Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret Worlds of Hershey and Mars by Joel Brenner


This was a great work of business history. It profiles some of the leading proponents of building the Hershey and Mars corporation and details how their companies became so successful.

Along the way, there are many interesting stories to tell. For instance, how Milton Hershey played a major role in helping to turn chocolate from what used to be a bitter, heavy substance that was difficult to digest to a cherished indulgence.

Hershey spent years experimenting with the ingredients and flavor of his chocolate to perfect the taste. He engineered new methods for making chocolate that allowed him to use fresh milk. (This was a real challenge at the time because the water from milk would not mix well with the oil from cocoa butter.) He improved the efficiency and quality control of his production processes by becoming an early pioneer of automation. He was willing to take great risks with his own money. For example, he sold his established and successful caramel business to stake everything on his idea for a new chocolate company, which grew into the Hershey company. He took great pride in his work and was brilliant at brand-building and self-promotion, which is why his name is so well known today. He had a keen eye for efficiency, as he found ways to profit off the various byproducts of his chocolate-making, such as soaps made from excess cocoa butter or mulch made from the discarded shells of cocoa beans. He constantly experimented with ways to make chocolate and ice cream more nutritious. He even experimented with ice cream flavors such as carrot, onion and celery! They did not take off.

The results? He started a chocolate company at the turn of the century, building into an employer of over 160,000 men and women in just under eight years. He turned a middle-of-nowhere, Pennsylvania into a thriving factory town. His company played a significant role during World War II by creating and supplying tastier, chocolate-laced rations to the troops. He accumulated a vast fortune that enabled him to become a famed benefactor. And he made chocolate an affordable treat for hundreds of millions of Americans whereas it used to be a luxury that only wealthy Europeans could afford.

There was also a fascinating episode in which Hershey clashed with the unions. In 1937, right after the Wagner Act was passed, the bakers' union seized and occupied a Hershey factory in Pennsylvania, demanding above market wages and to become the exclusive bargaining agent for many employees who did not want to be represented by them. This shut down production and led to millions of gallons of milk to go to waste as many Pennsylvania farmers made a living by supplying milk to Hershey. But Hershey was so beloved by his employees, by the town, and by his farmer-suppliers that a pro-Hershey mob eventually stormed the factory themselves and ejected the union-occupiers themselves.

I also really enjoyed learning about the role that the Mars family—especially Forrest Mars Sr.—played in creating and establishing the Mars company. FMS took a scientific approach to manufacturing (he was an industrial engineer by training), invested in the development of automated factory equipment, institutionalized an obsession for cleanliness and quality control at their plants, and acquired his own chocolate suppliers so that his company no longer had to depend on Hershey to supply them with the indispensable ingredient for candy bars.

It is really fascinating to read about FMS's passion for quality control. Products were visually inspected and taste-tested at every step of the supply chain. Ingredients like peanuts and caramel were checked coming into the factory. Candy bars were constantly rejected from assembly lines if they suffered even the subtlest of scuff marks. Even the dog food that Mars produced—they make Nutro, Greenies, and the like—was taste-tested by executives such as FMS! FMS even regularly purchased Mars products himself from stores throughout the country, and if he found any defects—say, M&Ms with the 'm's not printed clearly or printed off-center—he would make a very angry phone call to one of the executives, demanding to know the batch numbers for this product, who was responsible for checking it, etc.

It is rare to find a book that gives a detailed portrait of the productivity of great enterprises, so I was delighted to find this. There are certainly things that I didn't like about the book, but they were pretty minor. For example, sometimes the author seemed to fixate too much on FMS' “volcanic personality” as if he just enjoyed terrorizing people. He probably had some issues, but I think it is also important to keep the context of what quality control means for the food and beverage industry. Even small mistakes could become front-page news—e.g., if someone found a finger nail in a candy bar—and might soil the business' reputation for years and cost them millions in sales. When it came to cleanliness and presentation, I get why he erupted over such screw ups, even if he could have been more diplomatic and amicable.

Reposted from several years ago.


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