How ‘The Informant’ Found True Meaning in Life with Mark Whitacre
In this episode of Bottom Line Faith, Ray Hilbert sits down with Mark Whitacre, one of the highest profile corporate whistleblowers in history and the subject of the Matt Damon movie, The Informant.
Mark Whitacre is an Ivy League Ph.D. and the highest-ranking executive of any Fortune 500 company to become a whistleblower in US history and is responsible for uncovering the ADM price-fixing scandal in the early 1990’s.
Mark Whitacre is Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Christian Business Men’s Connection, an organization that has impacted his life greatly in the past two decades. Since December 2006, he has also been the Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Chief Science Officer at Cypress Systems, Inc.
His undercover work with the FBI during the ADM scandal was the inspiration for the major motion picture, “The Informant,” starring Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre. Drawing from his unique history, Mark provides one-of-a-kind insight into corporate ethics, corporate greed, and the warning signs of a flawed corporate leadership.
“I would not know God today if it wasn’t for that dark place and that brokenness.”
“A life of significance, of serving… is so much more important and so much more rewarding than a life of success.”
1. The sovereignty of God in the Mark Whitacre story.
2. God uses the dark places in our lives.
3. There is nothing more rewarding than helping and serving other people.
4. A life of significance is so much more rewarding than a life of success.
Christian Business Men’s Connection
Ray: Well, hello, everyone, this is Ray Hilbert. I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith. We would like to welcome you back to another episode of the program where we love to explore that intersection of faith, life, business, and leadership in the marketplace. If this is the first time you’ve joined us here at Bottom Line Faith, we get the incredible opportunity to travel the country and interview some of the most amazing godly leaders in business and high profile and media positions and so forth, who love Jesus, these leaders love Jesus, and they integrate their faith in the way they lead on a daily basis.
I am really, really excited about our guest here today. His name is Mark Whitacre, and we’re going to learn all about Mark’s story. This is one of the most powerful stories of the rise and fall and redemption of a leader, actually in our nation’s history. Let me just read a couple of things about Mark and then we’ll get started. He was the highest ranked executive of any Fortune 500 company to become a whistleblower in US history. We’re going to hear that story from his time at ADM, Archer Daniels Midland. You may also recognize Mark, his story that we’re going to hear today became the subject matter of the Hollywood major motion picture called The Informant, starring Matt Damon, we’re going to hear a little bit more about the movie, but more importantly, about the story that God brought Mark through.
He’s a PhD graduate from Cornell University and his undergrad at the Ohio State University. Mark Whitacre, welcome to Bottom Line Faith.
Mark: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Ray: Well, Mark, I’ve had chance to hear your story both in person and through media over the years. We’re going to hear all about that, but tell us a little bit about what life looks like for you now, and then we’re going to back the train up and we’re going to hear the whole story today.
Mark: Well life looks for me today is the opportunity where God’s blessed me to go out and share a story from ashes to beauty that only God could do. I have a chance to share that story seven or eight times a month about 100 times a year, including I spoke at the Indianapolis Governor’s Prayer Breakfast and was blessed to be able to speak there and I do that all around the country. That’s where my passion is. I believe God wants me to be a witness for Jesus.
Ray: Absolutely. And your current primary role that you’re in is COO of CBMC. Now that’s a lot of initial. So tell us about your current role as far as your work is concerned.
Mark: Yeah. 21 years ago, a guy from CBMC, Christian Business Men’s Connection. It’s about a 90 year old organization, about 10,000 volunteer members involved around the country in 330 plus cities. And CBMC has impacted my life so much in terms of someone reaching out to me before I knew God and introduced me to God. A man from CBMC and along with another man named Chuck Colson, who your viewers may know, they reached out to me 21 years ago and planted a seed and changed my life. And CBMC has had such an impact on my life. I’ve been COO of CBMC the last couple years, and what a blessing it is to go from city to city and speak at their events and pour into their leaders and help equip their leaders to basically to equip men to integrate their faith in work.
Ray: Yeah, absolutely.
Mark: Blessing to do that.
Ray: Well, I’d like to now hit the heart rewind button all the way back. Where did you grow up? Where was home as a young lad, and did you grew up in a Christian home? What was that like?
Mark: Grew up in Cincinnati, that’s where my wife and I both grew up. We met when she was in seventh grade and I was in eighth grade, at Little Miami High School, in a little town called Morrow, Ohio, 1000 people town.
Ray: Christian family, Christian home environment, was church a big part of life? Just a little bit about that.
Mark: Grew up in a Christian family, but going to church it was in one ear and out the other. I was a science fanatic, I was in the physics club, went to Ohio State in the sciences, got a PhD in biochemistry from Cornell University. So I was at that stage of life, Big Bang Theory, evolution, Darwinism. Even had professors say, “Boy, if you believe in God, you can’t be a scientist.” Even heard that in a few classes.
Ray: So, growing up, you had this affinity for science and education was very important. Went on to get your PhD at Cornell. Tell us about your early career, and then we’re going to get into the meat of the ADM story.
Mark: Yes. Graduated from an Ivy League school in 1983 in biotech. It was amazing because that’s when the whole biotech world was exploding, it’s when Genentech started. I mean, the opportunities 10 years earlier for biochemistry, probably would have been a professor at a university, which is not a bad thing, that’s a good thing too. But from an industrial corporate opportunities were huge during that time. Multiple offers for every PhD student graduate, I was 25 years old graduating with a PhD, the average age about 32 in biochemistry, so I was about seven years younger than the average age, and just the opportunities were, all I kept thinking is, boy, I’m going to make millions of dollars with this Ivy League education, which I did.
Ray: But you found yourself living in Europe. Tell us a little bit about that because that’ll be a good segue into how you ended up here back in the states.
