PARK CITY — Deseret Management Corp. CEO Mark Willes talked about the new paradigm that is catalyzing a revival of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' for-profit businesses (including the Deseret News) during a keynote address Thursday at the 4th Annual LDS Business Conference in Park City.
"You have to ask why the (LDS) church owns media businesses," Willes said. "They don't need to own us unless at the end of the day there is a way for us to be useful and helpful to the mission of the church. Some of those ways can be indirect, just by helping people live more informed, more useful lives. But we think it has to go beyond that."
In 2009 Willes took the reins at DMC, the holding company for the LDS church's for-profit businesses such as the Deseret News, Beneficial Life, KSL-TV and Deseret Book. Following a business career that included service as president of General Mills and CEO of Times Mirror, Willes had been retired but agreed to take on the DMC position at the invitation of the church's First Presidency.
The seven entities under the DMC umbrella at the time of Willes' arrival were fighting to stay solvent. For example, Deseret News couldn't replace the revenue it had lost to diminished sales of classified ads, Beneficial Life had recently written off over $600 million in losses and KSL-TV suffered from sagging ratings.
Willes quickly ascertained that the first step for stopping the bleeding was for DMC to be honest with itself about what its businesses had become amidst a shifting economic landscape.
"One of the things we've learned is that it's important to see the world the way it is, not the way we would like it to be," he said. "The challenge for all of us is to make sure that we understand how things actually are … and that has been particularly true for our businesses, where in a number of cases the world was quite different than we would like it to be — but it was critical that we understand that so that we could deal with it appropriately."
Objective analysis led DMC to inflict deep cuts to some of its operations: Beneficial Life closed its doors to new business (though it continues to service and honor its pre-existing policies), DMC real estate holdings were transferred to the LDS church's real estate division, 17 of DMC's 28 radio stations were sold and Deseret News endured a 42-percent staff reduction. At the same time, DMC strategically launched new companies such as Deseret Digital Media, which operates the websites of DMC entities, and El Observador, a thrice-weekly Spanish-language newspaper that is already Utah's most widely read Spanish periodical.
As the capstone to the institutional overhaul of DMC businesses, Willes supervised the creation and implementation of a faith-based mission statement that would be applied to all DMC holdings.
"We had to say, 'What is our purpose? What does the Lord expect us to do?'" Willes recalled. "Our mission is to be 'trusted voices of light and knowledge, reaching hundreds of millions of people worldwide.' … The central piece of this mission was given to us by prophecy from one of the senior Brethren (of the LDS church)."