© Samohin / Getty Images
Matt Blitz
June 22, 2017

It's 5:30 PM on February 14th and that annoying guy from accounting pokes his head into your cubicle, "Hey there, taking off. I got big plans with m'lady tonight. BIG plans." "Is that so," you respond with little interest, "anniversary or birthday or something?" He guffaws, "No, you ding-dong. It's Valentine's Day. I'm sure you got something planned for your one and only tonight, right?" Your eyes go big. You have forgotten that it's Valentine's Day. "Oh, sh..." before you complete that word, you are out the door.

Racing into the grocery store, you grab anything that might cover up this mistake. Mainly, chocolate. Dove chocolates, pink M&Ms, Twix and Milky Way bars fly into the shopping cart. You have to make dinner tonight, so how about your famous stir-fry? A box of Uncle Ben's Rice and a bottle of Suzi Wan sauce is now on the shopping list. Also, because the pets have to eat too, you toss a bag of Pedigree and a can of Whiskas into the cart. Standing in the checkout aisle, you realize that your breath stinks. Altoids can solve that.

Unbeknownst to you, your Valentine's Day (and, quite possibly, your relationship) was saved by Mars, Incorporated. While known more for chocolate, every single one of those items above is currently being produced by the still family-owned and operated Mars. This probably explains why the family was ranked by Forbes Magazine in 2016 as the third-richest family in America (behind only the Waltons and Kochs).

Here's the story of the Mars family's road to immense fortune and how it was paved with sweet, sweet chocolate.

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It all began very inauspiciously. Around the turn of the 20th century, the family patriarch Frank Mars entered the workforce in St. Paul, Minnesota as a wholesale candy salesman. This wasn't exactly a novel choice for a career. At the time, St. Paul was home to several candy brands like Chick-O-Stick, Pearson's, and Cherry Hump (Chick-O-Stick and Pearson's still exist today). The over-saturation of the market soon caused Mars' wholesale business to fail. His wife, Ethel, divorced him and took their only son, Forrest Mars, to Canada. So, Mr. Mars took off to Washington state to try to reinvigorate his candy career options. There, he found a new wife - also named Ethel - and more failure.

By 1920, Mars and Ethel 2 had moved back to Minnesota and were living in relative poverty when he started tinkering with his own candy recipes. Every morning at 3 AM, Mars would rise for candy experimentation. Later that morning, Ethel would take his creations and sell them to local retail stores. However, one particular combination sold better than the rest. Made with chocolate, nuts and caramel, he named it after himself - the Mar-O-Bar.

As with any good origin story, there are a few aspects may be more legend than truth. So, this tale goes that Forrest Mars, Frank's estranged son from his first Ethel marriage, was in Chicago on business as a Camel cigarette salesman. Having inherited from his father a persistent knack for overzealous selling, he was arrested for plastering unsanctioned ads across the city. It just so happens that Frank Mars was also in Chicago for business, doing relatively well selling Mar-O-Bar regionally. As luck would have it, he heard that his only son was in jail in the same city he happened to be in. So, the estranged father bailed Forrest out.

The two hadn't seen each other in over two decades, but over malted milkshakes, the two talked about their lives late into the night. At one point, as Frank was telling his son about the Mar-O-Bar when Forrest interrupted him. Looking down at his milkshake, he supposedly said, "Why don't you put a chocolate-malted drink in a candy bar?" Like a cosmic force, the Mars father and son went to work creating just that. Using their family name as inspiration, they called the new nougat-infused (a combination of egg whites and corn syrup) candy bar a "Milky Way."

Sales exploded and Frank Mars started living extravagently. He boughts cars, mansions and properties, including a 2,700 acre Tennessee ranch he called Milky Way Farms. But Forrest didn't like what he saw, often telling Frank that he thought he was overspending, not controlling the quality of the product and not running a good business. Perhaps still harboring resentment towards his father, Forrest often ignored his the elder Mars' orders and did things his own way. The last straw was when he demanded his father give him a third of the company to allow him to expand Mars into Canada. Frank Mars said no and, instead, gave Forrest $50,000 and the foreign rights to the Milky Way. Later, Forrest recalled that he told his father "to stick his business up his ass." But he took the deal anyway.

In Canada and, soon, Europe, Forrest Mars developed the company into what we know it as today. Besides chocolate, he produced pet food and a new method that processed rice to make it more storable and more easily cooked. In 1939, he made a deal with the son of Hershey's president R. Bruce Murrie to make sure that both companies would not suffer through a cocoa shortage due to the incoming World War. The first product they made together was a candy coated chocolate pellet. They named the candy after themselves, Mars & Murrie - or "M&Ms."

When Frank Mars died in 1934, the company moved through several family members. While Forrest was given a piece of the company and seats on the executive board, it took until 1964 for him to get what he always wanted - control of Mars, Inc. By then, the company was one of the top candy selling companies in the world, but sales were flat-lining. Forrest Mars made wholesale operation changes to his father's company, beginning a quasi-religious obsession with order, process, secrecy and consistency. One legend goes that he walked into a room and proclaimed that he was a religious man. Then, he promptly dropped to his knees and began praying... except his prayers were rather unusual. "I pray for Milky Way. I pray for Snickers. I pray for Mars," he reportedly said. Forrest Mars' point was that there was only thing that mattered in this world - the Mars company.

Forrest Mars Sr. more or less ran the company until his death in 1999, when he handed over to his son Forrest Mars Jr. (who died in July 2016). Today, the Mars company is still family run, overseen jointly by the great grandkids of Frank Mars out of a windowless building in McLean, Virginia. Some have even compared their obsession with privacy to their clandestine neighbor down the street, the CIA.

While all the infighting and secrecy seems a bit much for a company that makes mints, soy sauce, pet food and chocolate, that's what it took for a one family to create a $78 billion empire.

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