Mark: One of the companies shortly after college, after I finished my PhD, I joined a large chemical company known as Degussa, it’s currently known as Evonik. About a $30 billion company, about 50,000 employees, very large company, in Europe. I was two years in New York with them and I speak fluent German, so they moved us to the German world headquarters in Frankfurt. We lived there for about four years. I was about six years with Degussa. And during that time when I was with Degussa, I started to become responsible for joint ventures, acquisitions and mergers, became vice president there of Degussa at a very young age, at 27 years of age. And I started doing some joint ventures with Archer Daniels Midland with ADM. So I got to know the CEO, the president, and other executives of ADM during that time.
Ray: So, what were those business transactions like? You’re with the firm in Germany dealing with ADM and other, what was the business that you were in?
Mark: Biotech and we were looking at building amino acid plants like lysine, manufacturing fermentation plants, biotech plants, that produce ingredients that go into food additives and feed additives together, and doing some of those together in Europe and Asia is what we were negotiating.
Ray: There’s a lot of big fancy words there. Help a little layman like me understand what kind of food products, what kind of markets were you in? And then how did that lead to your engagement at ADM?
Mark: Well, the ingredients that we were making at Archer Daniels Midland would be like a lysine and methionine, amino acids that would go into animal feed like a Tyson Foods would buy or Ralston Purina would buy in their feed, for example, but then also would be in like lip chap because lysine is known also for lip chap. So it’d be both in human or, for example, people with kidney damage and they’re using products that you have to have all your vitamins, minerals and amino acids in those products. So it’d be for humans and for animals.
Ray: Yeah. So you’re in your mid 20s, mid late 20s, and you’re probably doing quite well. You’re interacting with ADM. Where were they at in Fortune list.
Mark: ADM at that time, the negotiations started pretty heavily in 1988. And during that time, they remember 56 on the Fortune 500, about 70 billion in revenue and about 30,000 employees.
Ray: Yeah. So you’re already with a large firm out of Germany, but now you’re interacting with the leadership at ADM, and they began courting you. Tell us a little bit about that process.
Mark: Yeah, they started, got to know me pretty well. Obviously, with joint ventures you become partners. And we’re looking at building these plants together, manufacturing plants in Europe and Asia. I remember the CEO and the president, which are about 40 years my senior, the CEO was about 75 years old, the President was 69. I was 32. They said, “Gosh, well, all this bureaucracy you’re dealing with, German bureaucracy. Why don’t you join us?” And I said, “I can’t imagine leaving this company. I have been two years in New York with them, four years in Germany. I think I’ve really found a home.” About 32 years old then, seven years out of college. Then he started talking to me about the offer that they would make from a compensation standpoint. And I tell you, it was about nine tenfold what I was currently making. After I spent an hour time going there’s no way I’d ever leave, I say where do I sign? And I immediately joined to go from Frankfurt, West Germany to Decatur, Illinois. Quite a move.
Ray: It wasn’t just any position that you took. You were very high up in a very large organization. Where were you at in the whole food chain there?
Mark: Well, they had 30,000 employees, about 70 billion in revenue. I was divisional president of the biotech division. So the company had a CEO, a vice chairman, and then a president, and then four divisional presidents. So those were the top seven executives and I was ranked number four ranked executive. Then shortly after I joined, I also became the corporate vice president of the whole company in addition to being president of the biotech division. So I was number four out of 30,000 people when I joined in October 1989. And boy, I felt like I was Justin Bieber before Justin Bieber. I did.
Ray: Tell us about that. So you’re 32 and still very, very young. Some things started coming your way, some incredible perks and bonuses and instant sensitives and these sorts of things. Help us understand a little bit about what that was all about.
Mark: Well, the seven top executives got use of the seven corporate jets. So, my first week I was introduced to the pilots and had access to the corporate jets. All I could think was lookout Bon Jovi, here I come. I had blond hair blowing in the wind, the whole bit, back then at age 32, 30 years ago, this is 30 years ago. And a few weeks after that, the CEO was selling his home, this was a mansion, I’m talking to 13,000 square foot mansion with an eight car garage. I bought that home my first month joining ADM. Received a startup bonus that was used as a down payment. The CEO was very powerful. He was the largest single shareholder of the company, he owned several banks in Central Illinois area. Very powerful man. He made it possible where my first month I bought the home that the previous two CEOs lived in.
So here I am my first month there, a corporate jet, 32 years old, living in a mansion, an eight car garage, and not knowing God. It was all about me. This is example of selfish leadership, not servant leadership. And I filled that eight car garage within a few months with eight cars. Had a Ferrari, two BMWs, two Mercedes, which is what I mean, I was Justin Bieber before Justin Bieber.
Ray: You had all the trappings, right?
Ray: So here you are. You’re locked in at this point now, right? There was something unique about your compensation package that led to some of the challenges and illegalities later on. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that.
Mark: Yeah, the compensation in a public company, and most public companies, so ADM was not unique in this. My base salary, and this is 1989 was huge, $350,000 base salary. But that’s only a fraction of what your total compensation. Compensation could be eight, nine, 10 times that if you met certain performance parameters. And that would be paid in bonuses, but mostly in stock options. So, the opportunity was there to earn two, three, four million dollars a year based on bonuses and stock options based on performance. I was willing to step on anybody to make that happen. Knowing what the opportunity was, I was going to do whatever it took to make that happen.
Ray: Here you are young, you’ve talked about this incredible compensation package. You’ve got this access to the corporate jet, you’ve got this amazing home. But your wife wasn’t exactly thrilled from day one, was she?
Mark: No, Ginger, during this time that I was getting obsessed with the lifestyle of corporate America and I was living the way the world tells you to live. Go to college, move up the corporate ladder, do whatever it takes to, greed is good. This is when the movie Wall Street came out and I was living that life. Greed is good and I was going to do whatever it took to move up that corporate ladder. It’s what I went I felt eight years of college to get a PhD from an Ivy League school.
And Ginger was kind of the opposite. She was getting involved with women’s Bible study groups and she was getting obsessed with Jesus and with God. And I was going to church with her but it was a little bit of God in my head, but I did not have God in my heart. We were two different. She was driving a 10 year old Jeep and I was driving a Ferrari. I would have bought her a nicer car but it didn’t mean anything to her. I mean, we had horse riding stables where our kids rode in an inside arena during the wintertime. Especially for that area, it was a mansion. And I got caught up in that life.
