Mars chief hits out at ‘nonsense’ attacks on corporate ESG

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Mars chief hits out at ‘nonsense’ attacks on corporate ESG

19 March 2023 Clean energy investing 0

Companies that back off their social and environmental commitments in the face of “nonsense” political attacks risk alienating a generation of talent, Mars’ new chief executive has warned as he raised the prospect of doubling the group’s revenues over the coming decade.

Sales at the family-owned petcare, chocolate and chewing gum group “could well double in a decade” to $90bn, Poul Weihrauch told the Financial Times in his first interview since becoming CEO last September. However, he added, its more important target was “responsible” growth.

Companies’ environmental and social goals had become politicised, he said, but “quality companies are deeply invested in this and if I walk out of this office and I take a 25-year-old associate that has joined us from university they will want us to do this”.

The employees Mars calls associates “won’t stay with us if we don’t care about ESG or purpose or whatever we call it. So from my chair, I think it’s a nonsense conversation,” Weihrauch said. “We don’t believe that purpose and profit are enemies.”

The company, which recruits 25,000 people a year, has broken with a tradition of privacy in recent years to emphasise its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and clean up its supply chains but it had largely stayed out of the business world’s culture war clashes.

That changed last year when Tucker Carlson, the Fox News anchor with a large following among Republicans, began attacking as “woke” the cartoon characters with which Mars advertised its M&M’s candies.

Weihrauch suggested that the attention had boosted the brand, noting that a Super Bowl ad campaign that played on the controversy had generated 25bn online impressions. “There’s lots of sales and it’s difficult to keep up with the orders,” he added.

Politicians needed to “step in and take more responsibility” in areas such as providing recycling systems while maintaining a dialogue with “good big businesses that want to drive change,” Weihrauch argued.

Mars intended to more than double its spending on a sustainability agenda spanning greenhouse gases, packaging and its supply chain, he disclosed, from $1.1bn over the past three years to $2.7bn over the next three.

Last March Mars said it would scale back its business in Russia to focus on its “essential role in feeding the Russian people and pets”. Weihrauch defended the decision to keep some operations, saying it wanted to protect its 6,000 people in Russia but had stopped “hundreds of millions” of dollars of exports and donated $12mn in profits so far from the country to humanitarian causes.

The former head of Mars’ petcare division said it was looking to both organic growth and acquisitions to double sales from last year’s $45bn. That would put the group between the $80bn revenues Procter & Gamble reported in 2022 and Nestlé’s $102bn sales.

With stable family ownership and a “very solid” balance sheet, he said, more potential sellers were seeing Mars as “a safe haven” in a high-inflation, high-rate economy where private equity and venture capital groups had been less competitive.

Mars bought VCA, an operator of veterinary clinics, for $9.1bn in 2017 and acquired Wrigley’s chewing gum for $23bn in 2008 but its recent purchases have been smaller. Late last year it bought Canada’s Champion Petfoods and Trü Frü, a fruit-based snacking brand, for undisclosed sums.

Weihrauch said the group, which has 140,000 employees, was seeing “surprisingly good” growth everywhere except Europe, which had been “pretty hard hit”.

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