Mars Snackfood US’s Chicago facility celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, reinforcing Frank Mars’ vision of a plant that is a “model of beauty and efficiency.”

They’re called dew wackers. Ten or more feet in length, these thin bamboo poles were used to brush the dew off bent-grass putting greens to prevent scorching during the midday sun.

Not surprisingly, most ordinary people, even avid golfers, wouldn’t know what a dew wacker was even if it hit them in the head. But visitors will find a pair hanging in the conference room adjoining the museum within Mars Snackfood US’s Chicago production facility.

They’re there to remind managers and employees about Frank Mars’ vision, which was not only to produce the best candy bars in the world, but to do so in a plant that would be a “model of beauty and efficiency.” 

Thus, when Mars realized he needed to expand his operations in the early 1920s, he opted to relocate from Minneapolis to the far West Side of Chicago, purchasing 26 acres of a former golf course.

The decision to build a facility in a residential neighborhood stemmed from Mars’ conviction that if living conditions around a plant were better than those around a typical plant, a better caliber of employee would want to work there.

Members of the Chicago facility's production team pose on the manicured lawn. Front row (l. to r.): Caryn Doerr, quality manager; Nancy DiVasto - associate relations manager; Dave Spehek - operations shift manager; back row: Lana Getman - service & finance manager; Kimberly Ventura - site administrator; Jim McDermott - operations manager; A.J. Singh - site industrial engineer manager; Bill Tumpane - plant director; and Bob Harriman - maintenance manager.

To illustrate the point, Mars built a facility that resembled a country club more than a confectionery factory. The elaborate Spanish-style design featuring tall windows and clay roof tiles is fronted by a manicured front lawn that could double for a putting green.

Completed in 1929, the factory opened its doors at the very time the country was grappling with the beginnings of the Great Depression.

The “showplace of the candy world” not only impressed visitors with its outer beauty (the dew wackers hanging in the conference room actually were used on the front lawn until they were replaced with a mechanized unit), but eventually showcased Mars’ ongoing drive to improve efficiency through automation.

Radio and television personality Art Linkletter pays a visit to the facility in the 1950s.

The 1940s ushered in mechanization and continuous processing, while the 1970s saw the installation of large computerized lines. In all, the plant has gone through 12 expansions since 1929. Today, it houses four manufacturing lines, with processing, packaging and warehousing occupying four floors that total one million sq. ft.

In its heyday, the facility housed 10 production lines, employed 2,500 workers and turned out products such asMilky Way,3 MusketeersandSnickers bars as well as lesser-known but then successful launches such asDr. I.Q.andBuckaroo bars.

Today, it produces 100 metric tons per shift, the four highly automated lines primarily producing miniature-sizedSnickers,Milky Wayand3 Musketeersproducts as well asDove Chocolate bars,Dove Promises andMunch bars.

The front lawn also remains scrupulously attended to, tempting would-be duffers to practice their putting. No such doing, asserts Bill Tumpane, plant director of the facility. Tradition matters. So does Frank Mars’ vision.

The lawn and resident dew wackers are reminders of that vision, one that continues to revolve around the company’s famous five key principles: quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom.

Hundreds of thousands of Snickers are wrapped, bagged and cartoned at the facility as plant personnel look on: (From l. to r.) Flecia Williams, GMP coordinator; Dave Spehek, operations shift manager; Carlos Wiley, senior process operator; Bill Tumpane, plant director; Jim McDermott, operations manager; and Phil Welther.

It’s evident inside the plant, Tumpane says. He cites the phenomenal improvements made during the past two years: a 40% boost in output - a result of Kaizen-directed suggestions from employees - as well as various investments in infrastructure improvements, everything from processing equipment investments to parking lot repaving.

“We know we have to be competitive in the marketplace, competitive even with our own factories,” he explains. And while the Chicago facility - as the oldest Mars Snackfood plant - remains firmly entrenched in the company’s history, past successes don’t provide any cover for underperformance.

“We are graded on global benchmarks,” Tumpane adds. “Our central engineering team has taken a global perspective; it’s looking to standardize how we run our factories globally. They’re looking at assets, the idea being to standardize equipment so the company can reduce inventory costs, such as spare and replacement parts.”

Issues such as sustainability and energy savings - critical corporate initiatives - are being implemented across all the company’s manufacturing facilities. Tumpane cites the $140,000 in annual savings resulting from a complete overhaul of the plant’s lighting system, one that stimulated a $97,000 incentive check from the local utility company, Commonwealth Edison, and a $25,000 federal tax rebate.