Ray: You were living large, right?
Ray: Well then, help us then begin to understand where the problems started. Walk us through the story.
Mark: I was about three years at the company then. So 35 years old. Now the CEO is heading towards 80, he would have been about 78 years old. The president would have been early 70. So they’re still 30, 40 years my senior there. So I’m moving up, getting trusted by them-
Ray: You got your eyes set on the top seat, right?
Mark: Right, either number one or two, to keep moving up from number four to move somewhere up to more a company president instead of a divisional president where I was, especially knowing they were 30, 40 years my senior. So I was going to do everything they wanted me to do. I was being mentored by them. I learned after I got kind of trusted and part of the family, they started mentoring and showing me how ADM does business. I don’t mean the 30,000 hardworking people, I mean, it’s a very ethical company from a 30,000 people standpoint, but there were three or four bad apples at the top. And I became one of those bad apples because to move up, I felt like I had to do the things that they did.
And they started sharing with me how they do business because age wise, they were aging out heading towards retirement and I was young and I was one of the ones they were pouring into. And one of the things they were heavily involved with was price fixing. Basically fixing the prices of ingredients that go in foods all around the world. And I mean, Kellogg’s cereal And Coca Cola and Pepsi and iced tea and orange juice. It’d be difficult to buy a food at a grocery store that does not have something from Archer Daniels Midland in it. And some of those ingredients, those key ingredients were being price fixed, which is illegal, breaking antitrust laws.
Ray: When you say price fix, I think I know what you mean but help me, make sure I understand what that means.
Mark: If you take your product like lysine that goes into Tyson Foods or Perdue Farms or Purina feed or high fructose corn syrup that goes into Coca Cola and Pepsi or lactic acid that would be in a Campbell Soup, if you read the ingredient label of a processed food, a lot of those ingredients come from ADM. And we were meeting with our competitors because America is built on capitalism. And basically, if you look at a TV manufacturer, for example, the reason why TVs are reasonably priced because there’s competitors. So it’s based on capitalism by having competition, and that keeps the price level consumers can afford.
Now price fixing is when you take out the capitalism and you start working with your competitors like you’re all one company, and fix the prices and basically gouge the consumers, which is highly illegal breaking antitrust laws that had been in the books since the 1800s. And I learned they were doing that for well over a decade. So they started training me to be part of that.
Ray: Okay. My guess is then that we’re not price fixing at the lowest level, we’re price fixing at higher levels to increase profit margins. Is that fair?
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We were earning hundreds of millions of dollars extra a year, some cases a billion dollars a year extra based on what we were doing with the price fixing of these food ingredients.
Ray: But overall, it was a pretty small part or percentage of the overall company, was it not, the price fixing part?
Mark: Well, the company with a $70 billion revenue, about a four billion pre-tax profit, it’s 25% of the company’s pre-tax profit. In turn, was driving the stock up and if you’re paid a lot of your compensations in stock options, you do everything you can to drive the stock up. And we were some cases doubling our stock every three or four years where we could split. So the price fixing contributed to allow us to do that through profitability.
Ray: It was just a lot of profit, not just top line revenue?
Ray: So I think I’ve got the picture now. You’re in your early 30s, you’ve got all these trappings. And now you’ve got the CEO, who is privately letting you in on the secrets, the dirty little secrets about the way the business works. What did that mean for you? What did that mean for your family? How did that affect your home life that you are now on the inside of the inside circle?
Mark: Well, Ginger started noting, I was about seven months into it, I started in April of 1992 getting involved kind of learning the ropes to eventually take over some of the price fixing-
Ray: And you’re not going to say no, right?
Mark: No. You wouldn’t. I mean, they’ve been doing it for well over a decade. I can’t change what they do, and I wanted to continue to move up the corporate ladder. So I’m looking at this is the only way I can do it. And then I also looked at, here’s this CEO that’s been 30 years plus there, president has been 30 years plus there. These executives know much more than me. I started thinking, well, this must be how business is done. I’m in college, been sheltered from all that, but this is the real world. I started looking at it. And so I jumped in hook line and sinker.
Ray: Okay. I got it. You’re buying into it, you’re on board with it. And then something happened that began to expose some of this, and I think it started at home.
Mark: It did. Ginger noticed lots of these changes, she’d known me since I was in eighth grade. We went to our high school problems together, we were homecoming king and queen. I was senior class president. She was treasurer. We were very engaged students. And so she’s known me my whole life since a young teenager. She started noticing changes in me and she sent me down one time, it was in November of 1992. And she said, “Mark, something’s changed these last seven months. What’s changing here? And especially at night, you’re on the phone a lot at night, three or four hours at night. Not the three years you’ve been at ADM, but the last seven months.”
She noticed changes, and the fact I’ve known her my whole life, I started sharing with her. Well, they’re mentoring me how to do price fixing eight o’clock at night in Decatur, Illinois, eight o’clock in the morning. And Singapore and South Korea and Japan, a lot of our competition was foreign competition, Europe, seven hours ahead of us, Asia’s 12 hours ahead of us timewise. So that’s where night works well because it was morning in Southeast Asia. That’s why I’m talking three or four hours on the phone at night each night. I started sharing this with her. And here’s this stay at home mom raising three young kids.
And she says, “Well, price fixing, what is that?” So I kind of explained to her like I did you earlier what that was. And she said, “Is that legal?” I said, “Well, it’s not legal but everybody does it. They told me if you’re in the commodity business, everybody does it. This is the way business is done. And they’ve been doing it for well over a decade. If I’m going to survive at this company, continue to move up, I’ve got to learn the way the company does business.” And then she said, “Well, who pays this extra billion dollars a year? Where does the actual extra income that ADM earned from price fixing, where does it come from?” And I said, “Well, Coca Cola and Pepsi and the food companies that buy our ingredients, they have their profit margins built in. So most people are going to pay for that are consumers when they go to the grocery store all around the world. So the consumers pay that.”
