M&Ms and the American Dream | Don Brunell

Entrepreneurs helped make America great.  Many of the “big businesses” we know today started in the imaginations of immigrants who came to America, the land of opportunity – a place of boundless possibilities where your station in life didn’t matter, a land where hard work, innovation and perseverance held the key to the American dream.

The story of M&Ms is a good example.  Today, we know the Mars Company as a global giant marketing its candy and products in 100 nations.  But it didn’t start that way.

The Mars Company was founded in 1911 in Tacoma where Frank C. Mars made his first candies in his kitchen. The company was in business for 30 years before its star took off when soldiers in World War II started carrying candy-coated chocolate pieces that didn’t melt in their packs.  The candy was called M&Ms, and the company’s most famous slogan boasted, “It melts in your mouth, not in your hand.”  Today, Mars produces two billion M&Ms an hour.

As a family-owned business, the Mars Company has defied the odds.  Business Week reports that the average life span of a family-owned business is 24 years and only three percent survive beyond the fourth generation.   Mars is 103 years old.

Like all successful businesses, its leaders take calculated risks, add diverse product lines, find financial backing, hire and retain topnotch workers and survive on creativity and innovation.

While many in government would like to exert ever more control over business, the bureaucracy is not known for creativity, innovation or risk taking.  In fact, those traits are often discouraged in the bureaucracy in favor of command and control rulemaking.

We forget the successes we see today came about only because someone had a new idea and backed it with ambition, risk taking and hard work.

Creative people like Walt Disney started in garages and basements and invented products that captured our imagination.  Other than Disney, who could have dreamed in 1928 that a little mouse in a black and white cartoon film strip would launch a company that now employs 175,000 people worldwide with $45 billion in revenues?

Twenty years ago, who would have imagined that Boeing would be manufacturing jetliners made of carbon fiber rather than aluminum?  That is a risk those in government would not likely take.

While Disney and Boeing are now publicly traded companies, Mars has remained in private hands.

Family-owned businesses are still America’s economic backbone. According to the University of Vermont, there are 5.5 million family-owned businesses in the United States that contribute $8.3 trillion to our economy, employ 63 percent of the people in our workforce and are responsible for 78 percent of all new jobs.

For example, George Propstra, son of a Dutch immigrant, opened the first Burgerville USA in 1961 in Vancouver and today there are 40 stores in western Washington and Oregon employing 1,500 people.

However, many are like the local dry cleaner in Olympia where the whole family puts in long hours at the shop.  For them, just paying the rent and utilities often can be a struggle.  Add to that loan payments, insurance, taxes and permit costs and if there is extra help, wages, payroll taxes and benefits.

In the best of times, businesses are subject to the whims of consumers, competition and volatile economic cycles.  Too often those pressures are lost on people in government and elected to public office who think businesses can simply pass along higher taxes and regulatory costs to their customers and survive.

Elected officials and the government bureaucracy should take care not to smother the innovation, creativity and opportunities that made America great.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.