Guest column

In a time when business is often maligned by those pushing to convert our economic system to socialism, it is important to remember that entrepreneurs helped make America great.

Many of the “big businesses” we know today started in the imaginations of immigrants who came to America, the land of opportunity — a place of boundless possibilities where your station in life didn’t matter, a land where hard work, innovation and perseverance held the key to the American dream.

The story of M&Ms is a good example. Today, we know the Mars Company as a global giant marketing its candy and products in 100 nations. But it didn’t start that way.

The Mars Company was founded in 1911 in Tacoma where Frank C. Mars made his first candies in his kitchen. The company was in business for 30 years before its star took off when soldiers in World War II started carrying candy-coated chocolate pieces that didn’t melt in their packs. The candy was called M&Ms, and the company’s most famous slogan boasted, “It melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” Today, Mars produces two billion M&Ms an hour.

As a family-owned business, the Mars Company has defied the odds. Business Week reports that the average life span of a family-owned business is 24 years and only 3 percent survive beyond the fourth generation. Mars is approaching 110 years.

Like all successful businesses, its leaders take calculated risks, add diverse product lines, find financial backing, hire and retain top-notch workers and survive on creativity and innovation.

For example, in 1976 McDougall & Sons, Inc., Wenatchee, started packing fresh tree fruit. McDougall, like many in agriculture, has taken risks and today, the company can process over five million packages of pears, apples and cherries a year.

While some would like government to exert more control over business, the bureaucracy is not known for creativity, innovation or risk taking. In fact, those traits are often discouraged in the bureaucracy in favor of command-and-control rulemaking.

We forget the successes we see today came about only because someone had a new idea and backed it with ambition, risk-taking and hard work.

Creative people like Walt Disney started in garages and basements and invented products that captured our imagination. Other than Disney, who could have dreamed in 1928 that a little mouse in a black and white cartoon film strip would launch a company that now employs 166,000 people worldwide with $60 billion in revenues in 2018?

Twenty years ago, who would have imagined that Boeing would be manufacturing jetliners made of carbon fiber rather than aluminum? That is a risk those in government would not likely take.

While Disney and Boeing are now publicly traded companies, Mars has remained in private hands.

Family-owned businesses are still America’s economic backbone. According to a University of Vermont study in 2014, there are 5.5 million family-owned businesses in the United States that contribute $8.3 trillion to our economy, employ 63 percent of the people in our workforce and are responsible for 78 percent of all new jobs.

Many are like the local dry cleaner in Olympia where the whole family puts in long hours at the shop. For them, just paying the rent and utilities often can be a struggle. Add to that loan payments, insurance, taxes and permit costs and if there is extra help, wages, payroll taxes and benefits.

In the best of times, businesses are subject to the whims of consumers, competition and volatile economic cycles. Too often those pressures are lost on people in government and elected to public office who think businesses can simply pass along higher taxes and regulatory costs to their customers and survive.

Elected officials and the government bureaucracy should take care not to smother the innovation, creativity and opportunities that made America great.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business.