I never forget, she said, “You mean my grandma on $200 a week social security is paying this? And her largest expense is her food bill.” She said, “Boy, Mark, I don’t know if I can live with this.” And then she said something I never wanted to hear because nothing ever came out good when she prayed for me. And she said she was going to go back in her study and pray about it, we’d talk about it later. And I knew then when she said she was going to go back and pray about it, nothing good was going to come out of that.
Ray: Not for you anyway, right? So then what happened?
Mark: She went and prayed for a couple hours, pins and needles, kind of walk in the hallways. And she came out and she said, “You know what, I prayed and God’s led me to a really good solid decision.” I said, “Well, good, good. It’s over with. Let’s just do what we have to do. Our kids are in private schools. We’re living this wonderful life. If there’s a heaven, Ginger, I believe this is it.” And she told me, she definitely said, “This is not heaven.”
And she said, “Well, God told me that the fact you’re seven months involved that something’s been going on for well over a decade, 12, 13 years, that the best thing we can do is turn yourself in to the federal authorities.” I said, “Ginger,” about fell on the floor, I said, “If I turn myself into federal authorities, I could go to prison for price fixing. It’s illegal.” I said, “The CEO is good friends with President Clinton. He’s been good friends with the last three or four presidents also.” I said, “He’s a powerful man, he’s a billionaire. This company will come after us with everything they have. I’d be more scared of them than the government.”
She just quickly came back and said her CEO is bigger than my CEO. And I said, “Well, who’s your CEO?” And she said, “My CEO’s God.” I said, “God don’t know about pricing fixing and all these things. He’s not involved with that.” I said, “You’re not going to find any of that in the Bible.” She said, “Oh, there’s a lot in the Bible about theft and the 10 commandments and doing the right thing.” She said, “Don’t think there’s not a lot about this in the Bible.” She said, “You’re wrong there.” And she said, “God’s her CEO,” and she said, “We’re going to turn myself in today, and if I don’t do it, she’s going to do it.” On November 5th, 1992. And I’ve known her since she was in seventh grade and I knew she meant it.
Ray: She meant it, right?
Ray: So, she followed through, right?
Mark: She did, she did. We met with the FBI, think about this case going over a decade. It’s been going on for years and dozens of people know about it and dozens of people are engaged with it all around the world. And here’s the stay at home mom raising three young kids blew the whistle in that case the day that I shared it with her. We were meeting with the FBI for four hours the very day I shared with her. This case would have never happened without my wife Ginger, the largest price fixing case in history.
Ray: Okay, let me get this straight, right. So you tell her what’s going on. She says, “I’m going to go pray about this.” She comes back later that same day, and says, “Either turn yourself in or I will.” Did she make a phone call or how did that initial connection to the FBI come about?
Mark: Yeah, well, she did. She did. And we met with the FBI that day for four hours.
Ray: She was a spunky little thing.
Mark: I kind of started trying to share a different story. She’s with me in the big part of the beginning of the conversation. They would say things, “Now, tell me a little about this case.” I said, “Well, it’s really not that big, it’s not a really big deal.” And she said, “It’s a billion dollar year theft for a long time.” And then they said, “Now how long has this been going on?” I said, “It’s really not been going on that long.” And she’d say, “It’s been going on for at least 12 or 13 years. He just told me here an hour ago.” She was my own worst witness.
Ray: Are you trying to kick her under the table at this point?
Mark: I was trying to water it down and dilute it and trying to get this thing, kind of get it away from me, and she got me in deep to the point that literally after four hours of discussing with the FBI, I had a choice. I either be arrested that day, be involved with one of the largest white color price fixing cases in history or become an informant tomorrow. And I became an informant that next day for the FBI.
Ray: You talk about the difference between an informant and a whistleblower. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?
Mark: Well, a whistleblower would be my wife, Ginger. Someone that sacrifices everything. I mean, I told her, I said, “Ginger, we could become homeless over this.” She said she’d rather be homeless than live in a house with illegal activity ongoing. She sacrificed everything to do the right thing. That’s a whistleblower. An informant is someone sitting in front of the FBI and they say, we’re either going to arrest you or you’re going to wear a wire and help us get the kingpins of the case. And that was me. And here’s a huge difference between a whistleblower and informant. I just looked at wearing a wire is probably going to be better than being arrested.
Ray: So she was coming forth willingly with the conviction of the Holy Spirit to do the right thing. And you somewhat got brought in just kicking and screaming because you had really no good, easy choice.
Mark: No, I didn’t.
Ray: I’m going to go jail or I’m going to become the informant.
Mark: Yes. I ended up working with four FBI agents, and two of them very, very closely, and they wired me up at six o’clock in the morning, and I ended up meeting those FBI agents every day for three years.
Ray: Three years.
Mark: Monday through Friday for three years. I wore a wire every day for three years.
Ray: Now there was something unique about that because up to that point, as best you knew, what had been the longest timeframe that an informant had been wired?
Mark: Normally about an average, and they thought even for me for this case would be about that average about six weeks, someone wear a wire. Six months would have been a long time. Three years is the longest duration in history. If you go to the FBI museum, it has the equipment I wore undercover being one of the largest price fixing cases in history. I think the third largest still today. It was the largest then 30 years ago. And also wearing a wire for three years. I’ve done seven events for the FBI including Quantico FBI Academy with wearing a wire so long.
Ray: Why was it necessary to wear it several times longer than the average? If the average was six months and you had it for three years, why that kind of discrepancy?
Mark: For one, it’s a very complicated case, and there are also some very powerful companies, one of the largest companies in the world, that they knew was going to have a strong defense and hire some of the best lawyers in the country. So they wanted to make sure they had all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. But also that it started on a product called lysine, but then someone would start sharing something else illegal on another product like a lactic acid or a sodium gluconate. So it kept spreading and kept becoming a larger case. Every time someone would brag about illegal activity, I wanted to say shut up, I want to get this case behind me, it would become expanded to more products that are being price fixed. It just became a big expanded case that I felt I didn’t know when it was going to end.
