Small Things Matter a Lot
My dear brothers and sisters, I am grateful to be with you this morning. I don’t know how many of you know that I am actually a substitute for someone who was scheduled to speak today and couldn’t make it. So, they asked me if I would come in his place.
It reminds me of the story of a man. They were having a Quaker meeting, and the man who was scheduled to sing got sick and couldn’t do it, so they asked somebody to substitute for him. He got up and did just a terrible job. He sang off key, he forgot the words—it was just awful. And he felt very badly about it, so one of the members of the congregation came up to him after and said, “Thee should not feel bad. Thee did thy very best. ‘Tis he that asked thee should be shot.”
I don’t want to tell you who asked me. I ask a special interest in your prayers, that something I might do might be of benefit to you today. I want you to know how much we love President and Sister Kusch. They are perfect for the time and place. I know how much they love you, too, and how much they are willing to give to lead you. I also know how much the Lord loves them, and that He is working through them to bless your lives. We are all blessed because of who they are and what they are.
I don’t see a clock up here. I’m going to take my watch off so I don’t go over time. A former professor, as you know, you just push a button and they go for fifty minutes. And I don’t have fifty minutes, so I’m going to put that watch right there.
You’ve probably heard the story of the Catholic boy and the Mormon boy who wanted to learn a little bit more about each other’s religions, so they decided they’d attend each other’s church. They first went to the Catholic church, and they listened to the Mass, and they saw the priest make the sign of the cross. The Mormon boy turned to the Catholic boy and said, “What does that mean?” He explained the symbolism of the sign of the cross.
They then went to a Mormon meeting and they watched the speaker very ceremoniously take off his watch and put it on the pulpit like I am doing. The Catholic boy turned to the Mormon boy and said, “What does that mean?”
The Mormon boy said, “It doesn’t mean a thing.” We’ll make sure it does mean a thing.
My topic today is to talk about small things that matter a lot. In Alma it says, “Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (see Alma 37:6).
Then in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (see Doctrine and Covenants 64:33).
I’d like to share some stories with you about things that, at the time, seemed very small, but turned out to have very large consequences—for evil as well as good. And this principle applies to literally everything we do, which is why we have to be so careful in the decisions we make.
President Kusch mentioned that I worked at the Federal Reserve system for some years. The Federal Reserve system is a bank for other banks; it is the central bank. My first job there was to run the research department—probably the best job I ever had. I just kind of sat around and thought big thoughts and wasn’t accountable for anything. It was just really wonderful.
And then they asked me to be the chief operating officer. I had been in that job for about two weeks, and an FBI agent walked into my office and said, “We have reason to believe some of your employees are stealing money from your bank.”
I didn’t even know where the money was at that point, let alone how they would get the money out. So I called in the vice president responsible for cash—yes, there was a vice president responsible for cash—and I said, “This agent says they are taking money out of our bank.”
He said, “It cannot happen.” Ten days later, that FBI agent walked out of our building with ten of our employees who, in total, had stolen 1.4 million dollars in cash. On one occasion, they walked out of our bank with $900,000.
One of those walked from our building to the courthouse—which turned out to be next door, which was a blessing; they didn’t have to take them very far—was the son of a minister. His grandfather was a minister. He himself had thought about going into the ministry. A second one was the daughter of a police captain. The third one was the son of a deputy sheriff. The fourth one was an assistant Scoutmaster.
In other words, nine out of the ten of those who were walking over to be charged with grand theft looked and behaved just like you. They were clean-cut. They were good kids. They ranged in age from 19 to 25, and if you were to sit them in these seats down here, you would say, “They look like they go to the LDS Business College.”
How could that possibly have happened? It turned out that two of them were counting coins one day—now, the way you count coins in a Federal Reserve Bank is you run them through an automatic counter and then, before you seal the bag, you put it on a scale to weigh it, to make sure that the counter was accurate. And if it comes within a certain tolerance, you then seal up the bag and put it on the pallet.
One of these young men said to his friend, “Just as a lark, I’m going to see if I can take one quarter out of that bag and if it will still pass tolerance.” So he took one quarter out, slipped it in his pocket, put the bag up on the scale, and for some reason it looked like it weighed the right amount and they sealed it up.
They said, “Well, that’s kind of cool. If we take one more quarter, we can get ice cream for lunch.” So they did the same thing with the next bag—one more quarter. Now we’re talking about fifty cents—weighed the bag, sealed it up, and went and bought ice cream for lunch that day. They thought that was the end of it. It was a very small thing, and who was going to miss twenty-five cents?
