Mars’ outgoing CEO on succession, family businesses and eating his own dog food

At some businesses, “eating your own dog food” is a metaphor. One company takes the saying more literally: Mars, which owns the world’s largest pet food business alongside chocolate brands from M&Ms to Milky Way, expects its managers to test the Iams, Pedigree and Royal Canin products before they leave […]

At some businesses, “eating your own dog food” is a metaphor. One company takes the saying more literally: Mars, which owns the world’s largest pet food business alongside chocolate brands from M&Ms to Milky Way, expects its managers to test the Iams, Pedigree and Royal Canin products before they leave its factories.

After 34 years with the group, and at the end of an eight-year run as chief executive, Grant Reid has eaten his fair share. One of Mars’ five guiding principles is quality, he explains: “You know, if it’s not good enough for me, then why would it be good enough for your pet?” Cesar, he reports, is his favourite brand.

That commitment to the company culture earned Reid, 63, rare public praise from the family that still controls Mars, 111 years after Frank Mars started selling butter cream candy from his kitchen in Washington state.

On the day in June when Mars announced that Reid would be stepping down on Thursday, John Mars, a “G3”, or third-generation, family member who had never spoken to the press before, sent a statement to the Financial Times saying that Reid’s “focus on living our Five Principles and delivering performance is exemplary”. His “humility, warmth and approachability” had turned a working relationship into a friendship, the 86-year-old heir added.

John’s rarely-quoted sister Jacqueline, whose wealth (like his) Bloomberg estimates at more than $50bn, lauded Reid as “a wonderful ambassador for Mars [who] handled his interactions with the public exceedingly well”.

Interactions with the public were once almost unheard of at Mars, inviting inevitable comparisons with another privacy-loving chocolate baron, Willy Wonka. But Reid has played a critical role both in building the fortune of America’s third richest family and in making a 140,000-person company now owned by “G4s”, “G5s” and “G6s” a little less opaque.

The announcement of his planned handover to Poul Weihrauch, head of Mars’ petcare division, extended that trend, revealing that the group’s annual revenues had grown by more than half in Reid’s time as CEO, to almost $45bn. 

The outside world still knows little about Mars’ profits, other than the fact that the family takes a 10 per cent dividend and reinvests the rest, but it now knows that Mars’ sales outstrip those of Coca-Cola and that its growth has left most comparable consumer goods companies in the dust.

It also knows that Reid has turned Mars’ focus on thriving for generations into an argument that it should lead its industry’s efforts to behave more sustainably, encourage healthier snacking habits, reverse deforestation and purge forced labour from global supply chains. Mars once let its brands speak for the company, he explains, but in the social media age “we’ve tried to find our voice”.

Born in Kincardine, not far from Scotland’s Grangemouth oil refinery, Reid admits that he “didn’t see the need for greenhouse gas reductions” until about 20 years ago. Having come late to sustainability, though, he is now leading the push for more regenerative agricultural techniques at the Sustainable Markets Initiative, launched in 2020 by then Prince Charles.

He has also been an accessible, passionate and effective recruiter of other CEOs to the Consumer Goods Forum, says Didier Bergeret, director of sustainability at the industry group, whose “forest positive” coalition the Mars chief co-sponsors.

“I know many private companies and I still don’t see them being as open and transparent as Mars,” Bergeret says: “I’m really sad to see him go.”

The Mars credo, that it should provide a “mutuality of benefits” to consumers, distributors, employees, shareholders and others, was laid down in 1947 by Forrest Mars Sr, the son of Frank and inventor of the Mars Bar. But in an era when more businesses have embraced stakeholder capitalism, “when we tell that story to the consumer, then it really resonates very well”, Reid says.

The former economics student had the advantage of leading a company with a long-defined mission at a moment when some peers were just starting to talk about pursuing a purpose other than profit. But the role of the non-family CEO can be a difficult one: many hired hands have clashed with the clans governing other companies.

“[It’s] not always easy because in a large family there are obviously differing views,” Reid admits, but he has also attended enough Mars weddings and funerals that “I somehow feel like a family member, to be honest”. 

What John Mars called Reid’s “healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo” also aligned with the family’s long-held desire to keep the company moving forward. In his private life, he notes, he measures everything he does, from the weights he lifts to how fast he runs. “I’m always trying to get better, and I think the Mars family encourages that in business.”

Interviewed in New York on his return from a gathering of four generations of his bosses in California, Reid observes that he works for “real people”. So “when I make a commitment on their behalf, that’s a multigenerational commitment”. 

Delivering on those commitments matters, “because I might not be here, but they will”, he notes. “We want to build a business that’s here for the next hundred years, not just my time as a CEO.” 

A target of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions throughout its supply chain by 2050 is not so distant in that context. “If you want a better world tomorrow, then we’ve got to do better business today,” he says, “and part of that is because we’re privately held and we think in generations.” 

Speaking just before he steps down, Reid is also thinking ahead. He will be spending time with governments, non-governmental organisations, companies and private equity groups “to show this model can go beyond Mars”, he says. He is already talking to several private equity firms and says that joining one of them is “very possible”. 

Reid gave the family 18 months’ notice of his planned departure. He had watched sporting idols such as Muhammad Ali stay for “two or three fights too many” and seen other CEO successions where the businesses lost time, value and “strategic energy” so he wanted his exit to be “best in class”. To do that, though, “you have to be vulnerable” by risking lame-duck status.

Three questions for Grant Reid

Who is your leadership hero?

I’ve had a number of people who I look up to and learn from, including John Mars. He’s in his mid-eighties and I still talk to him just to get his perspective. [But] part of my philosophy is that you can learn as much from the lowest-paid associate in the building as the owner, if you just listen.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

I went to the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado about 20 years ago, and it changed my life. They have some bubbles to think about, which is the amount of time you put into [work, family, community and self] . . . What I found was I was putting all my time into work and doing very little for community and self, [so I] brought down the amount of hours I spent at work and put some into community and a lot into self and I felt better. I was definitely less boring than I was before and my business career accelerated.

What would you be doing if you weren’t running Mars?

My passion now is to take the fight for climate change action forward, and I think I’m in a unique position to do that. I’m going to be spending time with NGOs and governments, but also with companies — bringing them all together to show this model can go beyond Mars. I’m going to focus on where I can spend time with people, doing things that really matter.

Asked what advice he has given Weihrauch, he says he wishes he had moved faster. His successor should trust his judgment, he says: “Go, and don’t give up progress in pursuit of perfection.”

About half of the growth Mars achieved under Reid was organic, he says, driven by brand-building and investment in its digital capabilities. But the other half came through acquisitions, including investments in healthier snacks such as Kind bars and 2017’s $9.1bn purchase of a veterinary services business called VCA.

The diversification that has taken petcare to almost 60 per cent of group sales was not a response to the world turning against sugar, Reid insists.

Pressed on how Mars can keep selling more chocolate without worsening the obesity crisis, he parries that confectionery accounts for under 2 per cent of the calories people consume. If its customers understand that chocolate should be an infrequent treat, he argues, then Mars has behaved responsibly.

Asked what makes cats and dogs such an attractive growth business, meanwhile, he replies: “It’s about the relationship people have with their animals.”

Part of a leader’s job is “importing stress and exporting calm”, he explains. And while the judo black belt and mixed martial arts fan has found exercise one way to handle stress, he has also relied on Ollie, a shelter dog, which at 15 is now at an age to need Royal Canin’s “advanced mobility support” food.

“They say the CEO job is a lonely job,” he says: “Not when you have Ollie; he always listens.”

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