Jim McDermott watches closely as Snickers "fun-sized" bars undergo enrobing.

Then there’s the push toward embracing evolving technologies, which accommodate the ongoing shift in manufacturing toward increased flexibility.

“We’re looking at purchasing new wrapping machines that can easily accommodate both our mini and fun sizes,” he says. The Chicago facility also is looking at expanding its chocolate crumb capacity while extracting additional output for its chocolate production.

Everything that’s done in the plant reflects a key operating premise, Tumpane continues. “The consumer is our boss!”

However, responding to consumer demand can be challenging at times. Consider the company’s successful launch of its mint-flavored3 Musketeersproduct. Recognizing potential demand for the product early on, it was necessary to ensure that production of the mint-flavored3 Musketeers wouldn’t negatively impact other production lines, particularly since mint can be an overwhelming flavor in an enclosed manufacturing environment.

As a result, the plant’s engineering team constructed a wall around the production area to contain the easily absorbed flavor. The isolating wall not only contains mint production, but limited-edition flavors, including orange, raspberry and cherry.

Phil Welther, operations technician, displays Snickers "fun-sized" bars for inspection.

As Dave Spehek, operations shift manager at the Chicago facility, points out, “Chocolate is like a sponge - it will soak in everything.” And that’s not an issue that operators on an adjoining line producing Snickers fun-size bars want to contend with, he adds.

What operators - and managers - want these days at the Chicago facility are more efficient, problem-free product runs. And thanks to Mars Snackfood’s lean manufacturing and Kaizen-centered philosophy, it’s happening.

Kaizen, which is a Japanese term for a gradual approach to attaining ever higher standards in quality enhancement and waste reduction, focuses on small but continual improvements by involving everyone from plant managers to production workers. 

Typically, the plant will have five Kaizen events during the course of the year, all conducted during off-peak production cycles, explains Jim McDermott, operations manager.

“Just recently, we held a Kaizen event for our line 3 wrapping room,” he says. “The associates get together for a week and literally attack the line 3 wrappers, looking for issues such as where downtime happens, where waste happens. They then come up with ideas to eliminate those problems. After implementing the suggestions, we saw a 20% improvement in efficiencies.”

Multiply those events several times across the production floor, and the numbers add up. As McDermott points out, output per shift improved from 48 tons to 60 tons on one line over the course of three years.

3 Musketeers Mint production starts with nougat rolls heading toward a cutter.

Such involvement partly stems from the empowerment employees have regarding both quality and output.

“Every associate has the authority to stop a line if they see a serious safety or quality issue,” Tumpane says. “There’s an escalation protocol we use, but if it’s an issue, we shut it down.”

Such involvement also applies to quality control.

“Operators own it,” says Spehek. “The expectations are for the operator to conduct a variety of tests during production.”

Those tests, which occur hourly, range from weight checks to package inspections. In general, quality control inspections take up 25% of an operator’s time, McDermott says.

The company’s quality control department then takes the data and analyzes it, compiling a track record of each line’s performance on quality.

Taking ownership of quality also dovetails with taking ownership of place. Hence, Mars Snackfood, because of its emphasis on lean manufacturing, also has embraced the 5 “S” principles: sorting, setting in place, shining, standardizing and sustaining. 

Again, Japanese in origin, this managed system of continuous improvement is aimed at making the manufacturing and production environment an effective and efficient workplace.

“It’s all about how you keep an 80-year-old plant clean,” McDermott says. “Cleaning then becomes in-bred.”

Wrapping operator Ken Wolniak watches 3 Musketeers bars get wrapped at a rate of 1,200 pieces per minute.

That dedication to detail extends to lockers and desks.

“We have a clean desk policy,” Tumpane adds. Again, this goes back to one of Mars’ five principles: responsibility. Everyone is expected to have his or her things in order - it’s part of the discipline.

Mars Snackfood also takes a disciplined approach to reinvesting, which coincides with a continued emphasis on cranking up efficiencies.

“It’s all about using our existing assets and making them more effective,” Tumpane says. “We want more tonnage for the plant.” By being more efficient, he’s confident the Chicago facility will get it.

Even if it means reverting back to using those bamboo dew wackers again.