Ray: Obviously there’s the movie the informant, in this case, that somewhat depicts your life story. And we see in Hollywood movies, it’s almost like glamorous, it’s almost like intriguing and suspenseful and a thriller to be wired up. But what was it really like for you? Walk us through that experience for three years. What was life like for you?
Mark: Those were the most difficult days in my life. Matter of fact, there’s a documentary that the four FBI agents did on Discovery Channel, and that’s on my website on Markwhitacre.com, they did it a few months after the movie to kind of have a legacy of the real story on this case. And in that documentary, they make it pretty clear that my life was in danger. They’d say, “Mark, these guys catch you, they’re going to kill you.” I mean, this was pretty serious stuff. It’s no fun. Prison was a cakewalk compared to wearing a wire for three years. Most difficult years of my life.
Ray: So what’s that like, you’re in conversations, you’re in meetings, what kinds of devices were wired up. Kind of let us behind the scenes on that.
Mark: They’d have a lot different equipment today they would than 30 years ago. They had two microphones taped to my chest. They’d shave my chest, microphones to it. They had a tape recorder called the Nagra with an athletic band that was on my back. Pretty large, it’s like having a kid’s lunchbox attached to your back with an athletic band wrapped around you. Then they had a special one in a briefcase. Actually the briefcase that was my real briefcase, they had a special recorder put in there. And then a third recorder and a special notebook that they created. In case one of them didn’t work, they had three recorders working at all times. The main one they hope capture with the microphones taped to my chest.
Then they also had a green lamp that had the video camera. This green lamp looked like it came from a yard sale. And this green lamp would travel all around the world. We’d meet in a conference room like the Shangri La Hotel in Singapore or the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong with our competitors. And this green lamp would be five feet from us from this group of eight, nine, 10, 11, depending on how many showed up that particular meeting. And this green lamp showed up two or three times a month. The FBI would be in the next room and whoever was talking, they could control the camera in that lamp through a screen that they’re monitoring. And they would zoom in on that person or someone’s writing on a flip chart, they’d zoom in on that flip chart to capture this where they could really show a jury something, not just the audio tapes that I was making.
And that green lamp showed up at two or three meetings a month for three years. I look back and I just say thank God we didn’t have a woman criminal among us because a woman would have said, you know that green lamp is following us around the world.
Ray: That’s humorous, I think that’s hilarious. However, you were concerned about that green lamp being discovered but the FBI gave you a really clear answer on that, right?
Mark: Well, they’ve been involved with white collar crime and dealing with these type of things for a long time, for decades, couple of them. And they said, “Mark when people are focused on millions of dollars, and they’re even going to get millions of dollars bonuses as a result of, when it’s so money-focused, they’re not going to see what’s five feet from them.” And how right they were, no one noticed that green lamp for all those times that it was there.
Ray: So you’re going into work every day. You’re wearing this device. I think I heard you say you didn’t take your sport coat off at work for those entire three years.
Mark: Yeah, I didn’t because of that recorder that’s on my back.
Ray: And it took a toll on you.
Mark: It did. I was losing weight. People at work thought I had cancer. I was having a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t sleep at night. I have neighbors that saw me three in the morning blowing leaves off the driveway during thunderstorms.
Ray: You were losing it.
Mark: Yeah, I was, definitely. Three years is a long time. The FBI don’t even allow an informer to wear a wire longer than a year after they saw what happened to me wearing one for three.
Ray: It really messed you over, right? So, how did that time, was there any impact on your family, your marriage, your kids? How did they see that? You’ve got FBI agents coming and going. What was that part of life like for you?
Mark: For my family, I mean, they’re the only ones that know, they couldn’t share with anybody. It’s amazing our kids as young as they were, our youngest would have been six then, never shared with others about their dad getting strapped up and wired up. They never shared it with anybody else. And my parent never knew the whole three years. Only ones really knew was my family. It was a journey but it was stressful. Ginger worried about each night is her husband going to come home alive? And she started the case so it really weighed heavily on her.
Ray: Then what happened? You’re wearing the wire, you’re in these meetings, you got the green lamp, all these things going on. You got FBI agents in and out of your life on a daily basis for three years. Then what happened?
Mark: Well, what happened is kind of on the last year when I was then promoted to corporate vice president, there was a lot articles even talking about succession planning that I was going to become the next president of the company. So I had my eye set still on that. I was that naive and that delusional-
Ray: You thought that was still a possible reality?
Mark: Yes. So, one of these evenings when I’m blowing this driveway off our driveway at three in the morning during a thunderstorm, my wife heard the gas leaf blower and it became a very big scene in the documentary on Discovery Channel, that kind of, probably the most accurate part of the story because it’s the four real FBI agents, the real people engaged and my wife and I and all the real people. And I’m blowing this driveway off at three in the morning during this thunderstorm with a gas leak blower. My wife heard it from the bedroom, she comes out and she says, “Mark, it’s three in the morning. You got to meet the FBI at six.” I said, “Ginger, I know I got to meet them at six. I’ve been meeting FBI every day for two years.” And I said, “It’s all your fault that all this is happening.”
And she said, “You need to come back in the house, you need to come back to the family.” She said, “Especially you need God in your life.” I said, “Ginger, why would I need God? They just announced that I’m going to be the next president of the company. Why would I need God?” She said, “Mark, you think you’re going to be the next president of the company?” I said, “It’s already in Fortune Magazine, it’s already been announced. Succession planning is already being talked about by all the stock analysts and people that are following ADM and so on.” And she said, “Mark, the board members are all friends and family of the CEO and he’s been here 30 years. The son on the board, a daughter on the board, a nephew on the board, a brother on the board. They’re going to fire you. You think they’re all going to go to prison and you’re going to go to work like nothing happened? You’re going to lose this job.”
