Bernie Pacyniak Mars Topeka
Editor-in-cheif Bernie Paynicak stands in front of the Mars Chocolate North America plant in Topeka, Kan. 

It’s not often that one gets to visit a spanking new confectionery manufacturing plant in the United States. So you can guess how thrilled I was when I received a call and was asked if I’d like to see the company’s new plant in Topeka, Kan.

Heck, yea, I said. OK, maybe I phrased it a bit more graciously. Of course, I had put in my “dibs” on seeing the facility months ago, the very moment Mars announced it had chosen Topeka as the place it would build its first new manufacturing facility in more than 35 years.

Yesterday, I had the chance to see the real deal. From the cool entry way featuring a giant green M&M canopy to the nine-car rail shed at the rear of the facility, everything here’s big and bold. The roughly 500,000 sq.-ft. plant, built at a cost of $270 million, represents the future. Actually, it’s designed to handle the company’s production capacity for the next 50 years.

And, as one would expect, the company spent a lot of time in not only designing the structure to meet present and future needs, but also in choosing the location. The two-year exhaustive search included visits to 17 states and more than 80 potential sites. Rather meticulous if you ask me.

But as Bret Spangler, site director – Topeka, explained, it wasn’t just the givens — a flat piece of land close to rail, road and air; local and state incentives; and a good talent pool — that played a key role. In this instance, the community fit Mars’ “culture” profile like, well, a well-wrapped candy bar.

 “The culture within the community matched well with our five principals – quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom,” Spangler says. “You could see early on that the community leadership as well as the workforce was a great fit for Mars.”

Since I had never been to Topeka before, I found the emphasis on community values interesting as a key component in determining a spot for candy production. But then, Mars isn’t your ordinary candy company. So what made this place so attractive to Mars?

It had to be those Midwestern values, such as a strong work ethic, honesty, charity, lack of pretense, respect for family, religious beliefs, the list goes on. Midwesterners, especially given this past winter, tend to be weathered, be it from a meteorological or lifestyle point of view. It takes more than a few overhyped storm warnings to make them pack up and go. We’re here for the long term.

But what about skills, I asked Spangler. Were you able to find folks who are not only mechanically inclined but have a good grasp of engineering and computer concepts? Again, Mars did its homework. Prior to selecting Topeka, the company interviewed other manufacturing companies located in the area, which included such CPG companies as Frito-Lay, Del Monte Foods, U.S. Foods, Reser’s Foods, Bimbo Bakeries and Hill’s Pet Nutrition.

And while everyone had perpetual openings for maintenance technicians, the overall consensus indicated that there was a good mix of semi-skilled and skilled workers in the area.

Interestingly enough, when it came to interviewing prospective candidates for openings at the new plant, the overwhelming determination came down to whether candidates met “cultural” requirements as compared to “functional” skills.

And while Spangler admits the strategy meant taking a bit of a risk, the decision paid off “huge dividends.”

“We wanted people that were engaged to get the job done, that were driven by continuous improvement, and empowered to make a decision,” he says. “We don’t want our employees to check their brains at the door. We want them to make decisions and take risks.”

 The move seems to have worked since the startup of the SNICKER’S fun size line took only 12 days, from the time they introduced product to the time it was inspected, a record for the company.

There’s much more I want to tell you about the new facility, but hey, you’re going to have to wait till our May issue of Candy Industry Magazine.  You know, don’t want to give away the entire story right away. It’s a Midwestern thing.