Long-term succession planning allows for smooth executive transitions when CEOs leave their posts and called to serve religious missions.

When Utah CEOs are ‘called to serve’

Long-term succession planning allows for smooth executive transitions when CEOs leave their posts and called to serve religious missions.
Davis Smith on his mission in Bolivia, 1998.

If you know anything about Davis Smith, you probably know he’s mission-driven. In July, that quality will be expressed quite literally when Smith steps down as CEO of Cotopaxi. For the following three years, he and his wife, Asialene, will serve as mission leaders for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to 300 young missionaries in Recife, Brazil. 

Was I surprised to read Smith’s LinkedIn announcement that he will be serving an unpaid ministry? Not in the least. I immediately recalled details from the first time I interviewed Smith in 2018 for an article about angel investing, during which he took a detour and opened up about the eight years he spent in the Caribbean as a child. 

Smith told stories of growing up in Latin America and crossing the Amazon River on his dad’s handmade raft. He spoke of being one of eight kids in a middle-class family, spearfishing and growing up loving adventure and the outdoors. Most importantly, he brought up how, as a child overseas, he witnessed a lot of poverty. This helped him develop a deep empathy for others and the core of Cotopaxi’s mission.

In a Forbes interview, Smith vividly recalled seeing children his age standing on the side of the road in the Caribbean, malnourished and begging for food. “I’ve never forgotten that image,” Smith said. “This was poverty at the most desperate level. Most people in America don’t even know what this looks like.” 

As I read through the comments of Smith’s recent LinkedIn post, one thing that stood out to me was the flood of support, even from current Cotopaxi employees. Where was the anxiety typical of a major executive transition from the frontline staff? Was it all going to fall apart? In the case of Cotopaxi, no one seemed worried—Smith least of all.

“Fortunately, before I knew I would have a mission call, I started taking actions to get an incredible leadership team in place,” Smith says. “In hindsight, it feels inspired, but I had the team when we were asked to serve … I knew I could step away from the business, and I had total and complete trust in them.” 

Damien Huang, the former CEO of Eddie Bauer and head of product at Patagonia, will step into the role of CEO as Smith dedicates the next three years to his faith. 

Utah has a history of CEOs stepping down to serve unpaid assignments on religious missions, from Utah-based Stampin’ Up! CEO and co-founder Shelli Gardner to Clark Whitworth of The Larry H. Miller Company, David Stirling of dōTERRA and Clark Ivory of Ivory Homes. 

Corey B. Lindley, CEO and founding executive of dōTERRA, says the implications of departing are significant for the company, the leader and their family, especially when the leader is the founder. “This change is typically the first in leadership for the company,” he says. 

The more the company depends on the business leader, the more difficult the change, Lindley continues. For larger companies, there is generally less of an impact than for smaller companies with fewer resources and executive support. While there is always a challenge when executive-level changes occur, the adjustments that come from missionary service are less difficult because the executive isn’t going to a competing company or leaving on difficult terms, he explains. 

A strong bench of leaders is paramount to ensuring a smooth transition, Lindley says. “The hallmark of a great business leader is that he has developed a strong team who will thrive when the business leader moves on, and new ideas will be added to the strong foundation that the business leader established.”

“At dōTERRA, our CEO and founding executive, David Stirling, had been the ‘rock’ of dōTERRA’s executive team since its founding in 2008. David was a visionary, principled and consistent leader of the company for 13 years when he was called to be a mission president in late 2021,” Lindley says. “While this call was a big surprise to our global business, it wasn’t a surprise to the executive team because we all knew of David and his wife Laurea’s commitment to the church and how they would excel as mission leaders.”

While Stirling was the visionary leader of dōTERRA, he assembled a strong and experienced founding executive and senior executive team, making the internal transition smooth. When the announcement was made, the company quickly adjusted to Lindley being CEO and Emily Wright (also a founding executive) becoming president. Greg Cook, a third founding executive, accepted the role as chairman of the board. 

“Greg, Emily and I had been with the company essentially from the start,” Lindley says. “There was initial surprise within the overall business of 4,500 global employees and more than 100,000 independent sales leaders who rely on dōTERRA as full or significant supplemental income for their families. However, everyone was already well-acquainted with our leadership team, so the transition was seamless. Good leaders like David and Davis Smith have their businesses prepared for these transitions.”

Lindley and his wife, Janis, served as mission leaders from 2007-2010 in Melbourne, Australia. Lindley left a senior executive role at Nu Skin at the time and was 43 years old when they began their service. “Nu Skin was already a strong organization and the teams I managed had excellent leaders, so the company didn’t miss a beat when I left for my mission,” he says.

The personal and professional impact of a service mission can be remarkable and defining, Lindley continues. “This experience enriches lives and helps the executive gain a greater appreciation for humanity and the potential in every person. In a business setting, an employee who isn’t performing is counseled out of the company or terminated, but in a religious setting, everyone is loved and given every chance possible to succeed in their calling. Patience and love are developed, and learning to listen to others and counsel together are ways that most every business executive can benefit.”

