This Wharton alumna has ensured her family business remains one of the most principled organizations on the planet.
By Matthew Brodsky
Mars Inc. may be best known for its sweet treats. But it is a massive family company—the fifth largest U.S. private firm with more than 75,000 associates in 74 countries—that operates in a wide variety of industries and with household brands: a chocolate segment with M&Ms and Snickers, a petcare segment with Banfield Pet Hospitals and global brands including Pedigree and Whiskas, as well as brands like Wrigley gum and Uncle Ben’s rice. It is also a principles-based business with a strong foundation of trust—with all stakeholders, including its consumers and associates.
As recently named chairman and long-time ombudsman of her family’s firm, Victoria B. Mars WG84 embodies these values. She has an affinity for helping people—something she first got an inkling of trying her hand in Health Care Management courses at Wharton. She didn’t end up going into health care after Wharton—as she recounts, the “pull” into the family business was stronger than the pull into health care—but her innovative attention to people has put Mars at the forefront of the growing movement in corporate America toward trust.
What follows is an excerpt from an interview between Mars and Wharton Magazine, covering her career, her values and her company.
WHARTON MAGAZINE: You’ve had a very varied career at Mars since receiving your Wharton MBA. What have been your favorite moments, your favorite assignments?
VICTORIA MARS: We purchased Dove Ice Cream back in the late ’80s. It was a teeny, tiny company, Dove Bars, based out of Chicago. After we purchased that business, they sent me in. In a family business, you don’t necessarily have a career path. They said, “This is where you’re going.” I started off as vice president of finance, personnel and purchasing (and titles mean nothing).
It was probably the most fun assignment I had because it was so entrepreneurial, so roll-up-your-sleeves. We all did whatever was necessary. If the Dove Bar line was down and we needed people to be dipping Dove Bars, we were out dipping Dove Bars. If we needed to be out on the street selling because sales weren’t up, we were out selling. If we needed to make a decision quickly on how much overrun you were going to put in the ice cream, we’d all pull together and make the decision quickly.
It’s also where I discovered my real passion for people. Slowly, I dropped the finance. I dropped the buying part, and I was left with the people part. That’s how I said, “Aha! This is where I belong. This is where I’m comfortable.”
WM: And is that how you became an ombudsman?
MARS: From there, I actually took a few years sabbatical. I was trying to raise my children and realized I couldn’t be superwoman, and that I couldn’t do it all. So I took a few years off to stay at home. But I really missed that connection and being involved in the business. I went back, and that is when I got assigned to start up the Ombudsman program at Mars. This is now 17-plus years ago.
There weren’t many ombudsman programs in corporate America. That was my real opportunity to make a difference to people. To be there, and to see how we could improve the working environment. The working experience for people, by really having an organization—a very small organization within in a big organization—focused on listening to people.
WM: That’s what ombudsmen do?
MARS: We listen. And then help them help themselves, and help them resolve their issues themselves, supporting them in whatever way we can.
WM: How was the transition to top leadership, to the board chairman role?
MARS: My transition came with a lot of time and preparation. I had considerable support from within the organization. For me, [when] transitioning out of the ombudsman role, which I had been doing for 16 years, I was very proud of having established and grown [it] to what it is today. The Mars ombudsman program is recognized as gold standard in terms of how to have a global ombudsman organization. That was a very big part of my identity and my pride in what I’ve accomplished within this organization—and something that I was recognized for and could feel that I achieved it on my own, not because of who I am.[For] many family members within a family business, there are times where you have to say, “Have I done this? I’ve achieved this because [of] my competencies? Or does it have to do with the fact that my last name is Mars?”
WM: Regarding the Ombudsman program, it is part of the larger culture of trustworthiness at Mars. Please explain.
MARS: To make our organization function and be successful, it’s all about our people. In the end, we have great brands, and we can have fantastic factories, but if you don’t have the people that have a passion behind our brands to either make them or sell them, we don’t have a business. So I really want to make sure that this is a place that associates—and we call them associates, not employees—where they feel valued and respected. And feel like they can make a difference in our organization.
For us, that means that the “how” is just as important as the “what.” I say it’s not just, “Are you delivering your numbers?” What’s really important is how you deliver those numbers. Now, clearly you understand that even if you’re a great team leader, but you’re not able to achieve anything on the “what” side, that’s going to become a problem. But we really emphasize that how you interact with your people, and how you are as a leader or as a team player, is really, really, really critical.
Again, it’s about respect. We have open offices. Open dialogue and communication between departments, hierarchies. The president doesn’t have a bigger space than a sales associate that happens to be borrowing a desk while in the office. It’s this sense of, we’re all in this together. And one person isn’t more important than another. We have different roles. We take more risks, less risks, depending on how high up you are in the organization. However, it does not make one person more valued than the other person.
WM: Was this a shift in culture for Mars?
MARS: No, because we’re founded very much on our Five Principles. And our Five Principles are Quality and Efficiency and Responsibility, Mutuality and Freedom. The real trick is making them all work together because you’re constantly balancing one off of the other to get best results.
The philosophy, the defined Five Principles, was written down in the ’80s—really because the organization was getting too big to be able to do it just by word of mouth. At that point, my father and my uncle were running the organization, [and they said], “We need to put this down on paper so everybody understands and everybody is aligned behind the same philosophy.” But the actual principles that were written down at that point have existed way back into my grandfather’s time.
WM: Is there one principle that sticks out? Is more unique?
MARS: The one that pops up the most is this concept of Mutuality. Which in very simple words for me, is about finding win-win solutions. It’s not about win-lose. Together, our relationship is going to create a better success for both of us, not one versus the other. We apply that all the way through from our associates, to our suppliers, to our consumers.
WM: Did you have a light-bulb moment as ombudsman, about just how powerful the role and these principles are?
MARS: Was there a story? I don’t know. The ombudsman role had to gain a lot of traction. One of the thoughts behind initiating an ombudsman program was that, as we became a bigger organization, as the family could not be everywhere all the time, we wanted to make sure we could hear from our people all around the world that, really, the principles are being abided by. And it’s hugely rewarding to see that happening.
Read more about building a trustworthy organization in the article “Trust Issues,” also in the Winter 2015 issue.