I have long believed that articles about business, when well-written, can be as exciting as most fiction. The ideas, methods, and actions of people, especially innovators, are endlessly fascinating. When such stories are wrapped in history, when you find out where these folks come from and where they are going, they become even more interesting.
 
One of the best books of business history – and just a plain old-fashioned “good read” – is The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars by Joel Glenn Brenner (Random House, 1999). 
 
In 1989 Washington Post reporter Brenner was assigned to do a story on the huge Mars candy and food company, which is headquartered in suburban Washington. They sent in a cold reporter – he did not even know that Mars was a privately-held family company, one of the most secretive on earth. Brenner called the company every week for months, tried every method he could to get in the door. Finally they opened up to him. The CEO had only given one interview in his life, and his interview with Brenner would turn out to be his last for many years to come.
 
Consider such tidbits as these:
 
  • When founder Frank Mars kicked his son Forrest (“The Howard Hughes of the Candy Industry”) out of the company in the 30s, the son went to England to build his own company, and never spoke to his father again.
  • The company’s headquarters is totally nondescript; you would never guess it was a company headquarters.
  • The Mars family, who own and run the company, do not have private offices or dedicated secretaries. They clock in on time clocks! 
  • Everyone in the company sits at plain metal desks and flies economy class.
  • The company pays well, but their total focus is on their products and product quality.
  • They are very “un-Wall Street.” This company is based on the opposite of get rich quick executives who only think about themselves. Think about that next time you grab some M&M’s or a Snickers Bar.
 
Brenner’s digging into Mars could not help but lead him to study arch-rival Hershey, a public company but one with an equally fascinating history. Milton Hershey was a utopian, and he left his fortune to create the world’s wealthiest orphanage. His story, that of the company he created, and that of his company town, Hershey, Pennsylvania, is every bit as fascinating as the Mars story.
 
I sometimes wonder if the lure of chocolate draws unusual business people. In the UK, the great Cadbury and Rowntree chocolate companies were founded by Quakers, social activists who were way ahead of other industries in taking good care of their employees. Swiss Giant Nestle, now the world’s largest food company, is a classic case of a big company with a long-term “quality” view, and it has deep roots in the chocolate business.
 
In these times of obsession with quarterly results, of getting to the top of a company as soon as possible and making as much for ourselves as possible, it is so refreshing to study companies like these, to see that their lasting success is rooted in much bolder, braver, and more visionary motives.
 
And reading about how human – or superhuman or just plain eccentric – their founders and leaders are makes the stories that much more fun to read. If you know of anyone who thinks business is boring, get them this book!

 

    


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