LIFE ON MARS: Ballarat's chocolate dream jobs

Chocolate rivers, toffee trees, snozzberries and gobstoppers.

It’s hard to imagine a more magical place to work than a chocolate factory.

On the outskirts Ballarat, we have been granted a rare tour of Mars only Australian chocolate factory.

Inside, the smell of cocoa and noise of machinery is overpowering. Workers scurry around huge vats of chocolate, as robotic arms rapidly load Mars bars, M&Ms and Maltesers into boxes, to be trucked to supermarkets and milkbars across the country.

But Mars has not been voted one of this year’s best places to work because they make chocolate.

We soon discover Mars is different in nearly everything they do. Quirky, close-knit and sometimes even cultish, those inside the Mars family can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“No one has left the business voluntarily in the last 10 years,” Michael Ryan, general manager of Mars chocolate in Ballarat, tells Boss proudly.

In fact, the average tenure of factory workers is 18 years or more. Those who do leave, often return “home” to the Mars“family” after years away, we are told.

The 2234 Australian workers are known as “associates” rather than employees and long-time associates are nicknamed Mars-ians.

“We don’t talk about managers and employees, we talk about everyone as a partner in the business,” Ryan says. “Everyone is treated the same, everyone has the same size desk but that means you are expected to contribute to the business too.”

Mars teams are encouraged to perform t’ai chi to exercise the mind and body and waistlines are measured each year to check for signs of obesity, under a program known as Believe.

“The waistline of our associates has reduced 5.7cms over three years,” says Shaid Shah, manager of another of Mars five regional factories, Mars food in Wyong NSW, which exports Dolmios, Kan Tong, Uncle Ben’s and MasterFoods around Australasia.

Management conduct Gallup polling to check how well staff know the five Mars principles: quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom. The four Australian general managers emphasise that polling and health tests are voluntary, although more than 90 per cent of the associates participate, they quickly add.

Australian companies score worst on the best places to work survey when staff are asked whether they “receive a fair share of the profits made by this organisation”. Mars scores above the average. Their “total rewards statement” breaks down employee’s pay, which is benchmarked against the 75th percentile of comparable industries. The rumour in town is that even the cleaners receive upwards of $80,000 each year.

It’s hardly surprising then, that getting into the Mars family isn’t easy. Jobs are highly sought after and one insider revealed an all day group interview began the night before over dinner where candidates were handed a surprise disaster scenario and instructions for a presentation at 8am the next morning.

The company’s secretive nature – it rarely grants media interviews or access to the factory – adds another layer of mystique to the Mars culture.

“There is mythology around a lot of companies but there is probably more around MARS than most,” head of Mars Wrigley in Asquith NSW, Andrew Leakey chuckles.

It is easy to be cynical about Mars’ unusual methods but a casual chat with staff confirms employee engagement is genuine.

Office workers solemnly discuss the company’s programs including Believe and Make the Difference and talk fondly about their fellow associates. Jibes about the “kooky” culture are met with blank stares or surprise.

It helps explain why Mars is the only manufacturer and among a handful of regional employers on this year’s best places to work list.

“There are not many places where you come to work and you are exactly the same person when you clock in and clock out, we embrace the whole person,” Wyong’s Shah says mystically.

The key to that culture is maintaining a small, family business environment, even when you are responsible for over a $1 billion in sales, the four Australian general managers agree.

None of the managers can confirm a legend that the fiercely private Mars family, one of the richest in the world according toForbes magazine, has been known to stay in a caravan on site and travel across Australia to visit the various factories, but it would be consistent with their humble nature, they admit. Staff talk exceedingly fondly of the Mars grandchildren who, we are repeatedly told, are regular visitors to our shores.

“All the Mars family love Australia,” Ryan says when asked whether high costs could one day force the company to leave. “John Mars [grandson of founder Frank] used to fly a light plane around Australia. His daughter Linda loves horse riding across Australia,” he says.

Leakey says the culture means the company can be more nimble and flexible than other businesses, particularly compared to listed companies where he has also worked.

“We focus on costs as hard as anyone but what we don’t do is take money out to give to shareholders but we reinvest it in the business,” he says. “Mars is a family owned business so it has a much longer term focus”.

He cites the recently announced five-year $52 million upgrade to Mars plant and equipment which will allow the chocolate factory to produce 5 billion Maltersers each year, as a good example.

“The low and no hierarchy structure means that decisions happen much faster than anywhere else I have worked,” he says.

He believes that culture is also critical for attracting the best talent. “We are in the race for the same talent pool as all these tech start ups. We have to make sure we are a smart modern workplace,” he says.

The final ingredient of the Mars culture is engaging the regional communities where they work.

“[We partner with] too many local programs to mention,” says Sylivia Burbery, general manager of Mars Petcare based in Albury Wodonga and Bathurst, which makes Whiskas, Pedigree, My Dog, Schmackos and Dine. Programs include Paws in the Park, Dogs for Diggers, Pups in Prison and taking prisoners on work release from Bathurst correctional centre.

“Our factories are based in rural communities and it helps us create a really personal work environment and a really strong connection with the community,” she says. Burbery confesses her long distance travel schedule makes it impossible to own a pet herself but she does let staff bring their animals to work as part of a sort of doggie-day-care service, “provided they are well behaved”, she laughs.

ARS has been judged 20th in 2014 Best Places to Work list released on September 12, which examined 137 companies across Australia, surveyed 28,086 employees and audited managers about their efforts to create a great workplace culture.


Associates: The 2,234 employees are known as “associates” and long-time nicknamed MARSians. 

Believe: Health and well being program including gym facilities, diet programs and t’ai chi.

Make the Difference: Awards program which recognises the best employee ideas. 

Reverse Mentoring: Young graduates teamed with managers to learn social media and new trends.

Good Pay: Total rewards statement is benchmarked against the 75th percentile of comparable industries .

Good Time Keeping Bonus: 10 per cent of the “generous salaries” are tied to clocking in on time, including for office staff – although the system is currently under review to allow greater flexibility.