Max Oliva was a savvy salesman with a bit of a wild side.
By eighth grade, he was already courting girls. He bought a 1962 silver blue Austin-Healey convertible after college, partly to impress the ladies. He earned a master’s degree in marketing from the University of California, Berkeley, and at 24 years old, he was well on his way in following his father’s footsteps to become a food broker.
So when he announced he wanted to become a priest, it caught everyone by surprise, even his Catholic family.
“Everybody was shocked,” said Oliva, now 72. “The guys I grew up with were shocked. The guys I went to college with were shocked. I was the last person anybody would have thought would become a priest.”
But after spending a quiet afternoon at a food cannery and contemplating, Oliva knew what he had to do. He joined the Jesuit order in 1963, then entered the priesthood in 1972.
Oliva’s passion for business never left him, though. More than a decade ago, he started speaking about marketplace ethics during his free time, then advising business professionals one-on-one in a kind of therapy session he called “commuter retreats.”
Catholic priests are expected to serve their communities, but Oliva’s practice of business consulting is unique. Since 1995, he has published seven books, two of which focus on how professionals can be upstanding in their workplace.
As demand grew, Oliva expanded his activity to giving business talks at the request of business owners. He drew audiences as large as 1,000. Proceeds went to a Jesuit chapter in California.
In 2010, Oliva, moved to Las Vegas from Canada. Here, he continues to deliver sermons and seminars.
What inspired you to create the commuter retreats?
In the summer of 2001, I was visiting friends, and the husband said, “I have an issue of Fortune 500 that you might be interested in. It’s got some articles called, ‘God in Business.’ ” That gave me an idea to put together my interests in the corporate world and my involvement in the ministry.
I started an ethics program called Spirituality at Work. I met with Catholic businesspeople and asked them basic questions that helped me come up with ideas. I decided the best way to start this work was to design a retreat for businesspeople.
What type of advice did you give during the one-on-one sessions?
It depended on where they were at. I had one guy who had a really interesting experience at work. He had a conflict of interest. He had a new boss who didn’t know his history at the company. The man was afraid to bring this up because he was afraid he would lose his job. The retreat was really about him working up the courage to talk to his boss, which he did. Not only did he not get fired, but he got promoted.
What inspired you to expand to business seminars?
One of my mentors, who was working in the oil and gas industry, had a son, who was following in his footsteps. The son said, “We’re looking for somebody to teach ethics to a group of people in a business association. Do you think Father Max would like to do that?”
I said yes, but I needed a crash course in ethics. It had been a long time since I went to college. I got a mentor, and some of the oil and gas guys mentored me. I started teaching three-hour seminars in 2004.
What do the businesspeople you counsel struggle with the most?
People struggle with different things. One guy was always busy but wanted to carve out time in the day to just be silent for 15 minutes, so I taught him to do that. That helped him with his job, because he became more peaceful and more sensitive to his intuition.
How does Las Vegas differ from Canada?
When I told my advisers what I had done in Calgary and that my talks were titled, “Spirituality at Work,” they said, “The word spirituality won’t work here.” So I changed it to “Ethics in the Marketplace.” But I’m still very spiritual.
The temptations are really different here. Gambling is an issue here. Greed is an issue here. But greed is an issue anywhere.
How often do you teach and consult?
On Tuesdays, I say the noon Mass at Guardian Angel Cathedral. On the last Tuesday of the month, the theme is ethics in the marketplace. I try to tie the Bible readings to the business world.
I do seminars one evening a week for five consecutive weeks. The first time I did one of these talks in Las Vegas, I did it at Mike Tyson’s former mansion because a friend of mine bought it. That was a wonderful experience. A lot of my advisers made it. There was an acrobat. There were some retired people. There were non-Catholics. There were lawyers. It was a real mix. I spoke about the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuits.
Where else do you speak?
One of the first people I met in Las Vegas was Joe Brown, a very successful lawyer. Joe has a monthly luncheon at a country club. The people who go are amazing. There are judges, politicians and people running for office. It’s a real mix. I do the opening talk. It’s always on an ethical issue.
There’s a program here called Larson Training Center. It’s for adults at risk, many of whom have arrest records. A lot of them have been in jail. I teach a class for them every eight weeks on ethics. I teach them about honesty and integrity. That’s a whole different clientele, but they’re really good people. They’re very engaged.
Then there’s Legatus. You have to have a certain net income to get in. It’s a Catholic organization for professional businesspeople. I’ve given talks for their group.
Is there an audience you have yet to talk to?
I don’t do anything with the casinos. I have contact with some of the people who work at the casinos, but I’ve never gotten involved. I think they have their own in-house staff.
Are people surprised to see a priest giving business talks? Do they question your credentials?
They don’t when they find out that not only do I have an undergraduate degree in marketing, I have an MBA. That satisfies most people. But occasionally, I’ll have some people say, “From where?” I say, “University of California, Berkeley.” It shuts them up.
What, in your opinion, is the most important value people should have in the workplace?
I’d say there are two that go together: honesty and integrity.
Honesty is about reputation. If you’re not honest and people notice, you might as well move on. Integrity means you have a sense of yourself; it has to do with identity. Integrity is being a person of your word. Integrity has to do with doing the right thing even at a personal cost.
I would add a third, and that would be compassion — compassion for people who are struggling within your company or your community.