Chocolate Wars

The 150-Year Rivalry
Between the World's Greatest Chocolate Makers

By Deborah Cadbury

Public Affairs Press. 319 pp. $27.95

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Reviewed by Rickie Roberts

The inside story of the 150-year rivalry among Cadbury, Hershey, Nestlé, and Mars is a fascinating and luscious tale.

Deborah Cadbury, great-great-great-granddaughter of 19th-century chocolate maker John Cadbury, tells it eloquently in Chocolate Wars, drawing the reader into her epic of family and industry with clear love for her subject.

Cadbury is considerably more than a descendant with a yearning to document the family's struggles to build a chocolate dynasty. She is a gifted and successful author of several books about history and industry, including Seven Wonders of the Industrial World (2004), The Lost Kings of France (2003), and The Dinosaur Hunters (2001). She also has won numerous awards as a producer for the BBC.

How much can be said about chocolate? And what do the Boer War, religion, the welfare state, globalization, the suburbs, and both world wars have to do with our favorite chocolate treats?

Chocolate Wars lays out a history as rich and complicated as that of any industry in the world - from the days when the Aztecs made an oily, gritty, bitter drink from the cocoa bean through the innovations of the early industrial age, right up to the mergers and acquisitions of the last three decades.

Cadbury focuses her story on the Cadbury family but never leaves out a tidbit about the other chocolate giants, including Milton Hershey, Forrest Mars, Rodolphe Lindt, and many more pioneers.

John Cadbury founded the first Cadbury Coffee and Chocolate shop in England in 1824. A Quaker of modest means and aspirations, he struggled with his business and would have lost it all had it not been for the energy and imagination of his sons, Richard and George, who finally brought the company to stability before handing it down to successive generations of Cadburys.

The parallel between the Cadburys' Quaker roots and Milton Hershey's Mennonite upbringing is not lost in Cadbury's telling. In fact, the religious fervor of the early chocolate makers is very much at the center of the story. Early Quaker and Mennonite industrialists believed that they had a duty to create wealth with their hard work and talents, but such wealth was for the benefit of the employees and communities and societies they served. Both families produced great philanthropists and established trusts that continue to this day.

Now and then, it's useful to be reminded that innovation did not start with the microchip. The 19th-century confectionary industry was a hotbed of innovation.

From industrial machinery to chemistry, from working environments to packaging, it forged the way for more than modern candy bars. Even before the telephone was born and well before cables were laid connecting continents, the chocolate makers devised global marketing strategies, including new recipes for chocolates for their southernmost markets that would not melt at higher temperatures. Both George Cadbury and Milton Hershey built towns around their factories to save their workers from living in urban slums. These, some of the first suburbs, were built long before the suburban sprawl that took place after the world wars and were envisioned by Cadbury and Hershey as utopian villages, places for people to build better futures. They built hospitals, schools, orphanages, and parks, so central to their belief in success was their need to ensure the safety and happiness of their employees and communities.

Most touching is the story of Hershey, well known to Pennsylvanians. While his marriage to his wife Kitty was childless, it was far from loveless. Her frailty and inability to have children only brought them closer as they planned to make "all boys their sons." Building a school for impoverished young men of the Pennsylvania farmlands was the answer to Milton and Kitty's dreams of a family and Milton's fear of dying rich without any heirs. "It is a sin to die rich," he said, and so before his death he transferred all of his personal wealth to trusts that would take care of his town and his "boys" for years to come.

Members of both families, while of pacifist religious backgrounds, served during the world wars as ambulance drivers and nurses. Ever pursuing the need to serve society, they retooled their shops to create chocolate bars that would be healthful and hearty for the troops and created efficiencies during the Great Depression that would allow chocolate to be made and sold cheaply so that people could have something joyous to eat.

Not until the 1960s does the tale turn ugly. The competition between rival companies, the sprouting of supermarkets all over the world, and the need to push product faster and farther became a war between the old ways of doing business and the new. Caught in the struggle to remain independent, each of these companies eventually fell to the demands of high finance, short-term profits, and big conglomerates.

The hostile takeover of Cadbury by Kraft in January 2010 was surely the impetus for Cadbury to finally write her family's story, but it is so much more than the story of a family business. It is a remarkable commentary on the separation of families and morals from business over the last five decades and a fearful omen for our future. While we all, including Cadbury, accept that there is no going back, the lessons of this story are worthy of our attention.

For all its sweet taste, Chocolate Wars is a cautionary tale.

Rickie Roberts is a corporate training and development executive.