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Latter-day Saint apostle’s multimillion-dollar stock win from his long corporate career fits with church history

Prospect of nearly $911 million in stock gains for Gary E. Stevenson matches a pattern since 1830 of mixing business and religion.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks during the morning session of the 189th twice-annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.

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Revelations that a Latter-day apostle stands to gain almost a billion dollars in wealth as a capstone of success to his long professional career shouldn’t shock followers of Mormon history, scholars say.

From the faith’s pioneer days forward, there has been a well-documented intertwining of business and ecclesiastical affairs in the lives of many leaders who reach the upper echelons of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including founder Joseph Smith and his successor Brigham Young.

Substantial numbers of those called as full-time church general authorities since 1830 have been prosperous businessmen, lawyers, entrepreneurs and those with managerial expertise.

“It’s no secret,” said Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University in Logan. “That’s never been a strange thing because it all goes way back to the beginnings of the church.”

But the story of apostle Gary E. Stevenson and his prospect of gaining $911.9 million through ownership of stocks he had amassed as co-founder of Cache Valley-based iFIT Health & Fitness stands out in other ways — not least for how much capital is involved.

“It’s an awfully big number,” Mason said. “You put that many zeros behind it and it becomes sort of unfathomable how much money is out there.”

Stevenson’s role in the company has also involved a special exemption among Latter-day Saint apostles, according to a church spokesperson, giving the church leader a pass on rules dating back two decades that are meant discourage general authorities from serving on corporate boards.

Spokesperson Doug Andersen said “such permissions are considered and granted under exceptional circumstances on a case-by-case basis, and are rare.”

Stevenson, who is 66, holds 43.4 million shares in the exercise equipment company he helped build, including co-founding an early predecessor in 1977 and a stint as iFIT’s president and chief operating officer from 1988 to 2008, according to reports filed in advance of a planned initial public offering of its shares.

The Oct. 7 IPO was expected to bring iFIT’s valuation to just short of $7 billion, but it got postponed due to wild market swings.

Documents in the delayed stock debut also brought to light that Robert C. Gay — formerly a member of the church’s Quorum of the Seventy and a longtime capital manager in his private career — holds 18 million shares in the same firm, with a potential of $385.9 million in gains to his personal fortune.

(Keith Johnson | Special to The Tribune) Robert C. Gay, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, speaks during the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 7, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

The $100 billion link

Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess joined others who study Latter-day Saint culture and history in framing the windfalls in “$100 billion” terms.

The coinage has stuck ever since a whistleblower’s complaint in late 2019 alleging that church-owned investment accounts managed by Salt Lake City’s Ensign Peak Advisors have brimmed with $100 billion or more in reserve funds.

“This news about the enormous wealth of an individual LDS leader seems in line with the astronomical wealth of the church as an institution,” said Riess, author of “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church.”

“I doubt that most members will view it as a problem,” she wrote via email.

“Most did not criticize the church when it was revealed to be hoarding more than a hundred billion dollars in investments,” Riess said, “so I’m guessing they will take this news in stride or even view Elder Stevenson’s impending billionaire status as a sign of the Lord’s favor.”

Outsiders, though, “will view it as yet another example of churches and religious leaders that thrive,” she added, “while other people are struggling or even starving.”

Matthew Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, referred to a “prosperity gospel” taking hold in the church, under a philosophy that equates religious and spiritual success.

“Just as American culture more broadly kind of treats people who are massively financially successful as heroes, as models and archetypes, people to look up to,” Bowman said, “this is true within the church as well and successful people who are wealthy tend to be people who rise in church hierarchy.”

Noting Stevenson’s “compassionate heart” — obvious, she said, from his talks at General Conference — Riess urged the apostle “to send a marvelous message to the world about what Latter-day Saints are really about” by donating any windfall to the poor.

Like a lot of other Latter-day Saints, USU’s Mason joked that “at the very least, the church can expect a very large tithing check.”

Why Stevenson got a policy exemption

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Gary E. Stevenson speaks during a news conference at the Church Office Building in 2015 after he was appointed as an apostle.

Stevenson and Gay are named as some of iFIT’s largest shareholders. Securities and Exchange Commission filings also nominate them among 15 executives put forward to serve as future iFIT board directors.

That seemed to put them at odds with a long-standing call from the faith’s governing First Presidency, issued in 1996 under then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley, that general authorities stay off corporate and church business boards to devote more attention to the needs of a growing worldwide membership.

It was still common for general authorities to sit on the boards of a range of church-owned companies such as Deseret Management Corp. and Beneficial Life Insurance, even decades, Bowman said, after an evolution away from that model began in the 1960s.

The statement issued early in Hinckley’s tenure, the historian explained, reflected his desire that “church leaders become, primarily and almost exclusively, ecclesiastical leaders.”

Bowman said he knew of no other example since then of the kind of exception granted to Stevenson, who resigned from iFIT in 2008 for a full-time church assignment and served as its presiding bishop — overseeing the faith’s vast financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations — from 2012 to 2015, before being elevated to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

A church spokesperson said the special dispensation had been granted by church authorities because of Stevenson’s “legacy shareholdings and his role as a co-founder of the corporation.”

The church did not respond to inquiries as to whether other Latter-day Saint apostles have been granted similar exemptions.

The 70-year-old Gay was appointed to the church’s First Quorum of the Seventy in 2012. Church leaders announced during the faith’s recent General Conference that he had been granted emeritus status, akin to semi-retirement from the role’s day-to-day duties.

Members of the Seventy typically join the emeritus ranks and step away from full-time church service after they turn 70.

That, according to the church, had exempted him from the policy on board memberships, at least by the time his name was listed in iFIT’s IPO documents. Gay, a founder of the Palo Alto-based Huntsman Gay Global Capital, has served as an iFIT company director since 1994, its IPO says.

Being an apostle, like Stevenson, on the other hand, is a lifetime calling.

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