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Mark Willes

Ahead of the Times

Mark Willes, then chairman of Times Mirror Company and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, stepped off the plane in mainland China just days after the United States bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Upon arriving at his hotel that day in mid-1999, Willes watched Chinese news broadcasts of student protesters hurling bricks at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Despite the risks involved, Willes insisted that he go to the American embassy.

He and several Times reporters and editors made their way through Chinese police blockades to within a block of the embassy.

"One reporter . . . explained that we were U.S. citizens and wanted to go to the embassy," Willes recounted later to BYU students. "The guard said, ‘No.'" The reporter asked why. "The guard responded, ‘There is no why.'"1

That nonanswer did not satisfy Willes, a man not easily swayed. Later, though, Willes used the experience to illustrate a lesson he knows well: Some questions don't have easy answers.

It is a lesson that Willes, now a visiting distinguished professor of management at the Marriott School, frequently finds himself teaching others as he explains a series of bold and controversial moves he took as CEO of Times Mirror from 1995 to 2000.

"His legs bestrid the ocean His reared arm crested the world His voice was prophesied to all the tuned spheres." —Inscription, Los Angeles Times building

Although they might argue with his ideas for reviving a sickly newspaper industry, journalists and scholars alike agree that Willes is one of the most extraordinary figures to enter the news and information business in the latter part of the 20th century. His persistence in forging ahead despite situations and people who would block his path has made Willes successful—and sometimes unpopular.

"Stubbornness is a great asset, but if you take it too far it can also be your greatest liability," he said. "It's very hard to get the right balance."

"The newspaper is a greater treasure to the people than uncounted millions of gold." —Inscription, Los Angeles Times building

Mark Hinckley Willes entered national media consciousness in June 1995 as CEO of Times Mirror, which published more than a dozen magazines and major newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun.

Some journalists expressed skepticism that a cereal company executive and economist could run a communications business,2 but Willes was not deterred.

Just a month after Times Mirror named him CEO, Willes attended his first meeting of the board of directors and unveiled a massive new corporate strategy. Willes championed breaking down barriers between news and advertising operations to allow the Los Angeles Times to market itself better. He believed that print circulation could grow even in the face of stiff competition from television news and the Internet.

"A country that depends on sound-bite broadcast journalism for its news and information runs the risk of not having a citizenry that is sufficiently well informed that it can ensure we remain a free and responsible people," Willes told BYU students and faculty in a September 2000 forum address. "So for me, growing our newspapers was not only a business imperative but also a societal one."3

Willes' most noticeable achievements stemmed from his knowledge of economic markets. Soon after arriving, he cut costs, eliminated some jobs, and discontinued the unprofitable New York Newsday. Times Mirror's stock price soared. Wall Street valued the company's stock at $18 a share when Willes became CEO, but the price eventually reached more than $70 a share.4 In a multibillion-dollar deal, Chicago-based Tribune Company purchased Times Mirror in June 2000 for $95 a share.5 During Willes' tenure, Times Mirror grew operating income at a compound rate of 25 percent and earnings per share at a compound rate of more than 50 percent. Circulation of the Los Angeles Times grew by 150,000 units from a base of about one million daily copies.6

Along with improved financial performance, Times Mirror newspapers maintained editorial excellence by winning ten Pulitzer Prizes with Willes at the helm. Willes also oversaw an increase in corporate charitable contributions and the launch of ambitious reading programs for schoolchildren in Baltimore and Los Angeles.

Despite those successes, some journalists believe his policies undercut editorial integrity.7 In particular, critics point to an advertising-revenue sharing agreement between the Los Angeles Times and the Staples Center in conjunction with a special newspaper section published about the arena's opening in October 1999.8 Although Willes was not directly involved in the Staples Center agreement and no longer publisher of the paper, critics cite his influence as a factor that may have led to the deal.

In his BYU forum speech, Willes said, "We certainly did make mistakes," but he added, "when we did, we moved quickly to take responsibility for them, fix them, and move on."

He also observed, "To be successful in business, you must take risks. You must try new things. It is inevitable that some of your efforts will fail. But if you don't try, you won't learn. If you don't learn, you won't succeed."9

For Mark Willes and his wife, the former Laura Bingham, taking risks and trying new things are more than just philosophies. They are time-tested habits that accompanied the Willeses and their five children during several cross-country relocations and unsettling job changes.

"Appreciation is the art of noble souls." —Inscription, Los Angeles Times building

After graduating from Salt Lake City's West High School, Willes left his native Utah for Columbia College, where he earned a bachelor's degree before completing a doctorate at the Columbia Graduate School of Business.

