“The Informant” Comes to UWF
By Josh Newby, University Communications
Mark Whitacre, who became famous for being the whistleblower for the largest price-fixing case in American history, spoke at the University of West Florida on Jan. 12 to a room full of students, faculty, staff and community members. Whitacre’s story was also dramatized in the movie “The Informant” and has inspired multiple books and documentaries.
Whitacre’s speech, entitled “When Good Leaders Lose Their Way,” dealt with the story of his corporate espionage at the biotechnology company Archer Daniels Midland. He also spoke on his second chance at life after spending nine years in prison and how ethics should play a role in modern business.
“It’s important to note that there are over 30,000 hard-working, ethical employees at ADM,” said Whitacre as he began his speech. “The mistake was the top four executives’. We were greedy, and we thought we found a way to fuel that greed by price-fixing.”
Price fixing is an agreement between multiple companies in the same market to drive up the price of goods by pretending to compete. The practice is illegal, and Whitacre helped expose what was estimated to be more $1 billion dollars worth of price-fixing. Whitacre explained the stress of exposing the criminality in honest terms.
“Imagine you had to go to work with tape recorders in your jacket, briefcase and notebook and pretend to support the company that you’re secretly tearing down,” said Whitacre. “Now imagine that you had to do this every day for three years.”
Initially, Whitacre explained that he was hesitant to assist the FBI in apprehending the executives at ADM and other major firms. He said that the credit belonged to his wife, whose ethics and strong moral compass convinced him to forgo his promising future and high salary in favor of exposing the wrongdoing.
“My wife Ginger really became my moral compass,” said Whitacre. “She told me very clearly, ‘Either you tell the FBI or I will.’ It wasn’t really a hard decision after that.”
Whitacre described that it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between which life he was living.
“I would spend nine hours a day pretending to care about my job and helping negotiate price-fixing agreements,” said Whitacre. “And then I would spend the evenings turning over tapes to the FBI and explaining mine and my colleagues’ crimes of that day. It was hard to stay sane, but if your value system is clear, then the decision is easy.”
After exposing ADM’s secrets, Whitacre was fired and sentenced to nine years in prison for embezzling $9 million dollars while he was working undercover for the FBI. Whitacre explained that he did this because he knew he would be fired and felt the need to secure himself and his family financially.
“Prison was as bad as you can imagine,” said Whitacre. “I missed so many important events in my family’s life. It’s remarkable that I’ve been given a second chance. The divorce rate for prison inmates is 99 percent. I owe it to my family for sticking by me in that tough time.”
Whitacre is currently the president of operations at Cypress Systems, a biotechnology firm in California.
“As a family, we’re stronger, happier and closer than ever,” said Whitacre. “I’m living proof that there is such a thing as second chances.”
Ian Simmons, a business major at UWF, summed up the evening and the lessons learned.
“It’s a remarkable, exciting story,” said Simmons. “It gives me a lot to think about and definitely inspires me to be honest in my career. It’s amazing how many other whistleblowers he inspired to come forward. The business world is really a better place because of Mark Whitacre.”