One of the keys things for us that makes it so easy is that these are our family values, so we didn’t have to create them. We had to come up with the words that reflected what these values are, but we weren’t creating values. We knew what we stood for – we just put in the right words so people could understand them. When I use “responsibility,” they know what that means in our world. I believe that people today connect to values. Someone can say, “Yes, those values reflect my values, I can imagine being very successful there, and thriving there because I am aligned.”

Dating back to its start more than a century ago, Mars, Inc. has always allowed access for associates to family leadership. Can you explain what “visible family ownership” is and how it could be beneficial for other companies to replicate?

What it means, really, is that we are visible and present to our associates. You can have a family business where employees never see the owners, so they’re just stockholders. Our associates know and interact with us, have conversations with us and go to dinners with us; we are real people and that’s what visible family ownership really means. We’re a presence; we want to be able to continue to do that from one generation to another, because we hear from our associates that it’s one of the key things they really love.

How can decentralizing management structure help with guiding a business forward?

I think it’s really a benefit because it means we don’t have a big center; our central office only has 100 people, that’s it. Everything is put out into the regions and they run those businesses. People are making decisions, versus just executing orders. We tell them, “You figure out what is going to work in your market.” I think that makes those jobs far more interesting and inspirational, and really makes [employees] feel like it’s their business.

Having an ombudsman in the workplace seems like it could combat traditional organizational structures. Can this position truly help companies that seek out effective management strategies or will it just disrupt efficiency?

I think the most important thing is to not consider it an intrusion into [the HR department’s] area. Don’t look at it as, “What are you doing now? People should be talking to me.” HR has a goal of helping making this be a great place to work, and an ombudsman has their own goal, and together, we bring different information in a different way and that makes us stronger as a corporation. Also, the head ombudsman should not report to HR, that’s a big mistake. They should report to the CEO.

Now, a hypothetical question: Should Mars, Inc. go public in the near future? Do you see this action hurting the mutuality and shared benefit culture it has fostered for so many years?

Clearly, it would be a total different model. You would lose the fact that you are a private business and could think long-term. You’re driven by Wall Street, by those short-term financial results that need to be delivered. There are plenty of businesses that have gone public that are very successful; I would clearly lose interest. I wouldn’t have the same passion; I would no longer have control. We lose the freedom, the freedom is gone. 

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