A global candy manufacturer chooses the Kansas capital for a new home
Story by Kim Gronniger
M&M’S and Snickers are an American mainstay in movie theaters, kitchen cupboards, desk candy dishes, Halloween hauls, Christmas stockings, Easter baskets and other holiday celebrations.
Mars, the company that manufactures these popular brands, has followed a commitment to quality, ingenuity and clever marketing to build a loyal and growing customer base. In fact, by 2014, Mars Chocolate North America had to expand to keep up with demand, and chose Topeka, Kansas, as the location of its first new plant in 35 years. The plant was opened with fanfare and quickly integrated into the company’s global production scheme. In fact, just one year after the plant opened, Food Engineering magazine named the Topeka facility—staffed with a locally sourced workforce—as its manufacturing plant of the year.
And just one year after that, the company announced a $100 million expansion to produce M&M’S Caramel, a new treat available in stores only since April 2017.
Why was the capital of Kansas selected to host this successful expansion? Topeka competed with 80 communities as the Mars site selection team assessed a number of critical factors before making a $270 million initial investment to create a new plant: area logistics, access to skilled labor, technical features of the land including utilities and rail service and even quality of life considerations for its associates. The capital city received high marks in all categories, particularly for its culture.
Part of the collaborative effort to attract Mars to Topeka in 2014 included a $9.1 million Joint Economic Development Organization incentive package and the donation of 150 acres of property at the Kanza Fire commerce park, an investment that has brought numerous benefits to the state.
But Bret Spangler, site director for the Topeka plant, says there was one factor that sealed the deal. “The tipping point was the natural fit of the Topeka community with our Five Principles.” The company’s Five Principles are as core to every aspect of Mars operations as the “M” printed on each M&M: quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom.
For example, the responsibility to meet Mars’ stringent sustainability standards led to the plant’s LEED Gold certification.
“We harvest rain water for irrigation, leverage heat recovery systems and high-efficiency equipment to ensure we are proactively taking responsibility for protecting our environment,” says Spangler.
That element of responsibility also extends to the plant’s commitment to the well-being of its associates by providing an on-site gym, healthy options in the cafeteria and lots of natural light throughout the complex.
“Our Topeka site vision is to deliver ‘Through Outstanding People,’ a play on our site location acronym of TOP,” Spangler says. “We have leveraged our global experience to build a site with the latest technology, but it takes outstanding people to operate at the highest levels of efficiency while also creating a great place to work.”
These cultural, non-negotiable attributes are key to the company’s success and integral to the hiring and retention process.
“It’s not just about ‘what’ our associates get done,” says Spangler. “It’s about ‘how’ our associates get things done. First and foremost, we look for candidates with character traits that exemplify the Five Principles. If people have a passion for the Five Principles and the commitment to continuously improve themselves and others, then we can train them on the functional skills.”
For much of this employee skills development, Mars has also been able to tap local resources, such as Topeka’s Washburn Institute of Technology, to provide training resources for the Mars workforce.
In its state-of-the-art 600,000-square-foot facility, the Topeka plant has the capacity to produce millions of individual pieces of candy a day, from M&M’S, M&M’S Caramel, M&M’S Peanut and Coffee Nut M&M’S to fun-size and mini Snickers.
Spangler says the company’s most recent expansion will add 60 new full-time and 50 part-time jobs to the community with more additions likely during the anticipated 50-year production life cycle of the facility.
“Topeka is an optimal place for Mars to operate and has allowed our company to grow,” says Spangler. “We appreciate all the support and enthusiasm we’ve received from the City of Topeka, Shawnee County, GO Topeka and the State of Kansas in making us feel welcome. We’ve been very successful in our first years of production, so expanding our site here made perfect sense.”
“Having a global company of Mars Chocolate North America’s caliber in our community and in our state enhances our economic vitality and increases our visibility nationwide as we compete to bring more companies to Kansas,” says Matt Pivarnik, president and chief executive officer of GO Topeka and the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce. “In 2016, the Mars plant produced all of the specialty flavor M&M’S Peanut for a nationwide contest, and the company has already completed an expansion for a new product line that will add jobs. Success stories like this illustrate a pro-business climate and a well-trained regional workforce and underscore how innovative, nimble companies can flourish here.”
Reliable, affordable electricity is a critical concern for any manufacturing company, and Mark Ruelle, president and chief executive officer of Westar Energy and a GO Topeka board member, and his team work extensively with companies like Mars seeking to establish a presence in Kansas.
“It is a tremendous advantage for Topeka to have a world-class company like Mars and the brands they represent,” he says. “They have met expectations for quality jobs, growing investment, community involvement and innovation. And all that was before they introduced me to my new, best habit—M&M’S Caramel.”
Mayor Larry Wolgast says, “Mars has not only created high-paying new jobs in our community but also invested heavily in quality-of-life initiatives through philanthropic contributions and the creation of one of our downtown pocket parks. The company has been a strong partner in multiple collaborations to enhance our community, including bringing the first-ever Chocolate Festival to downtown Topeka in September 2016.”
For Mars, that allegiance to mutuality comes in many forms, extending from the factory floor to the customer experience.
“We’re dedicated to creating mutual benefits for our consumers, associates, suppliers, distributors and the communities in which we live and work,” says Spangler, noting partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, SLI and Harvesters, among others.
“We love producing our iconic brands right here in the heartland, and we invest in the community because we want to be a good corporate citizen and because we want to make sure our current and future associates have an excellent quality of life.”
Confections & Community Connections: Q&A with Bret Spangler
How does Mars determine which flavors to incorporate into its product lines and how are Topeka’s products determined?
Fans love their original favorites, but our consumers are also known for trying new things. We’re constantly innovating to bring fun to our fans through seasonal flavors and new innovations like M&M’S, Caramel, M&M’S Crispy, DOVE Fruits and our new Goodness Knows Snack Squares. Our Topeka site gives the company more room to introduce new treats and satisfy increasingly diverse consumer appetites. We are extremely proud to be the only site globally that produces M&M’S Caramel as well as Strawberry and Coffee Nut M&M’S.
How many pieces of candy does the plant produce in a day?
We produce millions of individual pieces of candy a day with the capacity to add more.
What’s your favorite Topeka-produced Mars treat?
I’m afraid I can’t answer this one! It would be like asking which child you like more … each of these brands has been and always will be my favorite. I just enjoy having a dream job like this where I get to sample them!
How has marketing candy changed through the years?
Iconic brands like M&M’S have often seen decades of exceptional brand loyalty, which puts the company in a unique position to continue reinventing while remaining classic and authentic. Consumers are looking for choice and variety across calories and prices, but they don’t want to compromise on taste. So, we’re introducing new treats at lower calorie points and continuing to provide fun packaging and gift options, along with surprising seasonal flavors our fans love.
Mars developed M&M’S as a way to deliver chocolate to soldiers in a way that wouldn’t melt as fast. Does the company still have a commitment to the military?
Giving to the military is a focus for us. We still honor our roots by donating a substantial amount of product to be included in thousands of military care packages through our partnership with Operation Gratitude.
Mars Chocolate North America Topeka Plant BY THE NUMBERS
- $500 million total investment
- 50 year projected plant production cycle
- 5 principles: quality, responsibility, nutuality, efficiency and freedom
- 3 exclusive global products: M&M’S Strawberry and M&M’S Coffee Nut and M&M’S Caramel
- Millions of individual pieces of candy produced daily
- More than 300 associates