NEW YORK — Forrest E. Mars Jr., a billionaire scion of the reclusive family that satisfied America’s sweet tooth with the Milky Way candy bar and M&M’s and who helped build Mars Inc. into the world’s largest confectionary company, died Tuesday in Seattle. He was 84.
The company, which he inherited with his brother and sister in 1973, said the cause was a heart attack.
Mr. Mars and his brother, John, were copresidents of the company, which sold about $1 billion worth of candy a year when their father turned over control. By the time Forrest Mars Jr. retired from active management in 1999, it was an $18 billion-a-year company selling Snickers, Uncle Ben’s Rice, and Pedigree pet food.
Since its acquisition in 2008 of the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., the chewing gum manufacturer, Mars reports sales of $35 billion a year and has 80,000 employees worldwide.
Mr. Mars played an early role in the company’s global expansion, was group vice president for confectionary operations and became copresident with his brother in 1975 as Mars tapped new markets from Africa to Russia.
“Forrest Jr. and his brother are the ones to be credited with making that business a diversified global empire,” said Joel Glenn Brenner, who wrote “The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars” in 1999.
“They were both scarred by their father’s harsh and unforgiving manner, but they had tremendous respect for his business acumen, codified his philosophy and, through the many Mars grandchildren, made certain that the company would continue in perpetuity,” Brenner wrote.
According to the latest Forbes magazine rankings, Forrest Mars Jr. was worth about $25 billion (he owned an 82,000-acre ranch in Montana), and Mars Inc. typically ranks among the nation’s top 10 privately held companies.
Although the company is not famous for its public philanthropy, Mr. Mars was personally honored for his commitment to historic preservation, as a donor of tens of millions of dollars to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and, until a falling out with the executive director, to Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. He also gave anonymously to other causes.
Mr. Mars’ grandfather, Frank, was a failed candy maker until, according to legend, his son, Forrest Sr., suggested incorporating chocolate malt into his Mar-O-Bar, and the Milky Way was born.
Forrest Sr. was also credited with inventing M&M’s, inspired by a lentil-shaped candy he saw soldiers eating during a visit behind the lines during the Spanish Civil War. He named it for the Mars and Murrie families; William F.R. Murrie was the president of Hershey, whose chocolate Mars needed to make the candy, before the two companies became fierce rivals.
Forrest Sr. was domineering and possessed a volcanic temper — in contrast to the more benevolent candy king Milton Hershey.
Scarred by years of criticism that was spurred by Forrest Sr.’s fear that he would raise spoiled children and by his refusal to let them eat candy, his sons forbid Mars executives from mentioning their father’s name in their presence, Brenner wrote in “The Emperors of Chocolate.’’
They seem to have inherited his approach, though.
“Instead of inspiring loyalty and devotion, their manner bred paranoia and insecurity,” the author wrote.
They were so protective that they refused to allow M&M’s to be featured as E.T.’s favorite candy in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 science fiction fantasy. (Reese’s Pieces were used instead, and sales boomed.)
Forrest Edward Mars Jr. was born in Oak Park, Ill., on Aug. 16, 1931, to Forrest Mars Sr. and the former Audrey Ruth Meyer, a volunteer at cancer fund-raising organizations.
He earned a bachelor of science degree from Yale in 1953 and a master’s in business administration from the New York University School of Business in 1958.
Mr. Mars leaves his wife, the former Jacomien Ford; four daughters, Victoria Mars, Pamela Mars-Wright, Valerie Mars, and Marijke Mars; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
After serving in the Army, Mr. Mars began his career in 1955 as an accountant for Price Waterhouse. He joined Mars, which was then barely a $100-million-a-year business, as a financial staff officer in 1959. After working for the company in Europe, in 1970, he moved to the company’s headquarters in McLean, Va.
In 1983, Mr. Mars and his siblings, John and Jacqueline, formalized what they called the Five Principles of Mars — quality, mutuality, responsibility, efficiency, and freedom — based on an objective their father expressed: to create mutual benefits that make a difference for people and the planet through the company’s performance.
After his retirement in 1999, Mr. Mars served on the Mars board until 2006 and remained active in the Mars Foundation. Despite his reclusiveness, he made news a decade ago when he opposed the development of coal and gas fields on his Montana ranch by companies that held drilling leases because it would imperil the property’s water supply.
About the same time, according to The Washingtonian magazine, he was spotted in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by a business acquaintance who called to gain his attention: “Forrest! Forrest Mars!” Forrest strode over and rebuked the man: “Don’t ever call out my name in public!”