Mark Whitacre, who came to public attention in 1995 by becoming the highest-level corporate executive whistle-blower of a Fortune 500 company in U.S. history, lectured Penn State students on business ethics Wednesday.
The title of Whitacre’s presentation was “When Good Leaders Lose Their Way.” In it, he spoke about corporate culture, ethics and compliance in business.
“I wish someone presented a lesson like this to me when I was in college,” Whitacre said. “I don’t know if I would have listened, but it could have saved me a lot of trouble.”
Whitacre worked for the food-processing and commodities-trading company Archer Daniels Midland when the company conspired to fix the price of the animal feed additive lysine. He was the corporate vice president of ADM during his time working as an informant for the FBI. As part of his work with the FBI, Whitacre wore a wire every day for three years.
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“Imagine taping everything your co-workers and friends do for three years. It’s an experience I would not wish on anybody,” he said.
Whitacre also went to jail for embezzling $9.5 million, with some of the criminal activity occurring while he was working with the FBI. He was sentenced to 10 1/2 years in federal prison, three times longer than the ADM price-fixers he informed the FBI about.
“This story is more a story about what not to do than anything,” Whitacre said to start his presentation. “The biggest regret I have would be not telling the FBI about the embezzlement while I was working with them.”
Whitacre is now the chief operating officer and chief science officer for Cypress Systems Inc., a biotechnology company involved in cancer research based in California.
“When I took the job with ADM, I did it only for money. I got obsessed with my salary,” he said. “I’ve never had a drug or alcohol addiction, but I did have an addiction to greed. It took me going to prison to break it.”
Whitacre’s presentation comes at a time when American business ethics are in the national spotlight.
JP Morgan Chase, the largest bank in the U.S., recently settled with the U.S. Justice Department for $13 billion, the largest settlement in history between the U.S. government and a single company. The settlement ends several civil suit issues surrounding the bank’s behavior related to the sale of mortgage-based securities that helped lead to the 2008 housing crisis and recession. .
“No matter what career you choose, there’s a lot of gray area. You’ll face a tough decision every day. Do not do what I did and what so many other businesses do by taking the short-term gain,” he said.
Whitacre stressed that it is important to focus on who is really to blame in these situations.
“Companies like ADM don’t break laws. But the top executives, like myself, can choose to go after greed instead of making the right choice,” he said.
One of the hardest parts of Whitacre’s involvement with the FBI was that he still had to be a top executive for ADM.
“I still needed to appear as a loyal executive for ADM,” he said. “I helped build the company during the day and helped tear it down at night.”
Whitacre owned a green lamp that hid a video camera. No matter where he went, including international meetings all around the world, Whitacre had to bring the green lamp with him for video evidence.
“That lamp followed me around to meetings for three years all over the world and no one noticed,” he said. “What that showed me was that greed blinds you. They weren’t worried about the things right in front of them, they were worried about the money and that’s it.”
Whitacre advised students to make the right decision when they are presented with a tough situation.
“You’ll get hit with a gray area every day,” he said. “It’s not worth cutting corners. You’ll get caught, but worse than that is when you finally realize how wrong everything you’ve done has been. That feeling is worse than prison.”