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A Man of Principle: Reflecting on the loss of Forrest Mars Jr.

I had the pleasure of meeting Forrest Mars in 2007 through an introduction from his brother John and sister-in-law Adrienne. Over the next nine years Forrest and I met numerous times per year, sometimes at his home in Big Horn, sometimes at his beautiful Diamond Cross Ranch in Montana, and every so often on American Prairie Reserve. A very special treat involved my wife, daughter and I traveling for a week with him on his expedition ship with other friends and family in the San Blas islands off the coasts of Panama and Columbia. 

From 2002 until now, my colleagues and I have been working to create an organization with the capability to both imagine and systematically build what will eventually be the more than 3-million-acre American Prairie Reserve. Over many years and during all of our times together, Forrest was generous and precise with his advice on how to carefully shape a high quality and highly productive enterprise. Like his brother John and sister Jacquie — both of whom I have known for many years — Forrest loved what Mars Corp was about. It began with the five principles — Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom — and how one instills and constantly reinforces principles in a such a way that it actually defines an organization’s culture, rather than just being words on a plaque near the elevator. 

Because of the distance from my home in Bozeman, Montana and Forrest’s places in Big Horn, Wyoming and southern Montana, I would usually stay overnight when I visited. In those instances Forrest insisted on cooking me dinners and breakfasts himself, allowing me no opportunity to help. Instead I relaxed, listened to his stories of building the Mars business and watched him bustle about the kitchen on his own, turning the steaks and carefully tending the Uncle Ben’s rice, vegetables and salad that would round out our meal.  Later, as I was driving the four hours back home to Bozeman, I would reflect on the many new ideas he had offered about how to better integrate American Prairie Reserve’s carefully-chosen six values into our daily work lives.  

Once, while the two of us were driving for hours around the Diamond Cross ranch in his pick up truck, he talked extensively about how he, John and Jacquie carefully began to grow the Mars business after inheriting the enterprise from their father when it was then grossing around $1 billion per year. I have talked with John and Adrienne many times since about those various steps and stages and am still amazed at the incredible strategic thinking and steady, careful execution that lead to what is now in excess of $35 billion per year, all while keeping the company private, humble, principles-driven and maintaining a place where employees exhibit extraordinary long-term loyalty. 

Forrest loved new places, new people, and new ideas. As he traveled the world on his ship, the Dione Skye, I was on his list of people to whom he sent his daily ship’s log diary, a chronicle of each day’s explorations and exploits. The stories noted what Forrest and his constant flow of guests saw, ate, and did from morning to night. Plying the Baltic sea, the Panama Canal, the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific were all a joy to him. “Get a big idea, figure out how to mitigate the risks and then move forward” was his unspoken motto.

One morning while I sat around watching him cook me a 6:00 am breakfast at the Diamond Cross, I told him about a recent trip to Botswana and Namibia where I’d seen beautifully designed and appointed safari camps that drew people from around the world. My team and I had worked out the steps to building the exact same thing on American Prairie Reserve betting that it would increase visits from philanthropists who then might turn into financial contributors for our cause. He peppered me with questions for all of ten minutes while he prepared our toast and eggs, and by the time he sat down at table simply said, “It is a great idea, you have thought it through quite well and the steps make sense. Don’t over think it now…just do it.” We did, and it has worked out pretty well!

Forrest enjoying the deck at Kestrel Camp.

Forrest, John and Jacquie are generous in supporting each other’s philanthropic interests. Sometimes they become personally interested in each other’s causes and then end up supporting them in an on-going way. This was the case with Forrest.  Over the nine years since John and Adrienne initially introduced him to the American Prairie Reserve project he was generous with more than just his excellent advice — he also made a series of financial gifts which helped us to acquire a great deal of new land and initiate many other big ideas beyond Kestrel Camp, our safari camp.

Forrest liked the idea of all the wildlife we proposed to bring back to the prairie but I think the main thing that resonated with him was that the Reserve as a concept is big, bold, audacious and visionary, but the steps are well thought out and very achievable if carefully executed over time. He liked backing big things that have the potential to benefit a lot of people. I think he believed that Mars Corp and American Prairie Reserve had that attribute in common.

Forrest was an interesting, generous and inspiring friend to me, a great friend to our project, and a much appreciated and admired supporter of our efforts. We will all miss him but will not forget what kind of a person he was and all that he did for us in our early years and beyond.

Sean Gerrity and Forrest Mars chat about the future of American Prairie Reserve.

Top Photo: In recognition of his leadership, Forrest signs our "Book of Pioneers."