And that changed everything because I have full immunity up to that point. The FBI had the US Attorney in Chicago sign a full immunity agreement, never to be charged. So that changed everything that night when she told me that, because then she went back in the house and I stayed out on that driveway. Had another year you had to wear the wore. And I’m thinking, look at that horse stables and that eight car garage and that mansion, how am I going to keep up this life that I’ve had about seven years at that point. And then I thought about the stock options yet that I couldn’t exercise, which was millions, about nine million right there that could have been, if I could exercise them a year and a half, two years later. But the case was going to come to an end before I could exercise them.
And I thought, who’s going to hire somebody who wore a wire against their own company. I’m only in my mid 30s and who’s going to hire, it’s easier to get a job as a felon than somebody who wore a wire for three years against their own company. So I thought, I’m going to need time to get on my feet. And I’m not going to get to these stock options. I felt like I deserve that compensation I had. So I said, I’m going to basically write my own severance package on the level of knowing what my stock options and someone could justify. And I went and I wrote a three and a half million dollar check to myself within a day or two after that. Basically over a couple months, I wrote $9 million to myself. And I thought, well, if it ever got to jury, I can show my stock option documents and what my salary is and I could justify, and they would be sympathetic why I did that.
So I tried to rationalize and not call it theft, I tried to say, this is what they owe me. If I would have stayed there, this would have been my compensation. And I wrote the $9 million. And when the case went public and ADM learned that I was the guy wearing the wire, first thing they called the FBI. Hey, he’s no white knight informant, he stole $9 million from us. They did that the day they learned that I was the guy. Once they learned that I put them in flames, they said let’s put Mark in flames.
Ray: So, take me to that moment, maybe who inside the company first confronted you or called you or reached out to you and said, Mark, we know or I know that you’re the one that’s been, what was that moment? Just walk us through that.
Mark: Well, there was basically, when the case went public, the FBI tried to make me look, they raided my office too, and they maybe try to look like a defendant to protect me, to make me look like I’m one of the guys just like the rest of them. And then ADM brought in some high powered lawyers, flew them all in on their corporate jets. And I sat with one of the attorneys when it went public in August of 1995 when they knew there was a case. Prior to that it was all undercover.
Ray: But they still didn’t know who or how?
Mark: They didn’t know who and they had me sit with a lawyer and I asked this lawyer, wasn’t going to tell him anything. And I asked him, I said, “Now, do you represent me or do you represent the company?” Because the company was paying for him. He said, well the company’s paying for his fees, legal fees, but he said, “I’m representing you. So I want you to make it clear is we’re worried about your path through this journey. I’m representing you.” And once he, I asked him enough times and I felt comfortable with it, I shared with him about 10 o’clock that night. And I got a call, I left that meeting at 10 o’clock, I got a call from the general counsel of ADM at midnight that night and said, “Mark, you don’t need to show up at work tomorrow. We know you’re the informant.”
So, somewhere between that two hours, a lot of discussion had happened. I mean, either room was bugged or the attorney, the attorney says he didn’t share. So, something happened during that day where ADM knew immediately that I was the guy.
Ray: And had you written the $9 million to yourself at that point?
Mark: Several months before that. I already felt like I’m the smartest guy in this room, I’ve got my severance package, my whistleblower award, kind of all set away at that point.
Ray: And that’s ultimately what caused your prison sentence was you prematurely wrote those options?
Mark: Yeah, I stole my own severance basically a year and a half before I could even exercise stock options. So I went to prison for that. I have full immunity for the price fixing.
Ray: Now there was a moment where you turned down a pretty Sweet offer from the government, and maybe pride was a part of that or whatever, but walk us through that.
Mark: Well, when the FBI heard about the nine million, they met with Ginger and I. Obviously, that’s something you got to discuss. And I shared with them about the stock options and I’m losing this job and I had to protect my family some way. And they said, “Mark, we had some things already in place that we were going to protect you financially.” But I didn’t know all the things they were working on behind the scenes, so I didn’t know any of that. So I took it on my own hands. And they said, “But Ginger has been begging us to have you hospitalized, begging us to see a psychiatrist. She said you’ve been falling apart the last three years.”
Ray: You’re losing all this weight. You’re blowing leaves losing at 3 AM.
Mark: The mental breakdown really, the nervous breakdown. She said, “Ginger’s been telling us that, and we were concerned about if you saw a doctor, doctor’s going to say, you can’t wear a wire anymore and this guy’s falling apart.” And they needed the evidence. So they didn’t want me to seek help, mental health counseling. And so they said for that reason that I made some poor decisions under a lot of pressure, they were going to give me the best plea agreement they could get me. And they eventually got a plea agreement for me to go to six months to a white collar camp with no fence for six months. Deal of a lifetime for that nine million.
Ray: And you said?
Mark: Well, my lawyer called me in Chicago and said, “Mark, here’s a deal of a lifetime, this plea agreement, we need to sign it, you got 48 hours to sign it.” And Ginger looked at me and said, “Mark, let’s sign it. Let’s put it behind us.” And I looked at Ginger, I said, “Ginger, you’re the whole reason I’m in this mess in the first place.” And I ripped that plea agreement up. I said, “I’m going to do the opposite you want me to do.” And I fired that lawyer on the spot and hired a whole group of lawyers the next day and fought the case for three years to get a 10 year sentence instead three years later. I showed Ginger, didn’t I?
Ray: Yes. Draw that picture.
Mark: Worst decision of my life was sure the nine million, but then second worst when the FBI still trying to help me knowing the meltdown I had and I cut their legs out from under them.
Ray: And so, you ultimately, you got sentenced to how long in prison?
Mark: 10 years and there’s no parole in the federal system. You get 15% off good behavior but parole’s not even part of the federal system, even though it is in states. This is a federal case. So you have to do eight and a half years on a 10 year sentence. And that’s the least you can do.
