Consumer Products CEO Spotlight

Interview: Poul Weihrauch, Mars CEO

Interview: Poul Weihrauch, Mars CEO

“At Mars, we believe that profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive. Unless we run a great business, we won’t have the financial muscle and the mental capacity to invest in people and the planet.”

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Interview: Poul Weihrauch, Mars CEO

In his 24 years at Mars, Poul Weihrauch has played pivotal roles in the iconic family-owned company, becoming CEO in 2022. Weihrauch is a key force behind Mars’s mission to put stakeholder impact at the core of the decisions that shape long-term strategy. The evidence of his success is widespread. Mars has outperformed on Bain’s Stakeholder Impact Assessment across the critical dimensions of consumer, customer, employee, and planet—without sacrificing profitable growth. Weihrauch credits the company’s strong stakeholder impact to the Mars Compass, a set of principles that guide long-term strategic decision making, which he detailed in a recent interview with Richard Webster, leader of Bain’s Global Consumer Products practice.

Q: Mars has been a very successful privately held, family-owned company for over a century. As a private company, how do you navigate tensions between profit and purpose?

Weihrauch: At Mars, we believe that profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive. Unless we run a great business, we won’t have the financial muscle and the mental capacity to invest in people and planet. So, I don’t think of it as a trade-off. You have to do both, otherwise you can’t earn the trust of associates, customers, consumers, clients, veterinarians, legislators. Reputation and trust are becoming more and more important—within the company as well as outside.

In 2018, the company’s family owners introduced four objectives to guide our long-term strategy. Two of them are traditional financial objectives, and two of them are less traditional and less directly financial. The two financial objectives are to achieve high-quality growth and top-tier earnings that will allow us the freedom to shape our future. The two nonfinancial objectives are societal (having a positive impact on people, pets, and planet) and reputational (being a trusted partner both within the company, in the trust employees have in leadership, and externally, based on key stakeholders’ perception of Mars). We call this overall approach the Mars Compass.

Q: As a leader, how do you ensure you are making decisions that both grow the business and drive balanced impact across stakeholders?

Weihrauch: To stay true to the purpose and principles laid out by our founders, we need to invest in the best people, evolve the portfolio, and build new businesses while improving our impact on the well-being of pets and planet. Prioritization may skew one way or another depending on context, but those are the principles. That means staying true to the end consumer, in line with our purpose, and relying on employees to get it done.

For example, we have managed to break the carbon curve—growing the business while also reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s something that very few businesses have done in real terms. Mars is the size of Finland in terms of greenhouse gases. We have a responsibility to bring our greenhouse gases down. Given the size of this impact, it has never been easier to motivate employees to lean in on sustainability initiatives. When you have a town hall and you ask employees, “Who would like to volunteer for this greenhouse gas project?” a sea of arms goes up. We have launched a net-zero plan with an interim target to reach 50% emissions reduction by 2030, with projects behind all of it.

Making a better world for pets is another example where this multiple-stakeholder perspective is evident. We decided that in order to truly have impact, we needed to focus on the whole well-being of pets, not just nutrition. This involved bringing in multiple stakeholders beyond just pet owners—veterinarians, for instance—and taking a cross-functional, cross-regional team to analyze where specifically we can help create a better world for pets through our services, products, and partnerships.

Q: What are some of the next big areas of focus for Mars given what is on the horizon for the consumer products industry and for the company? What will remain the same, and what do you see evolving in terms of your priorities?

Weihrauch: It’s always fashionable to say everything is going to change. What will not change is that we absolutely need to stay 100% focused on consumers, customers, and clients. But the way we will engage with them will change quite a lot. You know, I often think of that famous quote that “today is the slowest day of the rest of your life.” Digitalization is dramatically changing how we engage with consumers and customers.

We need to change how we stay close to people. This world has gone through an awful lot of difficulties. We have come out of Covid. We have a generation that has paid a very high price for it. We have consumers that have acquired new habits. We have a lot of people that don’t feel they’re being listened to. We have huge geopolitical issues. A big task of leadership across industries in today’s world is to be able to listen to people with the true intent of hearing what people have to say.

To do that, our ways of working models and how we engage with our teams need to change. Unless we do that, we are not going to grow our business whatsoever. It starts with having both a heart and a head and using both just as much when dealing with our employees as with our customers and consumers.

Q: If we look back one year from now, what do you think will be the key trends that shaped 2024?

Weihrauch: I’m not in the business of predicting the future, but I hope that we will live in a world with fewer conflicts and less polarization. At Mars, I hope we can return to a world where we can be fully focused on servicing our customers and consumers. We need people back in stores and in clinics. Inflation and supply chain issues have made that really challenging. But we can’t let that allow us to lose sight of the consumer and their needs. That will always be our No. 1 priority. I love to come to work every day because I am passionate about running a consumer-driven business that can have real impact on the lives of our consumers and the health of our planet, and because I love to be around the people we have in the company and the people and pets we serve.


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