When former corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre visited Cairn University on Friday, November 7th, he was no stranger to the spotlight. In 1995, he stepped into the news spotlight as the highest-level employee to be a whistleblower in the history of the FBI. Within months, the spotlight shifted from his “heroism” to his embezzlement of $9 million from corporate giant ADM. In his address to Cairn, however, Whitacre shone a spotlight on what he believes to be the most remarkable part of his life: his redemption by a merciful and gracious God.
In the early ‘90s, Whitacre felt no need for God. Announced as the future president of ADM, the 56th-largest company in the world, he admits that he “felt like a rock star,” pulling in the equivalent of $8 million annually. The fun came to an end in November 1992. Confronted by his wife Ginger about his 100-hour workweeks and frequent evening phone calls to southeast Asia, Whitacre confessed: He and his company were part of an international cartel that stole over $1 billion from consumers yearly. Ginger issued a firm ultimatum: “Turn yourself in, or I will.”
Over the next 3 years, Whitacre wore a wire to work every day, recording his colleagues and supervisors for the FBI. Incredibly, during this time, he also embezzled $9 million from the company—a self-written “severance package” for life after ADM. However, in 1995, both ADM’s price-fixing scheme and Whitacre’s theft came to light. The media and legal storm that followed overwhelmed Whitacre, already psychologically frail from years of leading a double-life. Before his sentencing in 1998, he attempted suicide—twice. Providentially, media coverage of these attempts attracted the attention of Ian Howe, a member of the Christian Business Men’s Connection. For 7 months before Whitacre’s sentencing, he & Howe spent 4-5 hours weekly in Bible study and conversation. Ten months later, in his prison cell, Whitacre proclaims, “I turned my life over to Christ.”
Based on his experience, Whitacre offered some practical guidelines to “ethical fitness” to Cairn students striving to “serve Christ… as men and women of character”:
- First, seek accountability. For Cairn business students, the organizational applications are straightforward: be transparent, and develop a compliance program that is a “living document.” However, all members of the Cairn community were challenged to pursue accountability through relationships—whether with family, friends, or mentors. “Isolation is dangerous,” Whitacre warned, pointing out that Ginger is the “true hero” behind the collapse of the cartel. “She’s my moral compass.”
- Second, seek balance. Mark’s 100-hour workweeks correlated with his neglect of family, church, and community—Ginger’s initial tip-off that something was seriously wrong. In addition to seeking accountability, professionals must be willing to step back and view themselves from an outside perspective. What would others have to say about your commitment to family, church, and the community?
- Third, seek service. “The nine years I spent in prison were the most rewarding in my entire life,” Whitacre recounts. “I had been on track to be #2 in one of the most successful companies in the world, but my life was empty.” Now, he views his new career at Cypress Systems as service, overseeing cancer trials that inform new medical treatments. However, for Whitacre, “nothing is more important” than the 86 CBMC meetings he attends each year—discipling other businessmen as Howe discipled him. This message resonated with Cairn students, who commit to at least 6 semesters of ministry en route to serving Christ as professionally competent graduates of Cairn.
Whitacre has lectured on business ethics at schools and conferences across the country—but, he emphasizes, they are not the most important lesson from his experience. Above all, he stresses, his story is a story of a redeeming God—one who not only mercifully forgives, but also graciously restores and blesses. As current COO and President of Operations at Cypress Systems, he continues to be overwhelmed by God’s redemption. “I want people to see my story as a testimony to redemption and second chances. My story shows that God can turn any situation from darkness to light.”
Hear more of Mark’s story on his website www.markwhitacre.com or in his biography, Against All Odds.