Ray: And that’s really where the movie starring Matt Damon the Informant ends is it’s, you’re going off to jail, and there’s just, but that is so not the real story here. That’s the story of the fall. But let’s talk now about the story of redemption. Let’s talk about the story of restoration because your life took an amazing turn, and God began to bring some amazing people into your life shortly before you went to prison. Tell us about that.
Mark: Well, basically, I did think life was ending, just like the way the movie ends, I thought life was ending when I went to prison. I couldn’t imagine going to prison from age 40 to 49, and I tried to take my own life. I tried to kill myself. I wrote a 17 page letter to Ginger and my kids. I thought I probably won’t have a family when I get out anyway. Families don’t stay with somebody going to prison for eight and a half years. Probably won’t get a job when I get out. Why live? So I tried to take my own life and I was hospitalized for a month and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and some of the things that happened when you wear a wire for three years. And medicated very heavily into more stable position. But still had to look to go to prison seven months later. I had a few months to get on my feet but I still knew I was going to be going to prison about seven months from that time period.
And during that time, this was all in the newspapers, this is USA Today, it was front page Wall Street Journal six times. It’s in Fortune Magazine, front cover twice. And so some man, gentlemen was reading about all this in the paper, this six month deal that I ripped up. Six months I would have done, now eight and a half years to do, and all these things that that were happening in this case. Full immunity and I blew that. So he was reading this and his wife’s an attorney and five young kids school age and younger. CFO of a pharmaceutical company. And he showed up about a month after I attempted suicide. And I never forget, my wife told me there’s somebody wanted to talk to me and I went out and talked to him on the porch. And he said, “Mark prison’s going to be the beginning of your life.” His name’s Ian Howes. And he said, “Prison’s going to be the beginning of your life and you’re going to find your true purpose in life with the journey you’re ready to start.”
I remember running back in the house and said, “Honey, there is somebody on the porch that’s crazier than I am. First thing she said, “That can’t be.” And then she said, then I told her what he said that prisons can be the beginning of my life. And I’m going to find my purpose in my life on this journey. That’s so crazy. And she fell to her knees in tears. And she said, “Mark, I’ve been praying for you for 10 years.”
Mark: “For 10 years, I’ve been praying for you and you haven’t listened to me. And your parents have been praying for even longer, and you haven’t listened to them. And I pray you go out and listen to this man that God sent.”
Ray: She knew. She knew. And so, he began to invest in you. What was that like?
Mark: He did. I went out and talked to him, asked what he had in my mind. He had a study called Operation Timothy. He was part of also Christian Business Men. I mentioned earlier that 21 years ago, someone from CBMC reached out to me, Christian Business Men’s Connection, that was Ian Howes that first reached out to me. He started taking me through Operation Timothy, introduced me to God and introduced me to Jesus. And he started planting the seed started giving me some hope. I wasn’t there yet but I could see some light during that time.
And then early into my prison sentence, my first few weeks of prison, a man named Chuck Colson showed up. I didn’t even know Chuck Colson was. And he showed up in my life. And he was the White House Counsel under President Nixon during the Watergate Scandal, and President Nixon was pardoned by President Ford, but the director of the FBI, the attorney general, the White House Counsel, all the rest of them went to prison for that Watergate Scandal and he was one of those. He was about that same age and he read about me in Washington Post and read about the story. And God put on his heart to reach out to me.
And the thing that he really shared with me was Ian was really giving me some hope, with going through Bible study and Operation Timothy and introduced me to God and Jesus. But my science, eight years education was still a block. I mean, I had eight years of professors saying, if you believe in God, you can’t be a scientist. And it’s hard to, especially go to an Ivy League school, I said, who’s right, my parents who didn’t go to college or this guy that just won a Nobel Prize?
So I was so tied up into the education, I couldn’t erase those eight years of education. And I remember Chuck said, “You don’t think there’s a scientist that believes in God? Chuck Colson said, and I said, “I don’t think there is.” And he started sending me article after article and book after book of scientists. First one was Albert Einstein that said that only God could create man in the universe, only God. Big Bang Theory is impossible. I thought, well, Albert Einstein is pretty smart guy. And other books like that by other scientists. And after about three months of reading all that, and June 4 1998, I would have been 41 years of age, I got on my knees on a 10 by 10, a concrete floor, a locker and a roommate after being in 13,000 Square feet for eight years, now in a 10 by 10 for eight and a half years.
And I surrendered my life to Jesus, I’m telling you, I really became a free man in prison. The prison life I had was that life of greed and trying to live the way the world lived before prison. And when I surrendered my life, I became a free man my third month in prison.
Ray: Wow. That’s so upside down from the world. You thought you had arrived, you thought you had found purpose and meaning and happiness with all the stuff and the position. But God had another plan. Now, I’ve heard you talk about the six month offer that you tore up. As you look back now, was that God?
Mark: Yeah, I believe so. Even my wife who really was even hit with that on several interviews 10 years ago when the movie came out was asked, “How’d you stay with your husband? The divorce rate is 78% if you go to prison. It’s 99% if you serve five years and longer. How’d you stay? Why were you different?” And Ginger said, God told her to love me unconditionally,” even when she didn’t love me, God told her to love me unconditionally so divorce was not an option.
Then they asked her, they said, “What would have happened if your husband signed a six months sentence?” I believe this now my children, which are older, all three older than I was at that time now, and Ginger, my wife, we all believe, and she said that right on that news program, I thought about that a lot over these years, “That if my husband signed a six month sentence, he would have never listened to Ian Howes or Chuck Colson and he would have came out the same greedy man he went in. God gave him exactly what he needed, which was eight and a half years in prison.” I think two years would have been enough. But I believe six months would not have been.
Ray: Wow. So your life was totally transformed. How did you find your purpose in prison.