The trouble is, there was one bad apple in that department, and he watched them do it, and he went up to them after and said, “I saw you take that quarter. And if you don’t help me, I’m going to turn you in, and you will lose your jobs and be counted as thieves.”
If they had had the courage to say, “Yes, I’m going to repent of this; turn me in,” that would have been the end of it. But they didn’t. Over a period of time, he was able to recruit them and then some others, until there were ten of them involved. You could beat any security system if you have ten insiders involved, and that’s how they carried money out of this bank. It started with a quarter.
So, when we are tempted to look at one pornographic picture, it’s not a little deal. It’s a big deal. When we are tempted to take one drink that we shouldn’t drink, it’s not a little deal. It’s a big deal. One experiment with inappropriate drugs—not a little deal. It’s a big deal.
You know, Satan is very smart. He rarely comes at us and asks us to commit a really huge sin, but he knows where we are weak. He comes at us and he says, “I’m just going to get you to do a little teeny thing. And then when you do that, you’re going to be so embarrassed, you’re going to try to cover it up, and before long you are doing more and more and more.” And then he has you. I hope and pray you will never let even little sins be part of your life.
That is why the Savior said, “I …cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (see Doctrine and Covenants 1:31). It’s not because He wants to be mean; it’s because He loves us and wants to bless us.
Second story: President Kusch mentioned that I got my PhD at Columbia University. What happens when you get a PhD is, you go through all the course work, and then you have to take an oral examination with three or four or five senior professors from the university, who are free to test you on anything that they think is relevant to your discipline.
I was getting ready to take my orals, and three of my fellow students had just taken theirs and flunked. I thought, “Oh, my goodness. What am I going to do?” I had made it a practice, throughout my academic career, never to study on Sunday. It just didn’t feel right to me to study on Sunday. You have to make your own decision; I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just saying that, for me, keeping the Sabbath day holy meant not studying on Sunday.
Besides, I studied so hard the rest of the week, I needed a break. I needed a better day, and Sunday was always a better day. So, I would never study on Sunday. I went in to my PhD examinations, knowing that my friends who had just failed had studied seven days a week. I had only studied six days a week, and they had failed. What was I going to do?
About the third question they asked me, I had no idea what the answer was. I thought, “Oh boy, that’s what I was supposed to study on Sunday, and I didn’t get it.” And all of a sudden, I looked at them, and I said, “I don’t know what the answer is, but to find out the answer, here is the hypothesis I would set up, here’s the data I would gather, here is how I would analyze the data, and then I would be able to get the answer.”
That happened three times. I actually started having fun. They were asking me these questions; I knew most of the answers. Every time I didn’t know the answer, I would respond that way, and I was just feeling really quite good about everything. Then as soon as I walked out of the room, I thought, “I have failed.”
You see, the Spirit was with me when I was in the room, but as soon as I walked out, He just left and I was on my own. I walked into our seminar the next day, and our professor—who had been one of those examining me—didn’t see me come in, and he said to the students, “I just want you to know, one of your fellow students just passed his orals with one of the highest marks we’ve ever given in the 35 years I’ve been at the University.”
Don’t misunderstand; I’m not that smart. But I do know how to be obedient. And there is no question in my mind that, because I was obedient in observing the Sabbath, when I had done all I could do, the Lord did the rest. And oh, my goodness, what a remarkable blessing that is. You have exactly the same promise. When you keep the commandments, after you have done all you can do, the Lord will do the rest.
President [Russell M.] Nelson has said, “Obedience brings success; exact obedience brings miracles” (R. Scott Lloyd, “Elder Nelson Delivers Spiritual Thanksgiving Feast to MTCs,” Church News, 4 December 2013). I had a miracle that day, and thankfully, have had many since—because the Lord is so kind, and because He loves us and wants us to succeed if we’ll just do it His way.
When I went to General Mills and I was the chief operating officer, one of our divisions was a restaurant division. It’s why I’m a little fatter today than I was a long time ago. When you’re in the restaurant business, what you do is you go around and eat in your restaurants and everybody else’s restaurants, just to compare the food and see about the service and all these other things. I love that job, unfortunately.
