The History(Courtesy of

A subsidiary of Mars, Inc., Uncle Ben’s Inc. is one of the world’s leading marketers of rice. It boasts an estimated one-fourth of the United States market for dry rice and ranks number one in Great Britain and France. The company produces a broad variety of rice products, including boil-in-bag, instant, microwaveable, and wild rices as well as cooking sauces, couscous, and fried rice mixes. Uncle Ben’s products can be found in over 100 countries worldwide, and the company has production facilities in Australia, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium, as well as its Texas headquarters plant. In addition to its namesake brand, Uncle Ben’s sells foods under the Country Inn, Suzi Wan, and Kan Tong labels.

Created as a private partnership, Uncle Ben’s was acquired from its founders by Forrest Mars’ Food Manufacturers, Inc. during its first few years in business. It became a subsidiary of privately held Mars, Inc. in 1964, when Forrest Mars merged his company with his father’s confectionery. Uncle Ben’s rice is without a doubt Mars’ most healthful product intended for human consumption. With estimated sales of over $13 million, the candy giant’s other products include Combos snacks; M&Ms, Snickers, Skittles, and other candies; Dove premium ice cream; and Pedigree and Whiskas pet foods. Though the company does not release financial information, author Jan Pottker singled out Uncle Ben’s as Mars’ best-performing subsidiary in the 1990s.

Under Forrest and his progeny, Mars and its subsidiaries have operated under a cloak of secrecy. For example, while Uncle Ben’s has a World Wide Web presence, the site is closed to the public.

Mid-20th-Century Origins

The origins of Uncle Ben’s can be traced to the 1930s, when British food chemist Eric Huzenlaub embarked on the development of a process to increase the nutritional value of white rice. At that time, modern milling methods removed rice kernels’ nutrient-bearing husk and outer skins, resulting in a pleasingly pearly white, but nutritionally empty carbohydrate. After a decade of research, Huzenlaub came up with a way to seal in rice’s naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. Dubbed “conversion” or “parboiling,” the technique employed vacuum pressure to pull air from raw rice, then “pushed” the water-soluble nutrients back into each grain using high-pressure steam heating. Once the rice had dried, it could continue through the usual milling process. Not only did the technique–for which Huzenlaub obtained international patents–seal in nutrients, it also extended shelf life to years, made the grain impervious to weevils, and reduced cooking time.

Huzenlaub knew he had developed a food manufacturing process that had the potential to positively revolutionize the diets of millions of people around the world. He intended to establish mills in India (then a colony of Great Britain) and other nations where rice was a dietary staple, but was prevented from doing so by the advent of World War II. Hoping to establish some kind of foothold in the rice industry, Huzenlaub turned to the United States. Though per capita rice consumption was comparatively puny–Americans ate 98 percent less rice per year than Indians–the U.S. was the world’s biggest consumer market, and offered immense potential for growth. In 1942, Huzenlaub pitched his process to several major millers, but to no avail. Only one person showed any interest in rice conversion, Houston food broker Gordon Harwell.

Having made his own attempts at converting rice, Harwell was certain of the process’s efficacy. He convinced a reluctant Huzenlaub to join him in a partnership known as Converted Rice, Inc. Exhausting his personal savings, Harwell salvaged a boiler and a pressure tank from a junkyard, rented space in a warehouse, and started producing rice to feed the U.S. Armed Forces. By the end of 1944, the company had two mills and was processing about 200 tons of rice each day. One high-ranking Army officer considered the new rice one of the war’s most important breakthroughs.

Acquisition by Forrest Mars

Around this same time Forrest Mars, son of candy maker Frank C. Mars, was looking for a new business interest. Forrest was at that time operating his own company, London-based Food Manufacturers, Ltd. Starting out in the early 1930s with $50,000 and the overseas rights to his father’s Milky Way candy bar, Forrest had proven highly successful. He acquired a pet food business mid-decade and built it into the industry leader. Forrest returned to the U.S. in 1940, founding M&M Limited to produce and market the bite-sized chocolates with the colorful candy shell. Seeking further diversification, he bought into Converted Rice not long after its founding. Mars’ investment and a timely government loan provided much-needed capital for the fledgling firm.

The company took its current name and brand identity from the tale of a Texan who was renowned for his award-winning rice. The story goes that “Uncle Ben,” a black farmer, grew rice so good that other farmers used it as a standard of excellence. Since the “real” Uncle Ben had long since died, Harwell asked Frank Brown, maitre d’ of a Chicago restaurant, to pose as the character. Brown’s beaming, bow-tied, visage became the company logo. This little-known event has been designated a milestone in the history of advertising, constituting the first time a raw commodity was given a brand name. Harwell registered not only the name but also the term “converted” as corporate trademarks.

The launch of Uncle Ben’s rice was well-timed. The product was a staple of many soldiers’ wartime diet. Government price controls helped support America’s relatively young rice-growing industry. At the war’s end, Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice earned a place among a growing category of convenience foods. Not only did this new product cook up faster than unconverted rice, it was also easier to prepare; so simple, in fact, that Uncle Ben’s advertisers boasted that it “cooks up perfect every time.” Having achieved the top spot in the U.S. rice market by 1952, Uncle Ben’s was launched in the United Kingdom and later France and Austria.

Uncle Ben’s started out as a partnership, but it was not long before the infamously imperious Forrest Mars gained full control and made it a subsidiary of Food Manufacturers. By 1960, Uncle Ben’s was contributing about $30 million to Food Manufacturers’ estimated annual sales of $200 million. Following the death of his stepmother, Forrest Mars wrested control of Mars, Inc. from his step-family in 1964 and merged it with his own firm, making Uncle Ben’s a subsidiary of Mars.

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Marketing Origins(Wiki’pedia):

When white South Carolina planters were unable to make their rice crops thrive, “slaves from West Africa’s rice region tutored planters in growing the crop.” In the American South, whites once commonly referred to elderly black men as “uncle,” even though they were not blood relatives (cf. Uncle Remus and Uncle Tom). During the 1940s, blacks were popularly associated with rice. In the later 1800s, African-Americans were often featured as company spokespersons for agricultural and other products in the United States. This kind of market branding has continued, though to a lesser extent, into the 21st century.

Uncle Ben’s products carry the image of an elderly African-American man dressed in a bow tie, perhaps meant to imply a domestic servant in the Aunt Jemima tradition, or maybe a Chicago maitre d’hotel named Frank Brown. According to Mars, Uncle Ben was an African-American rice grower in Texas known for the quality of his rice. Gordon L. Harwell, an entrepreneur who had supplied rice to the armed forces in World War II, chose the name Uncle Ben’s as a means to expand his marketing efforts to the general public. The Mars company has not supplied any further biographical detail about the Uncle Ben persona.