With his background in marketing and organizational behavior, can Fr. Max Oliva ’61 teach business ethics to the Vegas Strip? This article first appeared on Nov. 12, 2012, in the Las Vegas Review-Journal under a different title.
“People are fascinated with a priest who works with businesspeople on ethics,” Max Oliva says.
Through short talks to business groups, full-length seminars, or individual sessions, he works with businesspeople—Catholics and non-Catholics—to try to sort through quandaries they encounter in the office. How should a business person deal with a larcenous partner, lay off people to satisfy cash-flow necessities yet not crush the spirit of the former employees, or handle a contract dispute with a client?
“My experience is there’s not a lot of people you can talk to about this stuff,” Oliva says. “You don’t want to talk to your boss. You can’t talk to a pastor because he is overwhelmed with other things. You don’t want to take it home and make it a big problem. In walks Father Max Oliva, a Jesuit with a background in business.”
Beatitudes for the workplace
Where do you put your time or energy or love? In answering that question, Max Oliva, S.J., says, “You want to put it in a company or organization that you believe in.”
Oliva, who grew up in San Francisco, graduated from Santa Clara University with a B.A. in marketiing and business in 1961. He went on to train with the Jesuits for nine years and also earned an MBA in organizational behavior and industrial relations from U.C. Berkeley in 1971. He was ordained in 1972.
In the years since, Oliva has spent 12 years with the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, acted as assistant to the Jesuit provincial for social ministries in San Francisco, and ministered in Tijuana, a native reservation in Alberta, and Calgary. He returned briefly to Santa Clara to teach ethics in 2008 before moving to Las Vegas in 2011.
In the early 1960s, after graduating from college, he had offers to join three family-owned businesses: his father’s food brokerage, his grandfather’s print shop, and his great-uncle’s construction firm.
Instead, he diplomatically said no to all three and entered training for priesthood in 1963, but kept a hand in commerce through such projects as lining up job interviews for black men in San Francisco’s Fillmore district during the civil rights era.
“Even though I wasn’t yet ordained, I wore the collar for protection,” Oliva recalls. “White people really weren’t welcome in the community at the time.”
Much of his succeeding work involved social issues, but in 2001, while in Calgary, he felt the “market was saturated” for conventional missions. After reading a Fortune magazine article on religion in the workplace and talking with businesspeople in the area, he returned to his roots by starting Spirituality at Work in 2002. As a complement, he later wrote the book Beatitudes for the Workplace.
Answering a call to help out with a shortage of priests in the Las Vegas area, he came first on a part-time basis in 2008 and moved to the area last year.
“When you go into a parish with something different like I do, you really need the support of the bishop,” Oliva says. “Here, I have the support of Bishop [Joseph] Pepe.”
With the help of a local nine-person advisory group, he renamed the ministry Ethics in the Marketplace.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal had the chance to ask Fr. Oliva some questions.
Business ethics makes for an unconventional ministry for a priest. What brought you to it?
God works on nature. If your nature is that you have entrepreneurial gifts, that your background is in business, that you have contacts with a lot of people in business, that you grew up in that atmosphere and you have an MBA, it all kind of fits. I’m not a high school teacher, I’m more comfortable with adults in terms of ministry. I’m not a parish priest. My provincial [regional leader] says I’m our missionary in Nevada.
Where have businesspeople gone off the track?
When I was developing this ministry in Canada, one of the first guys I asked about it was a venture capitalist in Calgary [Alberta]. He said, “Father Max, we need you, it’s a moral desert out there.” People are cutting corners and focusing too much on the short term. There are major scandals, like the HOA [homeowners association] things and medical issues. People come to me and like to see me one-to-one. They have a lot more stress because of the economy, and morale is down. If you’re in a job that you don’t like but you don’t want to leave because there is nothing else to do, you are going to be unhappy there.
I hear stories from people about things that have happened at their workplace that are painful, or from some who are out of work, and how they’re working on dealing with those issues.There are some wonderful people here who are really inspirational to me.
What is the practical value of ethics for a company?
The key is reputation. What kind of reputation do you have? How do you treat your employees? Zappos often shows up in surveys as a company people want to work for because of the work climate. Tom Morris, who wrote the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, basically said ethics creates a climate of goodness. If you have a climate of goodness in a company, people want to work there, they want to produce, they want to be effective, and they want the company to succeed. People don’t want to work for a company that kills the human spirit.
Do you get people who say, “Ethics are fine but they just don’t apply in a tough economy”?
You could say that about any period—ethics doesn’t work when you have too much money or it doesn’t work when there isn't enough. Ethics is about being consistent, regardless of what shape the economy is in.
Ethics is also important in terms of your spirit and mental health, and it can even affect your physical health.
I remember one guy whose business partner absconded with the money and really hurt the company. So he talked with me about how to handle this. I said, probably the only thing you can do is pray for the grace to forgive him. You have to come to some sort of peace about this. If you are angry about it, or resentful, who gets hurt? It’s not the guy who’s left with the money, it’s you because it’s eating you up inside.
Is that a tough message to get across, because the first instinct is usually to hire lawyers?
Sometimes your only recourse is to sue. In fact, there was a situation here where someone asked me if he should sue. After laying out all the steps he had taken, I realized the guy who took advantage of him would do that to somebody else if he wasn’t stopped. And the only way to stop people like that is to sue them. Normally, I believe in trying to solve problems before getting to court.
Ethics would seem to be a tough sell when the economic heart of the area is the Strip.
In the three years I have been involved here, I have had very little contact with the Strip. I know very few executives who work on the Strip. One of first people I met before I moved here was Terry Lanni [the late chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International]. I met him through a Jesuit brother. I laid out for him what I was doing and he said, “The economy is in bad shape right now, so it would be better if you waited on this. But I am interested in what you are doing and I could introduce you to some people.” But then he left [MGM].
When I first came here, I reached out by sending letters to Strip executives, but I never heard back from anybody.
What does that say about Las Vegas?
I would rather not go there.
Do you ever hit the casinos?
My ancestral background is mainly Italian—Genovese. Genovese are money people, which means we”re tight with money. I don’t gamble because I don’t want to lose money. What is the sense in that? It’s stupid.
Have you come up with any concrete goals?
That’s a very hard question for a priest to answer. I want to know what God wants and I want to do it. And people tell me, “Yeah, we know that. But what do you want to accomplish?” I hope my being here will draw people closer to God and encourage them to be better in the workplace. I hope that what I have to offer helps people deal with serious issues both personal and work-related.