One day we were out on the West Coast and we were eating in a competitor’s restaurant, and one of our restaurants was the Olive Garden. How many of you have eaten in an Olive Garden restaurant? Bless your hearts. Thank you very much. I’m still a shareholder. This was a Friday night. We walked up to the restaurant. Now, what should happen at Olive Garden is, when you walk up to the restaurant, you walk in, and somebody says, “Welcome to the Olive Garden.” They make you feel wonderful; the hot food is hot and the cold food is cold, the service is fast, and you get more than you could possibly eat at a very good price.
We walked up to the door, and there was nobody at the door. We walked in and there was nobody to receive us. This was 5 o’clock on a Friday night. Five o’clock on a Friday night at an Olive Garden the waiting line should be about an hour. There was nobody waiting. Finally, somebody wandered out and said, “Can we help you?” Well, of course you could help us, that’s why we’re here. We’d like to eat, thank you very much.
So, they took us in and sat us down in the almost empty restaurant, at the one table where the beautiful California sun was coming right into our eyes. So I said, “Would you mind having someone pull the shutters down?” Sure enough, twenty minutes later, somebody came and pulled the shutters down. The hot food was not hot; the cold food was not cold. It was the worst experience I’d ever had in any restaurant, let alone one of ours. I was feeling terrible.
Fortunately, I had the man who ran our restaurant division sitting next to me. He was about to die. I asked the server, “Can you have the manager come in?” On a Friday night in a restaurant, the manager is always there.
“Well, the manager is not here tonight.”
“Can you have the assistant manager come?”
Finally, the assistant manager came. I pointed to the lettuce on the floor, told him the hot food was not hot, the cold food was not cold, the service was very slow. And he’s kind of looking off like he is on something. It was California; he probably was on something, I don’t know. I turned to the man who ran the restaurant group and said, “We’re coming back in a week. You have always told me how responsive running restaurants is to good management. I want to see what you can do with this restaurant in one week.”
I came back a week later. I walked up to the door. The door flew open— “Welcome to the Olive Garden.” There was a big waiting line. The hot food was hot; the cold food was cold. It was an absolutely different and wonderful experience. I called the new general manager over. You are business students; did you get that? The new general manager.
I said, “I assume you have about 125 employees in this restaurant.” He said yes. I said, “Out of those 125, how many did you have to fire to get this dramatic improvement in the performance of this restaurant?”
Do you know what his answer was? “One.” I didn’t ask—I hope it was that assistant manager, but I didn’t ask. I was too kind. All the rest was a matter of appropriate training, setting the standards, and then holding people accountable to those standards. The servers were happy because their tips were way up. The management was happy because his performance was way up. The customers were much happier, because they were having a fantastic experience in this restaurant. All because—we had the procedures in place, we had the standards in place—they just didn’t have a manager who was helping them know how to, and then live up to, those standards.
The LDS Business College has standards and procedures and practices in place. If you want to be successful, all you have to do is work hard to measure up—to follow the standards, to follow the process, to follow the things that are put into place for you—and you will be successful.
When you go to work for somebody, they have procedures and plans and standards in place if you want to be successful. You just have to do what they have laid out to do.
If you want to save your immortal soul, thank heavens we have a God in heaven who loves us, and He has laid out a plan—a perfect plan. All we have to do is understand the plan and follow the plan, and He will give us, yes, literally miracles, in this life as well as in the life to come. It doesn’t mean it’s always easy, but it’s a whole lot easier than being a failure.
How many of you are returned missionaries? Oh, my goodness, look at that. I just want to digress for a minute. My grandmother and grandfather met at the LDS Business College. So, if you’re a returned missionary, which a large percentage of you are, look around. I mean, who knows who you might meet here. That was probably uncalled for, wasn’t it? I’m sorry; I couldn’t resist that.
I want to tell you one more story, as part of my testimony. Every Sunday we take the sacrament, and those sacramental prayers, which are found in the 20th section of the Doctrine and Covenants become so commonplace to us that we tend not to think about them. When we returned from our mission, I was asked to teach the priests quorum, and I would have them practice with me, saying the sacramental prayers—slowly, slowly so that they could feel as well as hear the words.
We were once at the MTC and had an American Sign Language district in our branch, as well as seven other languages. We asked two of the elders who were learning American Sign to do the sacrament in Sign. The way you do it, for those of you who don’t know, is that you kneel down, then you stand up, sign the prayers, and then kneel back down, then stand back up and hand out the trays. We had prepared all of our missionaries, who came from all over the world, and we said, “We’re going to do this in American Sign, and then we want you to read while the sacrament is being passed, we want you to read slowly the sacramental prayers.” It was fascinating to watch what happened.
