candy manufacturers

On March 27 in Topeka, Kan., Mars Chocolate North America officially opened its first new candy manufacturing facility in 35 years. Gathered for the official lever-pulling ceremony to start up the new SNICKERS Fun size line were the following: Kansas Governor Sam Brownback; Victoria Mars, chairman of Mars, Inc.; Debra Sandler, president of Mars Chocolate North America; and Bret Spangler, site director – Topeka. Can you guess who was in the “hot seat?”

One of the first questions I asked Spangler when I had the opportunity to visit the Topeka facility last month was whether he was nervous. “You have no idea,” he told me. Now, Spangler isn’t the type of fellow who easily gets flustered.

Ask anyone who’s been to a candy plant, and they can tell you that “stuff happens.” Even the newest, most sophisticated machines require “tweaking” and fine-tuning before they reach peak operating efficiency. Well, I wasn’t at the grand opening, but Spangler assured me everything went off without a hitch when the dignitaries hit the button to start the line.

During my visit to the Topeka facility, I had an opportunity to see the man’s calming demeanor in action; while touring the plant, the SNICKERS line encountered a glitch. Spangler didn’t bat an eyelash. He simply turned to me and said he has extremely capable people working on it. There was no need to fret; he was confident that they would resolve the issue. They did.

Talk about empowerment. No doubt that’s why Spangler was chosen to head up operations in Topeka. As he himself acknowledged, the expectations for Mars’ new flagship plant are high. And it’s not as if Spangler’s experience is that heavy on making confections. Although he’s been with the company 27 years, he’s only worked on the confectionery side about five years.

Editor-in-chief Bernie Pacyniak
Bernie Pacyniak

When asked what he thought helped him get the job in Topeka, he replied that it was his “depth and breath” of experiences that probably set him apart. Having worked on manufacturing logistics, business planning, business systems implementation and global projects, Spangler was quick to point out that “you get results through people.”

Having started his career at Mars by unloading trucks at a pet food plant in Columbus, Ohio, Spangler literally worked his way up to being the Big Kahuna of Mars’ confectionery plant of the future. Noting that he has a collaborative management style, “almost to a fault,” the tall, broad-shouldered site director admitted it “doesn’t get much better” than being put in charge of a new $270-million, 500,000-sq.-ft. facility.

“I’m more excited today than that first day I punched in when I started in Columbus,” he says. “I really bleed blue those Mars five principles.”

And one of the biggest thrills Spangler gets is watching how new associates respond to those five principles, he adds. As our cover story relates, finding the right people to fit the Mars culture was more important to Spangler than finding employees with “functional” skills.

Recognizing it was a bit of a risk, Spangler preferred individuals who didn’t “check their brains at the door.”

It’s not always easy managing such people, trust me. I ought to know since I’ve been on both sides of that equation.

Still, I can’t help but feel good about an organization and an industry that respects the ability of the American worker to contribute to a company’s success. My only concern is that it’s not that common a practice.