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Features June 9, 2011, 5:00PM EST

God's MBAs: Why Mormon Missions Produce Leaders

Many of the men who trained to be Mormon missionaries have gone on to become among the most distinguished persons in American business and civic life

Left to right: Eric Varvel, Jon Huntsman Jr., David Neeleman Illustrations by Brandon Bird

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Illustration by Brandon Bird

Before setting out in orderly pairs to spread their gospel door-to-door, nearly all U.S. Mormon missionaries pass through the Provo Missionary Training Center. Inside the sprawling brown-brick complex, thousands of 19- and 20-year-old men in oversized black suits work alongside women in below-the-knee skirts and brightly colored tops. All of them wear name tags.

For one to three months (depending on the language challenge ahead), their days begin at 6:30 a.m. and end at 10:30 p.m., and include 10 hours of class and study time. On their one day off per week, missionaries-to-be do laundry, write home, and stock up on supplies at the training center store where pre-knotted ties ($15-$20) and key-chain rings with screw-top vials for carrying consecrated oils ($3.50) hang beside highlighters, alarm clocks, and hymnbooks translated into roughly 50 foreign languages. The grounds are under tight security, and no one leaves without permission. This is the last stop for roughly 20,000 young Mormons each year before they're driven 45 miles north to Salt Lake City International Airport and whisked off to one of more than 150 countries to make converts.

The Provo Missionary Training Center (MTC) and its curriculum are designed to render all trainees equal servants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), yet many of the men who prepared for their missions here, or at the center's earlier incarnations, have gone on to become among the most distinguished and recognizable faces in American business and civic life. There's Mitt Romney (mission: France), who as of 2007 had amassed an estimated $190 million to $250 million as head of Bain Capital, rescued the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from a corruption scandal, spent four years as the governor of Massachusetts, and announced his second run for President on June 2. His potential rival for the Republican nomination is Jon Huntsman Jr. (Taiwan), a former Utah governor who negotiated dozens of free-trade agreements as a U.S. trade representative and served as ambassador to China from 2009-2011. The list also includes JetBlue (JBLU) founder David Neeleman (Brazil), Credit Suisse Chief Executive Officer Eric Varvel (who confirmed training at the Provo MTC but would provide no more information), self-help mogul Stephen Covey (England), author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Kim Clark (Germany), former dean of Harvard Business School, and Gary Crittenden (Germany), who's served as CFO for Citigroup (C), American Express (AXP), and Sears Roebuck.

Gary Cornia, dean of Mormon-run Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management, is often asked what makes Mormons so successful. "I'm not going to say we beat everybody out, but we do have a reputation," says Cornia. "And one of the defining opportunities for young men and young women is the mission experience." Reflecting on his own mission to the mid-Atlantic states, Cornia adds, "When I left, the son of a relatively poor mother and a father who died when I was young, I frankly didn't know if I could do anything. I came back with the confidence that I can accomplish most hard things. I may not have had that otherwise."

The Mormon Church is 181 years old, and its adherents compose less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). Yet Latter-Day Saints hold, or have held, a seemingly disproportionate number of top jobs at such major corporations as Marriott International (MAR), American Express, American Motors, Dell Computers (DELL), Lufthansa, Fisher-Price (MAT), Life Re, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Madison Square Garden, La Quinta Properties, PricewaterhouseCooper, and Stanley Black & Decker (SWK). The head of human resources at Citigroup is Mormon, and in 2010 Goldman Sachs (GS) hired 31 grads from BYU, the same number it hired from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

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