Willes' seven years at Columbia set the stage for everything that would follow. His time there also cemented the resoluteness that would come to define his career. Thrown into the highly competitive environment of Columbia, Willes was ill prepared and floundered to a B-minus average during his first two undergraduate years. He considered dropping out, but ultimately the challenge only served to refine his determination.

"There was no way I was going to let that school beat me," Willes recalls now. "My last two years, I was a straight-A student, and I went on to get a PhD there. It was good for me to know that I could compete in that environment."

Trained in economics, finance, and statistics, Willes earned an appointment as an assistant professor of finance at the Wharton School of Business and a job as a consultant in the research department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Eventually, his interest in monetary policy led Willes to leave the University of Pennsylvania in favor of the Federal Reserve Bank, where he became first vice president.

"I wanted to see if the ideas I taught in the classroom worked in the outside world," he says now. "I found that as both an economist and a central banker, I was an advocate of letting markets work as freely as possible."

During his time in Philadelphia, as with other places he has lived, Willes served in Church leadership positions and developed lifelong friendships.

"Brother Willes represents a rare combination of exceptional intelligence together with humility and warmth," said Dr. Gary L. Browning, chair of the BYU Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages, who worked with Willes in the Philadelphia LDS Stake in the mid-1970s. "His natural gifts attract people to him." After ten years in Philadelphia, the Willeses moved to Minneapolis. At thirty-five, Willes became the youngest-ever president of a district bank in the Federal Reserve System. Later, Willes—having experienced academia and government bureaucracy—decided to try his hand in the private business sector.

He worked his way through the executive ranks of General Mills, Inc., where he served as president and chief operating officer before becoming vice chairman. At the same time, he served as president of a Minneapolis LDS stake.

During fifteen years at General Mills, Willes honed the exceptional business strategy skills that distinguished him among managers. They were skills he took with him to Los Angeles, where he impressed associates in a variety of ways.

"He's one of the most amazing off-the-cuff speakers I've ever seen," said Darrell Kunitomi,10 a Los Angeles Times public affairs representative. "He has a beautiful way with words."

When he left Times Mirror following the largest newspaper merger in U.S. history, Willes received job offers from various companies and business schools. He chose BYU, where he had a long-standing relationship with the Marriott School, including a stint as president of the school's National Advisory Council.

"I thought, ‘If I'm going to go back to the academic world, why don't I go to a place where I really care about what they do?'" Willes says.

"There is no dimming No effacement here Each new pulsation Keeps the record clear." —Inscription, Los Angeles Times building

During a particularly aggravating Philadelphia rush-hour commute more than two decades ago, Willes—who acknowledges he can be an "aggressive driver"—cut off another car as he changed lanes. The person in the other car honked.

Suddenly, Willes recalled a bumper sticker on the back of his car and he began to worry. "Happiness," said the sticker, "Is Family Home Evening."

The weekly Monday night gatherings were such a vital part of Willes' life that he often declined to attend work meetings or turned down speaking invitations that conflicted with Family Home Evening. When asked about Willes, former business associates almost universally recall his unavailability on Monday nights. "When our kids were growing up, it had to be a national emergency for me not to be at home on Monday night," Willes recalls.

While the family time was a source of joy, Willes cringed as he sat behind the wheel that morning and thought about the other Philadelphia driver. Had the driver seen the sticker? If so, would Willes' aggressive driving give the other motorist a negative impression about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? It may seem a small thing to most people, but to Willes—who knows what it's like to live in the spotlight—the experience taught a long-remembered lesson.

"Ever since that experience, I have been acutely aware that I'm a member of the Church, and almost everyone knows it," Willes said. "I've tried not to give others reason to honk at me."

Willes meshed his commitments to family and the gospel of Jesus Christ with his desires to succeed professionally. In his short time at BYU, he has tried to pass on both professional and spiritual lessons.

As a business manager, Willes relies on three professional philosophies. First, employees can achieve lofty objectives if they are held responsible but also made free.

"I believe in setting high standards and then holding people accountable but also giving them responsibility and authority to get there in the way they think is best," he said. "I don't micromanage."

Second, employees will excel if they feel the organization has an important purpose of which they are a part.

Third, an organization functions best when its participants perceive a fair method for granting rewards such as promotions. Willes seeks to set objective standards to measure performance. "You have to care as much about line workers as upper-level managers," he said.

