The Hard Right
By Greg Schaber
Judi Blair was devastated when the scandal broke. In an instant, much of her life savings was gone.
It was 2004, and Blair had then invested 38 years of her life—since age 18—and much of her savings in Dayton Power and Light. Then came the allegations of financial improprieties against three top company officials. Within months, the energy company’s credit rating tanked and stock prices nose-dived to roughly half of their previous worth. Emotional, fearful investors packed stockholders’ meetings.
It’s the kind of experience you don’t easily forget. “I’ve lived it, trust me,” says Blair, director of operations for Dayton Power and Light and a 2008 Executive MBA graduate. “I’ve worked at the company under good leadership and poor leadership, and ethics was right at the top of the reasons for each.”
Business ethics, or lack thereof, has been big news since 2001, when two companies most people had never heard of—Enron and WorldCom—achieved ignominious status as textbook examples of executive malfeasance. Shortly before the screaming headlines began proclaiming the naked reality of corporate greed in America, Xavier launched the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility. The goal was deceptively simple: Make certain faculty were comfortable talking about ethics in the classroom so students would be prepared to do the hard right as opposed to the easy wrong in the workplace. In hindsight, the timing couldn’t have been better.
For the past seven years, the center’s director, Paul Fiorelli, has staged workshops and lectures exploring both the heroic and the sinister aspects of business ethics. Whistleblowers such as Enron’s Sherron Watkins—a Time magazine Person of the Year—and Jeffery Wigand, who took on big tobacco interests and became the subject of the film, “The Insider,” revealed the dark side of corporate governance, while former Johnson & Johnson general counsel Roger Fine and ex-Navy SEAL Eric Greitens offered a view of responsible, moral leadership. In the process, the center has engaged faculty, students and the business community as stakeholders for greater awareness and continued development.
The Center’s growing presence and profile have drawn increasing attention, and in April those efforts were rewarded with generous gifts from the Farmer Family Foundation and the Robert J. Kohlhepp Family Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. The gifts—from Cintas Corp. executives Richard Farmer and Bob Kohlhepp—support the Center’s programs and its space in the new Williams College of Business building, and bring with it a new name: The Cintas Institute for Business Ethics at Xavier. The new support ensures not only greater visibility for the institute, but also opens the door to expanded programming.
In many ways, the phrase “ethics at Xavier” brings things full circle. The idea of ethics at Xavier is as old as the school’s Jesuit mission. Indeed, Fiorelli sees the center’s work as an extension of Xavier’s core values.
John Ritter, a 1994 graduate, bet his business future on those values. So far, it seems to be paying off big. In April, Ritter Daniher Financial, the six-person company he co-owns, received the International Torch Award for Marketplace Excellence from the National Council of the Better Business Bureau, besting 78 companies across North America, including giants like Wells Fargo and Standard Oil. Ritter Daniher shared the award with CarMax, a company with about 15,000 employees. Ritter attributes the award largely to his company’s ethical underpinnings.
The realities of ethical practice hit home during Ritter’s senior year at Xavier working for a financial planning firm. “The company used a sales-focused approach,” Ritter recalls. “Financial planning was given away as a marketing tool to help sell a product. But I wanted to be in the role of a trusted financial advisor.”
Ritter saw the conflict of interest in such a situation and felt it was wrong—and very much the opposite of the principles he was learning at Xavier. “It sounds clichéd,” he says. “But a lot of what I learned at Xavier was how to do the right thing. What I gained at Xavier wasn’t just a diploma, but how to think and how to do something with an ethical compass in mind."
Ritter soon joined forces with another like-minded hire at the company, Jeff Daniher, and the pair took their ideas and launched Ritter Daniher. The company, which operates on a fee-only basis that stresses fiduciary duty to its clients, has since moved into the forefront of fee-only firms nationally. Financial Advisor magazine has twice recognized the firm as one of the nation’s best. The company manages about $120 million for 125 clients, and this year Ritter Daniher is responsible for the entire educational agenda at the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors’ 25th anniversary conference in Long Beach, Calif.
But in spite of the growth, Ritter says competing against Fortune 500 companies for the Torch Award was daunting. “We don’t have a dedicated ethics department,” he says. “It’s more the fiber of how we run our business.”
And while he admits business in general has gotten something of a black eye in the public consciousness over the past seven years, Ritter takes heart that the next generation of business people is reaching for this thread, as well. “The younger generation is really looking for this. The idea that greed is good has, to some degree, gone away, and they’re looking for a more well-rounded, balanced look at how they’re living.”
This idea resonates powerfully with Blair as well. She credits the values-based approach of Paul Barbas, who became CEO of Dayton Power and Light in the wake of the scandal, with turning around the company’s fortunes —and her own. Stock prices are back to where they were prior to the controversy, the company has returned to an investment-grade credit rating and employee morale has skyrocketed.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was working for a different company,” Blair says. “He truly has created an ethical climate, and he leads by example.”
Leading by example, doing the right thing and keeping sight of the human aspect permeate Ritter’s approach to ethical practice as well. And he sees those not as things reserved for the workplace, but rather, as a way of life.
“It’s just one of those things,” he says. “I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know I’m not taking any shortcuts—not taking the easy way. I think about any service provider, that I’m open and honest and giving all the facts to my clientele. And in my own life, my wife and I are trying to raise our children to be honest and kind. Everything is easier if you get it right at the beginning.”