Walking the Talk

 Walking the Talk

UD’s Brother Forlani integrates faith, ethics and business for students.

By Tracy Staley

It’s natural for a Catholic brother to talk in terms of his calling.

But for a typical business person, the notion of a life’s calling is not as likely to come up in conversation, as say, the bottom line.

Brother Victor Forlani has spent the past two decades trying to change that.

A leading voice on faith and business, Forlani is the founder and director of the Center for the Integration of Faith and Work at the University of Dayton. It’s been nearly two decades since Forlani came back to UD, his alma mater, as an instructor in the School of Business Administration. In that time, he’s become an expert on business as a calling. He weaves this theme into courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as into the business community.

He is also the university’s Marianist-in-Residence, a role befitting the man who took his vows to the Marianist brotherhood in the 1960s during his college years.

Forlani has spent the past 20 years studying, teaching and writing about faith and work. He searches for successful companies that are humane to their workers, clients and the public. He pushes students to consider how a businessperson can incorporate faith and principles into his or her decisions. And he has pushed the business school to gnaw on the question of how a Catholic university can prepare its business students to enter a dog-eat-dog marketplace.

Raised by Italian immigrant parents in Cleveland, Forlani came to UD as a young man to study theology and education. He spent many years as an administrator for various Catholic schools and institutions.

With an eye on returning to UD as an instructor, he earned an MBA and doctorate.

His thinking, naturally, is rooted in his faith; as a Marianist brother, he made a vow to help Mary bring Christ to the world as well as vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. However, the notion of running a principled business is not dependent on any one religion, he says. Major religions, while varying drastically in their customs and concepts of God, share similar values that translate to the market.

“They are saying tell the truth, be fair, be caring,” he says. “This is not something that is in any way [exclusively] Catholic; it’s part of our nature, our best nature.

“We built this on practice. We find firms that we think are doing good work, and we ask them how that happens. It’s not like a philosopher sitting on a mountain, mediating, saying, ‘What is the essence of business?’ There’s a place for that. But these are people who are making it happen.”

His office bookshelf is filled with titles on servant leadership, business ethics, and matters of faith. On the cabinet behind his desk rests a photo of his parents. They came to the United States from Italy as children—just in time for the Depression. Forlani carries from childhood a love of cooking and Italian food (ask him about his new polenta recipe) and a devotion to his family.

He and his siblings remain close. His younger brother, Michael, was recently sentenced to prison on charges related to corrupt business practices in Cleveland: the very landmines the elder Forlani teaches students to address and avoid. He loves his brother, forgives him and talks with him.

“Part of our belief system, the Christian belief system, is to forgive,” he says. “One of the worst things we can do is cut somebody off, hold a grudge against them.”

Ethics on the Menu

Forlani delights in the “Walk the Talk” luncheons he organizes through his center.

UD business seniors and professionals dig into case studies that go well beyond matters of the bottom line; these are ethical conundrums that require the type of thinking and decision-making that Forlani has devoted himself to study and encourage.

At a recent lunch, the groups picked apart how companies should handle confidential information in this new age of data mining.

“We have the kids wrestle with these things,” Forlani says. “That will stay with them.”

Most of the business owners who come to the lunches do so through the Rotary Club of Dayton. Alan Pippenger, president of The Requarth Co., says it is easy to sense that Brother Victor is deeply committed to ethics education and making it part of the curriculum along with finance, accounting and marketing.

“I think it’s good for them to see us struggle with some of these cases, weighing the impact on the business versus knowing what is the right thing to do,” Pippenger says. “Sometimes the answers aren’t clear. There are gray areas. It’s good to participate in that struggle with the students.”

The “Walk the Talk” lunches are a cornerstone of his center’s work. In the MBA course he teaches, Forlani brings in business leaders to share their own stories of ethical decision-making. He doesn’t ask them to talk about what their business does, or even how it has been successful. He asks them to think through their careers to find those moments where their values and principles were tested. The MBA students write reflection papers on these talks as well as on various readings. A student told him he wasn’t too fond of the material—he could tell it was going to change the way he thought.

“For a teacher, that is gold,” Forlani says.

Forlani has changed more than just the minds of students. In 2001, he worked to create an alternative to payday lending, which often come with predatory lending practices that hurt families more than help. Forlani and his management students worked with credit unions to devise a program called StretchPay to give families in need an alternative to payday lenders. It is now used throughout the country and estimated to save millions each year.

Dayton businesswoman Fran Rickenbach, president of Management Excellence Inc., has participated in Forlani’s lunches and courses. She has hope the discussions will shape a new generation of business leaders to think differently and know their own personal boundaries.

“He had the foresight to develop this program, to realize that there was another aspect of the student’s learning that needed to be addressed, and that’s the moral and ethical development,” Rickenbach says. “You keep doing this and maybe we won’t have an Enron again, or a Goldman Sachs or an AIG.”