Mark Whitacre is the keynote speaker for BBB’s 2014 TORCH Awards, which honor businesses and charities with exceptional ethics and service, at noon Oct. 14 at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis.
Whitacre became famous as a whistleblower in the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing case of the 1990s and spent time in jail due to his actions at ADM. His experience was the basis for The Informant, a Steven Soderbergh film featuring Matt Damon as Whitacre. Whitacre is a public speaker and executive at Cypress Systems Inc. We asked him about his life today and his perspective on business ethics.
BBB: What’s it like being known as “The Informant”? Does your fame affect your daily life?
MW: Being known as “The Informant” has made life very interesting, but it affects my life positively. Interest in the ADM case has presented me a platform to tell what I have learned since that time period: how important it is to ALWAYS do the right thing, and how our family survived the ordeal. People find it remarkable that a family can survive three years of FBI undercover work, and eight and a half years of federal incarceration.
BBB: How do you balance speaking engagements and your work at Cypress Systems?
MW: Work/life balance is so important. I have found a way to achieve it, but it took some time for me to get the right balance. Most of my activity at Cypress is managing our long-term clinical research trials on prostate cancer prevention. These clinical trials are conducted at various universities that I am able to visit when I am in the area for a speaking engagement. It has become a very efficient process.
BBB: How is working at Cypress different from working at ADM in the 1990s?
MW: I would say the major difference is in my management style. When I was in my thirties, the other top executives of ADM and I practiced selfish leadership by focusing too much on ourselves instead of focusing on others. I feel strongly that this is why we went to prison, and we deserved the punishment we all received. Now, I work to practice servant leadership instead.
BBB: How do you promote a culture of positive business ethics at Cypress?
MW: Company culture starts at the very top, and Cypress is led by a wonderful CEO who is all about servant leadership and helping others. At Cypress, doing what is right is so much more important than doing what makes the company more successful at a faster pace. At ADM in the early 1990s, we (as the management) made many mistakes by focusing too much on the short term.
BBB: What did you take away from your experience in prison?
MW: Before my sentence, I was obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder. Now I find great joy in serving others. While in prison, I taught inmates how to read, conducted GED classes and helped inmates write letters to their families. I can truly say that I was happier in prison making $20 per month helping others than in the corporate world earning seven figures for myself. For the first time in my life, I was helping someone other than myself. It was a powerful lesson for me.
BBB: What do you think about the film based on your experiences? Do you think Matt Damon played you well?
MW: It was fun to meet Matt Damon and his wife. They are very nice people, and very family-focused. But the 2009 film is the Hollywood version of the story and focuses strictly on my FBI undercover years. I think the legacy of the ADM case will be what happened in the 20 years after it and how my family survived the ordeal.
If you’d like to hear Whitacre speak, join BBB in honoring exceptional businesses and charities at this year’s TORCH Awards at noon Tuesday, Oct. 14, at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis. The event, which includes lunch, costs $60 a person or $600 for a table of 10. To reserve your seat, click here.