Even more than business models and management styles, Willes' experiences taught him about the value of the gospel. He learned to rely on the Lord's guidance in making career and family decisions.

Willes, fifty-nine, has traversed a seemingly illogical career path, but the Holy Ghost confirmed the correctness of each major move, he says. That knowledge proved to be a great benefit when work was not going well or when it required an inordinate amount of his time. It also sustained his family through many changes.

"If it takes a tremendous amount of effort to be successful, it's an incredible help to know that you are doing what the Lord wants you to do," he says.

However, Willes cautions Latter-day Saints against the false belief that they will be successful at everything they attempt just because of their membership in the Church. Even faithful members experience ups and downs. The law of the harvest applies to the professional world, too.

"If you want to succeed professionally, you have to exercise the tools and talents the Lord has given you. He won't do it for you," he said.

In addition to his commitment in the workplace, Willes has invested considerable effort into his relationship with Laura and their children. Laura appreciates her husband's ability to literally and figuratively close his briefcase once he arrives home.

"His commitment to home and family has made it all work," Laura Willes says. "That doesn't mean we haven't wanted more of his time, but we've always known where his heart is."

"Find a job you love, because you're going to get knocked down and you'll have to find a way to get up." —Mark H. Willes

Willes describes himself as an uncomplicated person. He doesn't put stock in fancy leadership books or seminars but relies on the scriptures to learn how lead others. His hero is nota wildly successful executive at big company its father banker who never went college own studied topics ranging from geology astronomy.

When the Willeses recently moved from Los Angeles to Utah County, Mark Willes took the opportunity to look through family mementos and a variety of professional accolades. Items relating to his career hold little value; he places more importance on his relationships with his wife, children, and grandchildren.

As Mark and Laura Willes prepare to embark on new pursuits, the healthy obstinance and desire to have an impact that has accompanied them so far promises to come in handy. The Willeses recently accepted a call to preside over the Honolulu, Hawaii mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and expect to begin their service in July 2001.

Once again, the surroundings will be new as the Willeses exchange their Utah home for a mission home. But one thing remains certain; Mark Willes' desire to forge ahead in life is surpassed only by a consciousness that being principled will always outweigh being popular.

His rationale is simple. "The Lord is very clear that if you're going to do something, you ought to do it to the best of your ability," he said. "I've always had a desire to be part of something that makes a difference in people's lives."


by Edward L. Carter
photography by Brad Slade

Edward L. Carter is a freelance writer and full-time student at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School. He earned his BA in journalism from BYU in 1996 and his MSJ in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1999. In addition to his studies, Carter teaches undergraduate courses in advanced reporting and history of mass communications at BYU.


  1. Mark H. Willes, "What I Learned From Five Years in the Newspaper Business," BYU forum address, 26 September 2000. Copy of speech text in author's possession.
  2. William Glaberson, "Business Outsider Is Moving in at Times Mirror," The New York Times, 3 May 1995, sec. Business, 1.
  3. Willes, "What I Learned From Five Years in the Newspaper Business."
  4. Ibid.
  5. Tim Jones, "Key to Times Mirror Merger: Ads," Chicago Tribune, 11 June 2000, sec. Business, 1.
  6. Willes, "What I Learned From Five Years in the Newspaper Business."
  7. Keith L. Alexander, "CEO Leaves Company With Tarnished Legacy," USA Today, 14 March 2000, sec. News, A6.
  8. Many newspaper stories about Willes followed the common storyline that because he came from outside the industry, Willes represented a threat to newspapers. On the other hand, news stories also included quotes from industry executives who praised Willes for his vision, passion, and entrepreneurial spirit. See Felicity Barringer, "A General Whose Time Ran Out," The New York Times, 15 March 2000, sec. Business, 1. As a rule, Willes appeared to be a victim of a phenomenon lamented by former journalist and scholar Norman E. Isaacs in Untended Gates: The Mismanaged Press. Isaacs wrote, "[There is] a very old comment that most newspaper people put out their newspapers not for those people who buy them, but to try to impress other newspaper people" (p. 53).
  9. Willes, "What I Learned From Five Years in the Newspaper Business."
  10. For a remarkable story about the beginnings of a relationship between Kunitomi and Willes, see Howard Kurtz, "Former Cereal Executive Is Giving the Newspaper Business a New Perspective," The Washington Post, 02 December 1997, sec. Style, 1. Upon Willes' arrival at Times Mirror, he offered to eat lunch with any employee who had an idea about how to improve the company. Kunitomi, who conducts tours of the Los Angeles Times, took Willes up on the offer.

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