Mark: I tell you, I looked at, only things I had was that Bible from Chuck Colson, those Operation Timothy books by Ian Howes. And I started discipling guys through those same tools, Operation Timothy, and helping them get their GEDs, learn how to read or learn how to write some of them. And those became the nine most productive years of my life. For the first time in my life, I found myself helping somebody else besides me. I found how rewarding that was. And that changed my life. God changed my life, said there’s nothing more exciting than serving somebody else and help somebody else improve their life.
Ray: So those words that Ian had said to you on your porch about you’re going to find your purpose in prison, it’s prophetic.
Mark: I did. I found it. And Chuck told me I’d find my purpose too. With good behavior, you move to better places. She moved to all three prisons in three different states to see me every Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, her and my children. I got to know my children, unfortunately, it’s a horrible way to do it, but I got to know my children better than I ever knew them in my life during those 20 hours a weekend in prison. The companies that were the victims of the ADM case, Coca Cola and Pepsi, they won hundreds of millions of dollars. 11 of them got together and put fund together for my wife, a whistleblower award for turning me in. So they helped take care of, the people I stole from took care of my family financially. That’s a miracle of God.
Ginger and I are married 40 years last month, 99% divorce rate, that’s a miracle of God. The FBI agent started visiting me in prison and forgave me. They’re trying to give me a full presidential pardon today, another miracle of God. I was employed the day I got out of prison back in the biotech industry, and became the COO of that company, cancer research company, another miracle of God. And now able to work with CBMC and go share with the world of the life from ashes to beauty that only God could do.
Ray: That is so amazingly powerful. And so, we’re kind of winding down in our conversation today. So what I’d like to do, Mark, is just transition just for a moment here, and I’d like you to give us some advice. Let’s say that there’s someone who’s just been watching or listening to this story, and they’re probably like me on the edge of their seat. But let’s just say that they’re going through something right now and it seems hopeless. You were just getting ready to go to prison, everything seemed hopeless. Or maybe there’s someone that has kind of placed their value, their worth in their stuff and their income and their prestige and their power. What would be some advice that you would be willing to share with someone who’s listening or watching this conversation that might be a word of encouragement?
Mark: Well the advice I would give that the most important decision I’ve ever made, when I surrendered my life to Jesus. To me, that’s when life began. And the advice I would give is this, I would not know God today if it wasn’t for that dark place and that brokenness. I had to have all those distractions out of the way. So if you’re in a dark place and going through a tough time, that’s when you can build your relationship with God like you’ve never had before. And God walked me through that and he walked me through that journey. And he even helped me during eight years of prison, used that to be productive time during that dark period in life. So if you let God into your life and you’re guided by God, no matter what darkness you’re going through, God will turn that to light.
Ray: So, as you look back now, what would you tell the 20 year old Mark Whitacre?
Mark: I would tell the 20 year old Mark Whitacre, you think that you’re looking for a big house and a big title and all this materialism, if you think that’s what’s life about, all that that I had 30 years ago, that Ferrari is rusted right now. It’s nothing but rust and rubbish. But the people that you serve and you help other people, there is nothing more rewarding than that. I would tell my 20 year old self, wake up. I wish I would have met Ian Howes 20 years earlier before I joined ADM. I wish I would have known what I known at age 41 20 years earlier that a life of significance of serving, making the world a little better place when you leave it than when you entered it is so much more important and so much more rewarding than a life of success, if it’s the way the world defines success.
Ray: Well, and the reality of it is, you might not have been ready to hear that message at age 20.
Mark: Yeah, probably wouldn’t have.
Ray: Because of everything you’ve described. So now as you look forward, the remaining chapter of your life, what’s got you most excited and how do you believe God wants to use you from this point forward?
Mark: I feel strongly there’s a lot of Mark Whitacres out there, that all they can’t wait to do is move up that corporate ladder and earn as much as they can and just that the way the world define success. And I want to reach those Mark Whitacres, I want to plant seeds. I’m discipling four guys even through Operation Timothy still today. 21 years later, I’m still taking guys through Operation Timothy 13 years since I’ve been in prison. I’m even discipling a guy one Saturday a month just like Ian Howes and Chuck Colson did to me, I’m discipling a guy in prison, a medical doctor. And to me, I want to impact like guys, that disciple me impacted my life, I want to do the same with others.
And I want to tell the world, my life people would say was ashes. Well, God took it from ashes to beauty. And it’s a lot more rewarding life now than it ever was when I would have been top of the corporate world. And I want to share that with the world.
Ray: That’s fantastic. One of the last questions I ask in each one of these interviews is out of Proverbs chapter four where it talks about that above all else, guard your heart, for from it flows all of life. What’s the above all else advice that you would want to leave our audience with today? What one thing do you want them to remember from our conversation?
Mark: The one thing I would want your audience to hear is, no matter who you have in front of you, there’s something is going on in their life, listen to them. Listen to God and pour into that, pour into that person. I mean, make a difference with their life. And the best way to make a difference in life is change someone else’s life, and be there for them and walk beside them when they go through their journey. So often when someone’s sick with cancer or going to prison, so often people run. They need to run towards not run away like Ian Howes and Chuck Colson did to me. And I hope that’s examples of ambassadors for Christ because we all represent Jesus here on Earth while we’re here on earth. I look at Chuck Colson and Ian Howes as great examples of ambassadors. And I hope that’s examples to your audience of how to live their life. Run towards and be intentional and not run away.
Ray: It’s beautiful. Mark, I can’t thank you enough for being with us today here at Bottom Line Faith. I’m so grateful that you would invest the time. You do speak to organizations and events really all over the globe. If someone needs to get ahold of you or learn more about your story, learn more about you, contact you, what’s the best way for-
Mark: Best way is my website markwhitacre.com. Whitacre is W-H-I-T-A-C-R-E. It has my email addresses right on my website under contact information.
Ray: Well, thanks. Thanks for being here today.
Mark: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Ray: Well, folks, wow, what an amazing journey we’ve just been on with our friend, Mark Whitacre. We really hope and pray that this story will encourage you as you live out your faith each day in the marketplace. So until next time, I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith, Ray Hilbert, saying God bless and we’ll see you next time.