First of all, to see the sacramental prayers in Sign was a moving and touching thing. Not a sound, but you could just start to visualize those remarkable promises. And then I watched our missionaries as they were reading slowly and thinking about, deeply, the sacramental prayer. First one, then another started to weep. Before we were finished, they were all weeping, because they were internalizing the remarkable promises in those prayers. We recall that we promise—we promise—to take upon ourselves the name of the Savior, to always remember Him, and keep His commandments. And He in turn, then promises us that we could always have His Spirit to be with us.
I’m going to tell you a story that’s going to sound like it doesn’t have anything to do with this, and I hope you find out that it does. At this same Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, we had in our vault 18 billion dollars in cash and negotiable government securities. And one day, for family home evening when our children were very young, we decided we would take them down to the vault for family home evening. We took them down to the vault, and the man who was in charge of the vault brought a little table out like this, and he put two things on the table. He first put a brick of twenty-dollar bills.
Now what a brick is—when the money is minted by the Treasury, it’s sent in these bricks to the Federal Reserve Bank. There were 1,000 twenty-dollar bills in this brick, wrapped up. So that was $20,000. And then next to that, he put a single sheet of paper that had what looked like scribbling on it, and he turned to our young children and said, “If I were to give you one of these, which would you like?”
Well, they sold drinks on the golf course, so they knew what a $20 bill was, so they said, “We’ll take that brick of 20-dollar bills. That’s $20,000.” I thought, oh my. Good choice. Not the best choice; you see, that paper sitting next to it that had the scribbling on it was actually a negotiable U.S. Treasury Certificate worth $100 million. Twenty thousand dollars—good choice. One hundred million dollars—better choice.
We all have choices in life. Sometimes the choices are between good things and bad things. Those are actually simple choices to make, or at least, they should be. Because the instruction and the promises of blessings are so clear that when we make a good choice we will be blessed, and when we don’t make a good choice we won’t be blessed. So those should be easy, simple choices.
The more difficult choices are between good things and better things. When the Savior left, He said, “I will leave you the Holy Ghost” (see John 14:16-18, 26). And the Holy Ghost promises not only to teach us things and to testify of things, but to help us make everyday decisions between good things and better things. When we have the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, we can lead our lives in such a way that we can have blessings we never dreamed possible, because literally every day He will help us make those choices.
Now, does He care what cereal you eat in the morning? He doesn’t care. I still care; as I told you, I’m still a shareholder. He does not care. But He does care about what you study, and where you work, and who you marry, and where you live, and all of those other important decisions that you have to make, because those decisions determine His ability to use you to carry out the plan He has in mind for you. He loves you, and He wants to bless you. And if you listen to and follow the Spirit, you can always be sure He will never lead you astray.
I hope you know we love you, and we’re proud of you. I feel your spirits and am grateful for who you are and what you are. May you have the courage to always make the little decisions right. May you have the spiritual sensitivity to listen to the promptings of the Spirit, and make the big decisions right, so the Lord can bless you with all that He has, I promise and testify and pray, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Mark H. Willes retired as president and CEO of Deseret Management Corporations in April 2012. He had served in that capacity since March 2009. In addition to those duties, in May 2010, he was appointed the president and CEO of KSL Television and Radio. He retired as chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Times Mirror in April 2000.
Mr. Willes joined Times Mirror as CEO in June 1995. Also, he served as publisher of the Los Angeles Times from October 1997 to June 1999. Before joining Times Mirror, Mr. Willes was vice chairman of General Mills, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A 15-year veteran of the company, he served as the president and chief operating officer from 1985 to 1992 when he was named vice chairman. He was executive vice president and the chief financial officer from 1980 to 1985. Mr. Willes previously served with the Federal Reserve System. He was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis from 1977 to 1980 and first vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia from 1971 to 1977, having joined the Federal Reserve System in 1969. He began his career as an assistant professor of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, from 1967 to 1969.
Mr. Willes was raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. He received his A.B. degree from Columbia College, New York City, and his Ph.D. from the Columbia Graduate School of Business.
An active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mr. Willes has served in a number of Church assignments including President of the Minneapolis Minnesota Stake and the Hawaii Honolulu Mission. He was recently released as a Branch President at the Provo Missionary Training Center.