Chocolate lovers around the world have none other than Forrest E. Mars, Sr. to thank for the milk chocolate candies that “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” The candy, of course, is M&Ms®. Not only did Mars invent, patent, and market the creation, but he also built a chocolate candy empire via the multinational conglomerate that would become M&M/Mars, Inc.
Mars was born on March 21, 1904 in Minnesota and was raised in Canada by his grandparents after his parents’ divorce. He entered the University of California at Berkeley and later transferred to Yale University, where he completed a degree in industrial engineering in 1928. He was a highly competitive individual with a gift for business.
His father, Frank C. Mars, operated a successful candy business of his own in Chicago. He reunited with his son and invited him to work with him. Mars, Inc. was established in Frank’s home in Tacoma, Washington in 1911. From this company came the ever-popular Snickers®, Milky Way®, Three Musketeers®, and Mars® bars. The younger Mars wanted to expand, but his father did not, so he took a buyout from his father, along with the rights to sell some of the Mars brands overseas, and he moved to England.
In Europe, Forrest Mars worked for Nestle® and Tobler® to learn more about the candy business. He also set up a small candy factory in England. Eventually, he moved back to the U.S. and opened his own food manufacturing business, Food Products Manufacturing, where he established the Uncle Ben’s® rice line and later, gourmet pet food. In 1940, he made his first independent move into the candy business in the United States.
Somewhere in his travels, Mars had come across a candy that was essentially tiny chocolate pellets surrounded by a sugar shell. He may have seen soldiers eating them during the Spanish civil war, but no one seems to know for sure. What is known is that in 1940, Mars concocted his own version of candy-coated chocolate drops and took them to the Hershey Corporation. There, he proposed an 80-20 partnership to Bruce Murrie, the son of Hershey executive William Murrie, in which Bruce would be the 20-percent partner. At the time, World War II was developing, and chocolate was rationed during this period. The Hershey Corporation, however, already had a deal to provide chocolate for the troops.
The savvy Mars struck a deal with Hershey via Murrie, whereby Murrie would provide some capital, and Hershey would provide chocolate, sugar, and technology. The partners named the product after the first initials of their last names: M&Ms.
The design was patented on March 3, 1941. That year, M&M, Ltd. began production in Newark, N.J., and the first M&Ms went on sale. The candy, originally sold in paper tubes, came in brown, yellow, orange, red, green, and violet, later replaced by tan. A year later, World War II began, and M&Ms were immediately popular among soldiers because of the candies’ ability to travel well and withstand high temperatures. Soon the Armed Forces incorporated M&M's into soldiers' C-Rations and sold them in post exchanges and ships service stores.
In 1946, the war ended, and M&M's became available to the general public again. Soon, Mars bought Murrie out and took sole ownership of the M&M brand. In 1950, the company began imprinting an 'm' on each candy to ensure customers that they were getting the original, “real thing.” They also began heavy national advertising.
In 1954, M&M Peanut Chocolate Candies were introduced, and the black M&M imprint was changed to white. That year, the company also began television advertising using cartoon characters and launched its famous M&M slogan, "The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand." By 1958, demand for M&M's had surpassed 1 million pounds per week. In 1981, M&M's even went to space. They have since been included with food rations for astronauts on more than 30 shuttle flights. M&Ms were also the official candy at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
After his father’s death, Mars took over the family business, Mars, Inc., and officially merged his company with it in 1964. During the course of his career, he also patented a line of vending units that used an electronic recognition system instead of the typical weight drop mechanism.
He retired from Mars, Inc. in 1993 and started a new candy company, Ethel M. Chocolates, which soon had sales in the hundreds of millions. Ethel M., named for Mars’ mother, joined M&M Inc. and Dove as M&M/Mars in 2003. Today, brands include Dove® ice cream bars, Combos®, Twix®, Kudos®, and pet food brands Kal Kan and Pedigree®.
Mars died on July 1, 1999 at the age of 95. At the time of his death, his estimated net worth of $4 billion made him one of the richest people in the U.S., according to Forbes magazine. His sons, Forrest Mars, Jr. and John Mars, are now executives with the candy company. They, along with Mars' daughter, Jacqueline Mars Vogel, are also said to be worth $4 billion each. Based in Hackettstown, N.J., M&M/Mars employs 30,000 people worldwide, with sales of more than $20 billion per year.