Lindley believes companies are strengthened when a culture of service to others is front-and-center in its values. At dōTERRA, this is verbalized as “Being the Legacy” with a strong emphasis on serving others. With their most senior executive stepping away to serve others, the rest of the company is strengthened by that example and service becomes an even stronger value, he says. 

“In addition to our prior CEO serving a mission, we have three new senior executives who have been called, along with their spouses, to serve as mission leaders starting in July 2023,” Lindley says. “This includes one of our founding executives, Rob Young, who will be serving in El Salvador. In addition, we have senior executives in our European and Japanese markets who have also been called to serve.”

A strong bench of leaders is paramount to ensuring a smooth transition, Lindley says. “The hallmark of a great business leader is that he has developed a strong team who will thrive when the business leader moves on, and new ideas will be added to the strong foundation that the business leader established.”

Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, served a three-year mission in Romania from 2014-2017 with his wife, Christine. Ivory was the CEO when he left on a mission and was very involved in every aspect of the business. Ivory promoted the company’s CFO at the time, David Wolfe Graham, to be the interim CEO, and when he finished his mission, Ivory reclaimed the CEO position.

Long-term succession planning allows for smooth executive transitions when CEOs leave their posts and called to serve religious missions.
Davis Smith on the Cotopaxi glacier in Ecuador in 2023.

Ivory says vacating a CEO role to go on a religious mission gives you an opportunity to see your team grow as they have to step in and fill your shoes, which happens with any transition in a business. “The mission changed my trajectory, focus and desires when I came home,” he continues. “If I had stayed here and not been gone for those few years, I don’t think I would have had the same goals and perspective. Being able to step aside sometimes gives you a perspective that you don’t have otherwise.”

Ivory and his wife spent their mission in the populous city of Bucharest, Romania. “We lived in a townhome in a very densely-populated city block surrounded by very tall buildings,” he says. “Our escape from the hectic nature of the big city was to go as often as we could at night to the park that was a 5-10 minute walk from where we lived, and just walk around that park, but also to see people in such different circumstances … [people in] Romania and Moldova are not as wealthy as most of Europe.” 

Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, according to the World Bank. Witnessing the circumstances of those who live there changed Ivory’s perspective and made him think about how Ivory Homes could help people who were facing similar challenges. 

“We saw people in Moldova who were spending nearly half of their income to stay warm or who made the decision they weren’t going to pay for gas anymore because they couldn’t afford it,” Ivory says. “They would sleep in every article of clothing they could put on. When we came home, we surveyed what was going on, and it seemed like America was just so prosperous at the same time.” 

Ivory started to look at Utah trends and decided housing affordability was going to be a big issue for the next several years. In 2017, Ivory Homes formed its nonprofit arm, Ivory Innovations, which looks at solutions for housing affordability. The Ivory family also partnered with the University of Utah and is now working with around 20 universities on various projects that will impact housing affordability. 

“We are also building a lot more affordable housing now as a result of our efforts. We have six projects underway that will create affordable housing at various levels,” Ivory says. “Our commitment to the community and focus on our nonprofit was greatly influenced by our three years in Romania. Coming back caused us to look at things a little differently, which is what happens when you live in a different place and see things from a different angle.” 

As for Smith of Cotopaxi, he says that regardless of conversations around separating personal or spiritual life from work, he will lead an authentic life above all. 

“I love diversity and building a team of people that are very different. A lot of my team are not Latter-day Saints,” Smith says. “When I got this call on a Saturday, I spent the whole day calling my executive team and board members. I called 18 people, and only two of them were members of the Church. For the other 16, I had to explain what this even was.” 

No one was surprised by Smith’s commitment to his faith, he says. “I’ve lived it openly my entire life—the values of Cotopaxi, of using this business to be a force for good in the world, to fight poverty, to lift those that are left behind, to do business in a better way that better protects the planet that we live on—those are all the values I learned in my faith. I’d say our brand values have been deeply shaped by my faith in God and by my religion. It’s who I am.”

Smith believes inclusive workplaces encourage openness in religion. “Great organizations have great diversity. If you care about results, you care about building teams where diversity isn’t just welcomed, it’s nurtured,” he says. “Diversity not only includes underrepresented minorities, women in senior leadership or the LGBTQ community, it also includes religion. Whether you’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or a Muslim, you can talk about it. It is part of who you are and you shouldn’t have to hide that. It is a strength that will add value within a diverse team.”

Elainna Ciaramella (pronounced Elena Chairamella) was born and raised in Los Angeles, but spent over a decade near Laguna Beach in Orange County, California. After moving to sunny Las Vegas, the “entertainment capital of the world,” her yearning to live close to an outdoor playground brought her to southern Utah, where she now lives a few short miles from Tech Ridge, Atwood Innovation Plaza at Utah Tech, Dixie Technical College, and some of the best trails in the Beehive State. As a researcher, journalist and hopelessly devoted storyteller, she’s spent many full days interviewing founders, CEOs, and C-suite executives from all over the country. Beyond writing, her passions include strength training, art, music, hiking, and reading.