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Halloween at Mars Chocolate North America, the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer, is an over-the-top extravaganza, and no one loves the festivities more than Tracey Wood, the company’s vice president of people and organization.
"Halloween’s a really big moment for us. Not only for our business, but for our associates," Wood says.
Having an abundance of sweet treats around isn’t unusual at the business’s Hackettstown, N.J., headquarters, since free candy is one of the perks that come with working next to the plant where nearly half of all the M&Ms sold in the United States are produced.
Workers can help themselves all year long to M&Ms as well as Snickers, Twix and Milky Way bars—just a few of the company’s iconic brands. But Halloween sends the candy maker into chocolate overload.
The Hackettstown site hosts more than 1,500 guests at its annual Boo Bash—offering trick-or-treaters shopping bags ready to be filled at themed booths created by teams of employees—and also sponsors a local Halloween parade and costume contest.
For Wood, who will observe her second Halloween at the chocolate maker this year, the event reflects the company’s colorful culture: "We honor the role that our people play in our business, and we see HR as custodians of our culture."
It’s a workplace that breeds loyalty rarely seen these days in corporate America. Wood points out that 12 percent of Mars Chocolate North America’s 4,000 employees have been with the company for 12 or more years. "It’s not unusual to see that kind of tenure," she says, adding that many families have been represented in the company’s workforce for several generations.
Originally from Bunbury, Western Australia’s third-largest city, Wood has spent more than 20 years in human resources in Australia and North America, the last 16 at Mars Inc. She has held a variety of local, regional and global leadership positions in three of the company’s six business segments: chocolate, drinks (including Dove hot chocolate) and pet care products (for example, Pedigree dog food and Temptations cat treats). She is a member of the North America management team and part of the chocolate division’s global people and organization team.
The broad experience Wood gained along the way has given her a keen understanding of the business and HR issues facing managers and leaders.
"We’ve seen phenomenal growth in 16 years," she says. "Family ownership is a big part of how we’ve been able to manage that growth and maintain a strong culture across the organization."
Mars Inc., founded in 1911 when Frank Mars started selling candies out of his Tacoma, Wash., home, has more than 75,000 employees worldwide today, compared with 28,000 in 2000. It ranks as one of the nation’s largest private companies, and Wood strives to preserve the unique Mars brand, no matter how large the enterprise becomes. "One of the things that’s really important in a big business is to make it feel as small as possible," she says.
Making sure that leaders are accessible and approachable is one way of doing that. Wood spends time each workday talking to employees from every part of the business. Her workspace features an open plan designed to foster collaboration and camaraderie.
"We want associates to be able to interact with HR, and we want our team to have a perspective and empathy for what associates do," she says.
Her HR team includes a mix of generalists and specialists "who bring our people strategy to life," she notes.
Another way the company empowers employees is by allowing workers to pursue their passions, such as raising funds for charity. This year, Wood and her HR team supported more than 3,500 Mars Chocolate North America employees who participated in Red Nose Day, a global fundraising campaign to combat poverty. The event raised $47,000 in employee donations, and that amount was matched dollar for dollar by the company.
"It was a wonderful way for associates to have fun together and do good for charitable causes," she says.
Employee retention also gets a boost from a pretty sweet benefits package, says Wood, including a pension plan, a 401(k) with a company match up to 6 percent of an employee’s salary, 30 days of paternity leave, 16 hours of paid time off to volunteer, flexible work arrangements and health care coverage for part-time employees.
Even something as small as the free candy the company offers helps instill pride of ownership throughout Mars’ workforce, Wood says.
"We have 4,000 associates who are also consumers," she says. "We do a lot of tasting panels because quality is the responsibility of every associate. We want associates to know our products and to share their ideas."
The company’s investment in its employees has contributed to its reputation as an employer of choice. Mars was named one of the "happiest companies in America" this year by CareerBliss, an online community for employers, job seekers and recruiters.
Stretch and You Will Grow
Wood encourages her HR staff to get experience working in other functions and believes that development opportunities keep employees engaged and fulfilled. Her personal philosophy is one she shares with her colleagues: "Keep stretching yourself. You’ll grow if you do."
Her career is a prime example. Wood started with Mars as HR manager at Mars Petcare Australia before moving into an operations manager role, followed by director-level positions with Mars Chocolate Australia and Asia-Pacific. She made a huge leap four years ago by moving her family to the U.S. to become global vice president of people and organization for the Mars Drinks division in West Chester, Pa.
Moving from one country to another isn’t easy, she concedes, but adjusting to life in the U.S. has given her three sons a sense of adventure and strengthened her commitment to impart to them the resilience and strong work ethic that her parents gave her. Her husband is a stay-at-home dad who, Wood says, has been "a big support and the reason I’ve been able to do this."
Her experience working in different functions and roles within the company is not unique; rather, it’s embedded into Mars’ HR strategy.
"Our stellar retention rate ties back to the fact that Mars invests in its people," Wood says. "I’ve personally experienced this investment, and I’ve witnessed other associates with similar stories of trying new jobs within the same segment; transferring to an entirely different segment; or moving to a new state, country or continent."
One program that is near and dear to Wood’s heart is the Mars Ambassador Program, which allows employees to share their professional or technical expertise by spending up to six weeks supporting projects run by one of the company’s partner organizations, such as Rainforest Alliance or the World Wildlife Federation, or projects initiated in partnership with local sites and communities.
"The program creates opportunities for associates to improve their understanding of communities that support our business, while sharing their skills to increase partners’ capabilities," Wood says.
She knows firsthand that professional development doesn’t always happen in the workplace. During her tenure at Mars Drinks, she traveled to Kenya with the ambassador program for a week to see the company’s tea operations there.
"We saw the great care that was taken in growing our tea and the impact we have on the community. That will stay with me forever," she says.
In the meantime, she and her HR team have to get ready for a Halloween party that would make Willy Wonka proud.
Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.
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