The Flavor Guy

Last year, Mars announced that it was funding a cooperative effort with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture - Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) IBM and others to sequence and analyze the entire cocoa genome. The  five year, $10-million effort aims at better understanding how to better create a more disease-resistant, better quality cocoa crop. At the same time, the unraveling of the cocoa genome will allow scientists to unlock the various flavor components inherent in good chocolate.

And that’s where Ed Seguine comes in.

“I’m the flavor guy,” says the chocolate research fellow at Mars North America. Nib-deep in annotating the various flavor attributes within the genome, Seguine works off a base of 4,000 chocolate samples, 250 of which he’s actively tasting and carefully detailing a host of flavor characteristics, some sublime, some simply seductive.

And while 50 of those 250 samples require only basic explanations of the taste profile, the remaining 200 will have to be tested and replicated several times for a much more definitive profile analysis.

“This actually takes a bit of time,” he admits. But Seguine is in cocoa heaven doing this work, a process he began first with Gary Guittard, president of Guittard Chocolate Co., 20 years ago, and one that he’s continuing with Mars today.

For Seguine, the mapping of the genome has helped reveal flavor notes that many cocoa growers and buyers thought had disappeared, such as Puerto Cabello from Venezuela. As farmers opted to plant more disease-resistant varieties, the availability of such flavorful beans diminished. Luckily, the cocoa bean’s inherent complexity suggests those flavors are still there; it’s just a matter of bringing them out.

“The genome tells us that the cocoa bean has still got it,” he says. There’s a wealth of flavors, ranging from fresh brown fruits and red fruits to tropical fruits; wonderful floral notes that encompass green grass to woody and earthy sensations.

Seguine’s mission is to ensure that as scientists discover ways to better protect the cocoa from disease while simultaneously helping to increase yields - those magical flavors remain intact. “We want to preserve the genetic variability that exists in this fabulous gift to mankind from Quetzalcoatl,” he says. [Editor’s note: Quetzalcoatl was the Aztec god considered the gardener of paradise and guardian of the cacao tree.]

At present, the structural elements of the cocoa genome are in place, Seguine explains. It’s the annotation, however, that will yield the discoveries. As he points out, “It’s nice to know how all the letters are strung together in the book. But if you can’t read them, it’s still not very useful.”

Seguine estimates that it will take between five to seven years of ongoing research to enable scientists to “read” the cocoa genome, with some information coming much earlier. More importantly, thanks to Mars’ commitment to chocolate research, this effort will remain in the public domain.

As he says, unlocking the cocoa  genome’s secrets will allow the “farmers to win, companies to win and consumers to win” by ensuring a healthier, more plentiful and  more diversified cocoa crop.

And thanks to Seguine, there’s an excellent chance it will be a more flavorful one as well.

At a Glance

Headquarters:Hackettstown, N.J.
Sales: $7 billion
Employees: 4,500
Products: Chocolate bars, ice cream, moulded chocolates, panned chocolates,chewy candies, chocolate wafers, extruded items, granola and savory snacks
Brands:Dove Chocolate,My Dove Chocolate,M&M’S,MY M&M’S,3 Musketeers,Combos,Twix,Snickers,Snickers Marathon,Milky Way,Kudos,CocoaVia,Generation Max,Fling,Munch,Seeds of Change
Confectionery Plants: 7 (North America) Albany, Ga.; Chicago; Cleveland, Tenn; Elizabethtown, Pa.; Hackettstown, N.J.; Waco, Texas; and Newmarket, Ontario, Canada
Management team: Todd Lachman, president, Mars Snackfood US; Betty Palm, general manager, Dove Chocolate Discoveries; Craig Hall, general manager – ice cream; Anibal Martini, global brand director for M&M’S and TWIX; Nick Hastilow, v.p. – commercial; Renee Kopkowski, v.p. – communications; Hank Izzo, v.p. – research & development; Zelda Gray, v.p. – personnel & organization; Paul Davies, v.p. – finance; Jim Cass, v.p. – Mars Direct; Jim Murphy, v.p. – sales; Michele Kessler, v.p. – marketing; and Roy Benin, general manager, Mars Chocolate Canada.

Chicago Facility
Plant: 1 million sq. ft.; four bar lines
Products: Milky Way,3 MusketeersandSnickers in “fun” and miniature sizes;Dove Chocolatebars,Dove Promises,Munch bars
Output: 100 tons per shift
Management:Bill Tumpane, plant director; Jim McDermott, operations manager